The Meaning of Family in Kyrgyzstan

What we call “extended family” or “distant relatives” in America is simply called “family” in Kyrgyzstan. And they mean it, too. When we stayed with a Kyrgyz-American family in Bishkek, we noticed how grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and other family members would swing by the house almost every day, fluidly entering and exiting. The volume and pace of family movement seemed to cause little commotion or stress.

One anecdote demonstrates the contrast between the broad Kyrgyz view of family and our traditional American view of the nuclear family. When asked to draw a picture of her family for school, the daughter drew her family, including grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles – all the people she sees regularly. Her American teacher explained that she was only supposed to draw her immediate family. Fair enough. The daughter’s response: “This is my immediate family.”

Bus Companions - Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz mother and son on a bus with us.

We also noticed something unique while traveling on crowded marshrutkas (public transportation minivans) in Kyrgyzstan. When a mother entered with a load (i.e., a baby in one arm, groceries in the other and a toddler in tow), other passengers invariably would come to her aid. For example, one woman would take the baby on her lap while another would take the toddler until the mother was settled. It would all happen seamlessly and without a word being spoken. Accustomed to interacting with people of all generations, the children never seemed to fuss and usually looked comfortable sitting on a stranger’s lap.

Whether it took place in a crowded city marshrutka or a village to village rural marshrutka, this scene played itself out across Kyrgyzstan. When we described this to our Kyrgyz friends, they couldn’t understand how the scene could play out any other way. We didn’t witness this kind of behavior elsewhere in Central Asia and in our experience, this behavior also runs counter to American social conventions.

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