It’d be kind of like naming an Italian restaurant “Mike’s.” The name of our favorite Chinese restaurant in Bishkek is Bakit, a name as common in Kyrgyz as Mike is in English. Bakit means “happiness.” Our current working theory is that Bakit, or happiness, is the translation of the yellow Chinese characters above the door of the restaurant. We don’t actually think some guy named Bakit is the head chef. But you never know. We’ve heard stranger things.
It was about 7:30 in the evening, and I parked my car across the street from Happiness. I was on the way home after my English conversation group and thought I’d hit up old Bakit. At this point I don’t need a menu. We always order the same thing: one portion of sweet and sour chicken, one portion of gun-bao beef (at least that’s how I pronounce it and they always bring me the right thing), and two portions of white rice. That night, we would feast.
I headed for little boys’ room. Epic. You walk down this dark hallway over ripped and faded linoleum. At the end, if you turn right, you’d enter the kitchen. I hung a left and then a right and found myself at the unisex bathroom. I still can’t make heads or tails of the shower head in the small single room. But hey. I don’t ask questions so long as they keep the sweet and sour chicken coming. Haven’t disappointed yet. I washed my hands, laboring to ignore the smells of cleaning products and soap that in theory should make the place smell better but didn’t. At all.
Since I’d ordered to go, when I emerged from the bowels of the restaurant, I took a seat at a table near the front. A young man, maybe early twenties, in a dark gray uniform top with the word “security” in yellow English letters across his back sat down beside me. I was engrossed in my phone.
He’d heard me order in Kyrgyz and asked me about it. Most foreigners who come here learn Russian. A white dude who spoke Kyrgyz. Pretty much as likely as a guy named Bakit working as the head chef in a Chinese restaurant. And yet there I was.
He asked me the standard questions.
“I’m American. I’ve lived here four years. No, I don’t speak Russian.”
At one point he asked me a question that I’ve been asked several times before.
“Which country is better? America or Kyrgyzstan?”
I’ve had practice, so my answer came easily enough.
“Oh, you know, there are good things and bad things about wherever you go. For example, where I’m from, we don’t have mountains at all like you do.” He smiled. “On the other hand, generally speaking, the police in America aren’t nearly as corrupt. I also really like how open the people are here. For example, if we were in America right now, and we, two strangers, were sitting down next to each other, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The waitress brought out my food. I’d paid extra for plastic take-out containers. She handed me the food, I said goodbye to her and the security guard, and off I went, stomach growling.
It’s easy for me—for perhaps anyone—to focus on the negative: the smells, the fact that some guy named Bakit might have opened a Chinese restaurant, the corrupt police. And amid it all, it’s so easy to miss all that’s absolutely wonderful right in front of your eyes: the sweet and sour chicken, the nice young security guard, and, of course, the mountains. (Oh, yes, those mountains.)
I need help most days keeping an eye out for the good and, while not ignoring the bad, simply choosing not to let it slowly eat me away from the inside out. Bakit helps. And so does the Maker of those hills down south.