The world sure does feel like a small place sometimes—at least, the one I inhabit does. Last weekend, a Kyrgyz friend in DC invited me to breakfast at his house. One of the other guests, a girl from Bishkek, looked vaguely familiar, and after a few rounds of the name game (“do you know so-and-so? How about so-and-so?”), I learned that she was the cousin of a friend of mine in Bishkek. We got to talking about Bishkek, and she told me she lived near a large hypermarket in the center of the city. Incidentally, I was a frequent visitor to that hypermarket—both as researcher and as a guilt-ridden shopper—and her mention of the place reminded me of an awkward but retrospectively humorous incident that befell me there back in January 2015. This post recounts that experience. I assure you that, barring any unanticipated calamities in DC, my next one will be a little more uplifting. But for now, travel back with me to that sleepy city by the mountains that I once called home.
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As the only (ostensibly) democratic nation in a neighborhood of restive autocracies, Kyrgyzstan is, most accounts, is the most journalist-friendly country in Central Asia. Nevertheless, in a land where graft and corruption are rampant and suspicion of meddling foreigners runs high, it is not uncommon for inexperienced journalists and researchers to run into trouble. This fact became eminently clear to me on a snowy afternoon last January, as I found myself sitting in a windowless room in the back of a Bishkek hypermarket under the watchful eyes of three security guards.
Let me backtrack a bit. As some may know, my research in Kyrgyzstan explored (explores? I guess it’s ongoing) the transformation of retail spaces in post-Soviet Bishkek, including the city’s recent embrace of Western-style hypermarkets and supermarkets, and the social and cultural ramifications thereof. On the surface, this topic seems relatively tame, to some even boringly academic. But hypermarkets are highly contentious contenders in Kyrgyzstan’s commercial arena, and they have courted controversy since they first started sprouting up around in Bishkek some fifteen years ago. Not only are hypermarkets siphoning business away from the bazaars that have for decades driven Kyrgyzstan’s dominant informal economy (and that support a large swath of the population), they’re also changing how people interact with one another, especially across boundaries of class and ethnicity—or how they don’t interact, as the case may be. These hypermarkets tout a sanitized, climate-controlled, private, and highly efficient shopping experience, but this experience is based on the very principle of minimal human interaction. Whereas bazaars serve a critical social purpose (which I documented previously), hypermarkets are strictly commercial establishments. But I digress.
One of my primary research sites in Bishkek was an adolescent (read: 2011 vintage) hypermarket located in central Bishkek—the same store that the Kyrgyz girl mentioned last weekend. With its fluorescent lighting, polished floors, tall aisles, uninspired muzak, and paralyzingly numerous ketchup options, this store wouldn’t look out of place in Middle America. In fact, the store’s only distinguishing features are its Cyrillic signage and omnipresent cadre of marauding security guards.
Early in the research phase, I managed to secure an interview with Medina, the hypermarket’s elusive general manager. I was especially keen to discuss the effects of the hypermarket on small businesses in its vicinity, as well the store’s prospects for future expansion. I guess I pushed the wrong buttons during the interview, though, because midway through Medina abruptly walked out on me. In the following months, I tried repeatedly to contact Medina for a follow-up interview, but I never heard back from her. And so I decided to take certain matters into my own hands, including the production of a map of the entire hypermarket.
A couple months after the aborted interview, I strolled into the hypermarket to begin my exhaustive examination of its internal layout. I methodically walked down every aisle, noting where the different products were placed, and sketching a rough floor plan in my notebook. Believe it or not, it was a pretty fun activity, and as the map began to take shape, some familiar patterns emerged. Fragrant bouquets greeted visitors near the entrance, while bread and dairy products—both staples of the Kyrgyz diet—were relegated to a distant corner, separated from the entrance by several aisles of enticing but nonessential goods. Half a dozen ATMs stood idle by the door, silently urging shoppers to withdraw just a little extra spending money. Expensive items were positioned at eye level, in the so-called “bullseye zone,” while cheaper alternatives rested out of sight below. Whoever organized the hypermarket clearly knew a thing or two about consumer psychology.
It didn’t take long for my (admittedly sketchy) behavior to catch the eye of a security guard, however. He not-so-surreptitiously tailed me for several minutes, employing surveillance techniques I can only assume he gleaned from bad spy films: he’d lurk a stone’s throw away from me, but every time I’d turn toward him, he’d grab a random product off the shelf and examine it, or adjust price labels, or otherwise fiddle about purposelessly.
Just as I entered the shampoo aisle, near the end of my tour, I caught a glimpse of the security guard muttering something into his walkie-talkie. A few seconds later, he and four colleagues descended on me. They each shook my hand, one by one, and then demanded to know the name of the company I was working for. In my elementary Russian, I explained to them that I was a student at the American University, and that I was merely working on a group project—an outright lie, to be sure, but one I thought would send them on their way. They pondered my response for a moment, talking among themselves in hushed tones. One of the security guards shook his head, and asked again, in an impatient tone, “yes, but what company are you working for?”
Perhaps I should’ve just divulged the truth here—after all, I could’ve easily revised my story at this point to match the facts. But my gut instinct told me to pursue my current tack, and so I doubled down on my fib, assuring them that I was just a hapless, disinterested student. But they weren’t buying it. One of the guards snatched my notebook, and jabbing his finger at the map, asked me for a third time who had sent me to collect this information.
This circular charade repeated itself once or twice more. Meanwhile, the other guards passed around my Dartmouth ID card, trying in vain to decipher the funny Latin characters. As I grew increasingly exasperated, I briefly thought about playing my trump card, a literal get-out-of-jail-free card that I’d received at the US Embassy during my initial security briefing. Printed in Russian on one side and Kyrgyz on the other, it read something like “I am an American citizen, and if you do not release me immediately you will face the full might of the American military-industrial complex” (in so many words). But for a brief second, I envisioned myself embroiled in a tense diplomatic standoff, and so I pushed the thought from my mind and the card back into my wallet.
Instead, I told my inquisitors that I had received authorization from Medina to survey the store. This also wasn’t true, of course, but I hoped that name-dropping their boss would help my case. They exchanged a few more words among themselves, then grabbed my by the arm and said “come with us.” I had no choice but to follow along. They led me to the back of the store, through a nondescript door, down a small hallway, and into a windowless room near the administrative offices where I’d interviewed Medina a few months prior. The room’s only furnishings were a ratty office chair and a desk scattered with miscellaneous papers. I wondered whether this office was still in use, and if so, who occupied it. Two of the guards left (presumably to fetch the head honcho), while the remaining three just sort of stared at me.
We waited in silence for a few minutes. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I gestured for my notebook, and showed them some of my other sketches, including a crude illustration of the Kyrgyz National Historical Museum that I’d drawn on my bus ride to Russian lessons that morning. To my relief, this seemed to cut the tension, and they began to ask me questions about my impressions of Kyrgyzstan and my life in America. “Have you been to Issyk-Kul?” “Do you have a wife?” “How much does a Mercedes cost in America?” “Do you know my cousin so-and-so in New York?” I did my best to humor them.
A couple minutes later, the fourth and fifth security guards returned, now in the company of Medina, the manager. She immediately recognized me, and scolded me for surveying the store without her permission. I scolded her in return for not answering my calls or granting me a follow-up interview. I don’t think she expected this retort. She apologized for my temporary detention, and said that she’d happily meet with me the following week. Having pushed my luck enough for one day, I said goodbye, hastily made my way to the front exit, and headed home.
In fact, I never heard back from Medina. But I did return to the store a few weeks later, and completed my map without any further interruption. In the words of our old pal Captain Haddock, all’s well that ends well!