I very much prefer to be self-sufficient. I like the time to read about things and think about them and understand them before making a decision. Living abroad prohibits most of these things from happening almost 100% of the time.
Ryan and I often rock-paper-scissors about who pays at the grocery store or for meals. We are both introverts even in our own language, so layering on a foreign language and foreign customs doesn’t simplify things. Even in English I like to avoid small exchanges, but even the small things can become giant mountains to climb when surrounded by things you simply don’t understand.
I constantly marvel at what life must have looked like for those living abroad before the time of GPS and smartphones and google translate. Even though Ryan and I have studied a little Russian (Ryan so much more than me), there are still daily struggles with communicating. We are vegetarian but often end up with food sitting in front of us stuffed with meat. We hop on the wrong bus heading in the wrong direction. We simply cannot figure out where to buy a cord for our printer no matter how many electronics stores we peruse.
It’s so much simpler to just ask for help.
But it’s hard for me to ask for help. I don’t want to inconvenience those around me. After all, we are all busy, especially since almost everyone I know is a co-worker of mine. I’m well aware of how much work they have to do, because I have that much work to do . So needing to ask my co-teacher to not only help prepare for a science lesson and take the kids to music but also to call the internet company and find out if they offer coverage for the house that I just moved into seems like it’s adding an unfair workload. I constantly hesitate to ask.
There’s also the layer of feeling sheepish. Sometimes I feel like I have no right to ask for help. After all, didn’t I specifically choose to move to this country? Didn’t I know for six whole months that I was moving somewhere where Russian is not the primary language? There are so many little moments of guilt or embarrassment about not being able to speak the language, not being able to be properly polite or inquisitive to people whose home I am living in.
But asking for help is something that is simply a necessity living anywhere. The reality is that no matter how much the internet and technology has allowed us to live in compartmentalized lives, there are times when all of us simply need help from someone. Sometimes we have to pay for this help in the form of experts, and sometimes friendly neighbors or coworkers lend a hand, or sometimes you help someone and they end up helping you back.
Last week, Ryan and I bought a car. We had asked around to many different people for help. Coworkers had recently bought a car with the help of a student’s family’s local driver. So, we called the driver. He offered to take us to the car bazaar and walk us through the logistics of purchasing a car. When I mentioned that we were buying a car, my co-worker mentioned that they were selling their car. We ended up purchasing their old Subaru, and they helped register the car and settle the paperwork.
On the way home from our first road trip, we drove past a woman who had been staying at our guesthouse. She was walking down the main street of the village with all her luggage dragging behind her, so we pulled over to ask her where she was headed, and she hopped in our car for a ride back to Bishkek.
Of course, we were pulled over about an hour later; I forgot to turn my headlights on (a law here if driving on the highway). She helped us translate with the police and ended up relieving us of the 300 som fine by explaining that we are foreigners and this is our first time driving.
I felt extremely grateful. I felt silly for not remembering to turn my headlights on. I felt embarrassed at what the girl must think about me driving here but not being able to properly communicate with the police. But I did feel grateful.
The help we have received from locals is silly when I add it up. Rides from the airport, help finding an apartment, help finding a veterinarian for a hurt puppy, help buying a printer, help buying a car, help getting out of trouble with the police, help finding an electrician to turn on the heat, help figuring out where to buy fabric, help figuring out where to buy tofu or coconut milk or cute non-leather boots.
A lot of the time I feel stupid. It’s humbling realizing I have absolutely no idea what is going on around me. I am entirely at the mercy of people explaining to me what is happening and why and where to go to fix it. It’s terrifying and stress-inducing, but it’s also reassuring. It’s amazing that anywhere in the world there are people willing to help. I just have to buck up the courage to ask.