Today I went to the Bazaar in Kant, a nearby village, to buy some ingredients for a cake I was asked to bake for my niece’s birthday. On my way home I was walking down my usual street, with the usual sun on my back, the usual sweat trickling down my neck and the usual group of young boys playing on the side of the road when I saw a young boy throw something into the creek that runs through our town.
I thought at first I had been mistaken at what I had seen; he couldn’t possibly be throwing an animal into the water. I stopped. And watched. And finally saw a small black kitten climbing its way out of the muddy ditch. I was dumbfounded, and at first didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t find the words in English, let alone in Russian, to say to this young boy who clearly had not had the same caring for animals sentiment engrained into him from a early age, as I had. When he returned to the side of the ditch and picked up the cat by the tail I raised my voice and told him “don’t do it” (Neilsya). He looked at me, more dumbfounded that the American had said something to him than absorbing what had come out of my mouth. I stared for a moment, waiting for him to move away and then continued on my way home, more to remove myself from a situation I know I might have trouble handling than because I had decided the situation had resolved itself.
In the United States, especially in my family, we are animal lovers. We treat our pets as children, we start shelters to care for homeless and family-less animals, we know exactly how to use images of pitiful looking furry friends to tug at people’s heartstrings for money, we even have rules that outlaw their abuse. Halfway around the world animals are not seen this way. Animals just serve a different purpose here. Much of the time the animals you see here, being herded down the road in flocks of three to one hundred are people’s livelihood and their meals. Granted watching the ways in which livestock are treated here compared to the ways in which massive meat farms and slaughterhouses treat their animals in the U.S. would probably compel me to stage a sit in at the local cattle ranch, but the horrifying treatment of animals for food in America is not in the public eye whereas the casual kick or rock to the face a dog receives daily from children here is completely out in the open.
Peace Corps strives to prepare their volunteers for every aspect of cultural difference we may encounter during our serivice. So much so that at times it feels like we have explained away the exciting part of learning about a new culture. Many strategies are provided for understanding and coping with any shocking disparities, but telling yourself “it’s just different here” only goes so far in convincing your heart not to hurt a little when you encounter these things face to face.
This is not to say that all children or people in Kyrgyzstan hold a negative sentiment towards animals, or that one position is superior to the other. Instead it aims to take note of the way in which we absorb the things around us. Observing the differences between the ways in which our backgrounds as Americans, and my background as a lover of all things furry (unless if has eight legs), filters the way I see people’s interactions here becomes more and more apparent every day. Our various lenses that stem from the ways in which we were raised, the parts of the country we grew up in, the parts of the world we have visited, and much of the time from the type of educational and interpretive tools we have in our toolkit does not allow us to see the same world that the locals see, and does not allow us to interpret things in the same way. Instead we must examine more closely every bit we absorb, and promise ourselves to ask why as often as possible for this provides us a better understanding of the world around us.