What's an "American" rave like in post-9/11 Central Asia? No Ecstasy, glow sticks or pulsating beats -- but hey, they've got Duran Duran.
Perched on tiny plywood platforms, two not-so-scantily clad Russian go-go dancers, their hair bleached into the consistency of straw, swayed indifferently to the oversynthesized techno beat behind a reverb-heavy mix of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. Below them, outlined by incessantly strobing black lights, forty or fifty young people in Old Navy jeans, U2 T-shirts and sweatshirts from the University of Nebraska or Cal State sat nervously at tables scattered around an utterly empty dance floor.
They might have been gathered in the nerdiest club in Tallahassee or Sacramento. But what would have seemed dorky in Des Moines were the first agonizingly shaky steps of hipsters in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kyrgyzstan to move to global rhythms.
Emil, a Lebanese twenty-year-old who was the coolest kid at the American University, had organized the evening’s entertainment, the first rave to be held in the capital city of Bishkek. Young people knew from movies and music videos that raves were a cool American custom, but no one was entirely sure what a rave actually entailed, how they should dress or act. They waited expectantly, then, for the magic to descend.
I’d never been to a rave, although I suspected that something was off the minute I heard it was being held at a three-star hotel and that no nitrous-oxide-filled balloons would be available. But after six months in town teaching journalism at the Kyrgyz-Russo-Slavonic university, I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch history being made on the new Silk Road.
Emil lounged by the door, collecting the 60-som entry price in low-slung pants and a ski cap –Beirut meets the ghetto, light on the Beirut. Emil’s family had decided to wait out the Lebanese civil war in Nice, France, and had then moved on to Central Asia, so his roots in Lebanon barely grazed the sandy soil. His girlfriend, a sexy Russian with Bo Derek braids, hung on his arm, planning their summer vacation in Montreal in English, the only language they had in common. Inside the disco, a Korean girl and her best friend, a nineteen-year-old from Kashgar in western China, gossiped and giggled nervously in Russian, which neither could speak when they’d first met two years earlier.
Jerry, the campus Chinese DJ and rapper, buttoned and unbuttoned an old Beatles jacket, unsure which was the “right look.” And Regina, my translator, fussed with her hair, envious of the fake tattoo the other Regina, the one from India, had penned onto her forehead, as a postmodern bindi.
Travelers are drawn to “happenings” like Russians to vodka or New Yorkers to trendy restaurants. Italians plan their summer vacations to America around the Hemingway Festival in Key West. The French drive to Clinton, Mont., for the Testicle Festival, where they sample the local cuisine, marinated and breaded tendergroin, as the locals call it. And Australians somehow find their way to Yellville, Ark., for the Miss Drumsticks competition and the annual dropping of terrified, squawking Meleagris gallopavo at the annual Turkey Trot. Festivals, holidays and public celebrations hold out the promise of an unexpurgated glimpse of native folklore, a chance to mingle with “ordinary folk” outside the tourist triangle of hotels, restaurants and obligatory sites. You know, real Americans doing real American things, not cruising the mall or stopping at Starbucks on the way to work.
All my life, I’ve been drawn to that same tourist trail, finding there a unique window into other cultures. So I jumped over bonfires in Ecuador on the feast day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul for a glimpse of the strange blend of Catholicism and indigenous religions. I let myself be pounded with squishy tomatoes during La Tomatina in Bunol, Spain, in my quest to understand Spanish anarchism. And in the Cotswolds, I joined the rest of the demented tourists, British and foreign, who rolled hunks of Gloucester cheese down Cooper’s Hill, trying, yet again, to sort out British staidness from their propensity for slapstick.
The Kyrgyz treated holidays and celebrations with a unique zeal. Valentine’s Day was a cause for congratulations — for what, I wasn’t sure — from every stranger on the street. And International Women’s Day, an old workers’ holiday if there ever was one, was observed with parties, flowers and greeting cards, all without the heavy hand of Hallmark or FTD — and entirely bereft of dedications to Alexandra Kollontai, the leading Bolshevik feminist seemingly having been forgotten by everyone but me.
The first rave in Kyrgyzstan, then, was an irresistible magnet.
That night, the few American University students who were actually American bought Russian beers in English, Turks and Turkmens purchased Coca-Cola in Russian, and Jerry, the Chinese rapper, regaled anyone who would listen with tales about the glories of his hometown, Kunming, down by the Vietnamese border. “It’s a city of eternal spring,” he gushed. A third-generation Chinese Christian majoring in business administration, Jerry had moved to Kyrgyzstan to perfect his English so that he could enter a Christian seminary in Iowa. “And of course, as you will recall, it was the site of the International Horticulture Exhibition in 1999.”
No one remembered that exhibition, nor was anyone much interested. The beat of the music was beginning to overcome the shyness. Joy, whose real name was Gulzada, was trying to pull a group of girlfriends onto the dance floor. Her time in the United States had been spent at a Christian college, but Joy had a punkish tendency to dye her hair a different color each day. That night, she was wearing grunge copied almost perfectly from the pages of Seventeen. But with her butch haircut, the look screamed “young dyke with an attitude,” although no one in the room was savvy enough about America to hear that message.
Regina, my translator, was too fixated on the go-go dancers to join her on the dance floor. “They’re prostitutes?” she asked, horrified at the public display. The curriculum at her suburban Dallas high school where she’d spent 12th grade apparently hadn’t included any lessons about go-go dancing.
In the early hours of the rave, the disco was atwitter with the latest gossip about Konstantin Sudakov, a junior from Kazakhstan who’d just come out of the closet in a blaze of fury over the firing of his boyfriend, a young Canadian instructor at the university. Clusters of the country’s trendiest teenagers, none of whom had ever met an uncloseted homosexual, giggled and guffawed nervously about the scandal. The rumored details — “Is it true that they ‘did it’ in his office?” — and the breathless speculation — “Do you think there are others?” –provide a welcome relief from the tension of the empty yet beckoning dance floor. They might have been the hippest kids in Bishkek, but neither high nor drunk, they turned the rave into a junior high cotillion. Girls danced with girls, boys with boys, and potential couples eyed one another from across the room, too shy to make the first move. The scattering of students from other universities — easy to spot since their hair and makeup were perfect — hung back, even less bold, by the bar at the far end of the room.
“What makes this a rave?” I asked Regina. No drugs, little alcohol and none of the bruising anger of would-be punks in the United States, who in comparison had comparatively little to be angry about. In one of those strange generational and spatial anomalies, in Kyrgyzstan it was the old, not the young, who acted out.
“I don’t know, that’s just what we call it because, you know, it’s an American thing,” she replied, playing with a dozen plastic bracelets, which were glowing in the dark.
“Come on, let’s dance,” yelled my husband Dennis, trying to make himself heard over the 5,000-decibel music. Ten minutes later, Duran Duran’s “I Wanna Take You Higher” wound down, and we collapsed back into our seats.
“Did you get high?” Jerry, the Chinese rapper, asked. I sensed no irony in the question. “I love these American customs!”
Elinor Burkett is the chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Alaska. Her new book, "So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places," will be published in March by HarperCollins. More Elinor Burkett.
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