A Conversation With a Kyrgyz Schoolteacher About Wedding Customs (And Costs)

by Jia Tolentino

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a late-spring Saturday morning in a Kyrgyz village called Chykalov. Sun streams in from behind white curtains and I’m sitting on the floor eating breakfast with my friend and mentor Dinara, who learned English just a decade ago, now speaks it near perfectly, and will turn 50 this year.

“Do you think about getting married?” she asks me. “Do you want to get married?”

“I do, eventually,” I say. “But we probably won’t for awhile.”

“Weddings are expensive,” she says.

“That’s part of it!” I say. “We want to be able to pay for our wedding ourselves. In America the average wedding costs more than half the average yearly salary. Not that we would have a $30,000 wedding anyway. What do weddings cost here? They’re super expensive, right?”

Dinara sighs. “Yeah, usually 200,000 som,” she says, which is the equivalent of $4,500.

“What’s the average salary here again?”

“Per year? 60,000 som,” she says, or $1,300.

“WHAT?” I yell.

Dinara’s son, asleep in the corner on a pile of cushions, twitches. “Sorry,” I whisper.

“And then there’s the price for the kelin,” she says, meaning the new wife, the daughter-in-law. “The boy’s family also has to pay about 200,000 som.”

“You said no to your own dowry, though, didn’t you?”

“Oh yeah,” says Dinara. “Absolutely. I said I didn’t want all that fighting between the parents. I guess I’m cheap!”

“I can’t believe these numbers,” I say. “This is the equivalent of an average American wedding costing $170,000. How do people pay for this? Do they take out lines of credit?”

“Yeah,” says Dinara.

“I guess they do that in America too.”

“You can make your money back in presents,” Dinara says. “But it’s so stupid. At best everyone ends up with no money. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there are new laws where they send a police officer to every wedding to make sure that no one spends more than, say, 15,000 som. It’s better for the economy. But no one would listen to that rule here. Imagine a police officer, some billy goat, at a big wedding counting bottles of vodka.” She laughs.

“Who pays for weddings in Kyrgyzstan? The bride’s family or groom’s family?”

“The boy, of course,” says Dinara.

“In America it’s the opposite.”

“Nooooo,” she says. “Why?”

“I don’t know why. The bride’s family doesn’t always pay, but that’s definitely the custom.”

“Here the kelin’s family has to make lots of presents,” Dinara says. “They have to buy a TV, and lots of furniture, do lots of things for the new couple.”

“So they get all that money but then have to pay it back in gifts,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says, shaking her head. “And the mother-in-law is always saying, We need a bigger TV, what about this new refrigerator.”

“Yikes,” I say.

“I hate weddings,” Dinara says. “Everyone fights and there’s too much responsibility to make sure people are having a good time. And everyone gets so drunk! There’s this one woman, she’s very fat, and at every party she takes too much vodka and falls on the floor and lies there like a seal.”

As Dinara demonstrates I try not to laugh because I don’t want to wake her son up.

“Let’s get rid of weddings,” Dinara says. “Each one is a bloodless war.”

Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor, has a tumblr. Photo by Evgeni Zotov.

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