Burbank 16-Year-Old Spends Seven Weeks In Kyrgyzstan

The United States Department of State NSLI-Y scholarship made possible the immersion trip of a lifetime.

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Burbank resident Siena Florence recently returned from a seven-week immersion program in Kyrgyzstan. Here the 16-year-old stands with a few traditional dishes. (Photo courtesy Siena Florence)

Young by any standard, 16-year-old Burbank resident Siena Florence is an adventurer.

A home-schooled junior in high school, Florence recently returned from a seven-week immersion trip to Kyrgyzstan and had the time of her life.

The trip was made possible by the United States Department of State on a National Security Language Initiative [NSLI‑Y] full scholarship that is free to youths ages 15 through 18.

For those interested in applying for the 2023-2024 NSLI-Y scholarship programs they can get more information at the website, www.nsliforyouth.org.

The U.S. Departments conducts study abroad programs for over 1,000 American high school students and approximately 3,000 foreign high school students each year. If interested visit https://exchanges.state.gov/highschool to learn more.

“I loved my time in Kyrgyzstan. I met my group in Washington, D.C., then we all flew to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We lived with local families and studied Russian together at The American University of Central Asia (AUCA.),” Florence said. “After classes we would have the rest of the day to explore the city and interact with the culture.”

Living in Burbank is one thing but being nearly 7,200 miles away is something else. What was it like initially for Florence?

“It was a crazy experience arriving in Bishkek after an over 15-hour flight. So many emotions were going through my mind, I was so excited and so nervous at the same time,” she said. “Meeting my host family was the most nerve-wracking part for me. My host family was a mom with two daughters 18 and 15 (like me at the time). They didn’t speak any English, so we had to communicate fully in Russian which was quite a challenge especially for the first few weeks. That first night I had dinner with the family and then my host sister and I talked for hours about Stranger Things and Harry Potter. After that I felt a lot more confident and at home. Having a great host family really helped me to get over my initial fears and get all that I could from the program.”

From the start, Florence was immersed in Kyrgyzstan culture.

Siena Florence (left) and her Krygyz language partner, Aiperi, smile for the camera. (Photo courtesy Siena Florence)

“Every week we had group cultural excursions including learning a Kyrgyz dance, watching a traditional dish being made, exploring museums, visiting a local farm, building a yurt, visiting a music school and learning about the local instruments, hiking in the beautiful mountains outside of Bishkek and a weekend trip to Issyk-Kul’, an ancient Salt Lake,” Florence noted.

Florence said both sides were eager to learn about the other’s culture.

“We each had language partners who were students at the university who helped us practice our Russian and showed us around their city,” she said. “My language partner’s name was Aiperi. She was a business student at AUCA. We hung out usually once or twice a week. We had a great time getting ice cream, listening to each other country’s music, and trying lots of traditional Kyrgyz food together. Some of the more unique foods I tried were bishparmak, a traditional dish made with horse meat and a Kyrgyz staple chalap, a drink made of fermented milk.”

Chrissy Florence is Siena’s mother and along with Siena’s father, co-founded a company twelve years ago that creates digital and audio (Pandora and Spotify) promotion for NBC television programming.

Florence was excited and hopeful her daughter would be safe so far from home.

“Of course, we had reservations about sending our 15-year-old across the world during a pandemic and while Russia was attacking Ukraine! Safety was a major concern,” she said. “Also, it was sad to have her away on her 16th birthday! NSLI-Y assured us that several United States agencies including the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] and the State Department were closely involved in the decision-making process and keeping a close eye on the situations abroad. We knew that there was a possibility that the trip would be canceled or cut short if it was deemed unsafe. Siena had worked very hard for this opportunity, and we were thrilled that she could pursue her dream of learning Russian and traveling in a Russian speaking country.”

America is home to roughly 335 million people, but there are parts of the country that are completely different in language, culture, food and the like.

Think the Deep South, the Pacific West and the Northeast. This is true for the former Soviet Union.

Burbank resident and high school junior Siena Florence enjoyed her time in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo courtesy Siena Florence)

“In the former Soviet Union countries there are big distinctions between Russian nationality, ethnicity, culture, and language and the individual relationships with each are very complicated and vary drastically country to country, especially when it comes to language,” Florence said. “Kyrgyzstan is one of the few former Soviet countries that continues to have Russian as its official language and Kyrgyz as the national language. The family that I lived with spoke Russian as their first language, but they weren’t ethnically or culturally Russian. This is very common in countries that have been colonized by others and Kyrgyzstan is no exception.”

Florence continued: “In the capital city, Bishkek, Russian is the primary language, but Kyrgyz is also widely spoken at home and by the older generations,” she said. “Today in Bishkek, most of the population is ethnically Kyrgyz but there is still a large number of Slavic people (primarily Russians and Ukrainians.) This number is now increasing with the war in Ukraine as there are many Russians leaving Russia and coming to Bishkek.”

Though thousands of miles separate the two countries, in the end, people are just people.

“I got to share some special experiences with my host family. I got to celebrate their grandfather’s birthday with them and to have tea with both grandparents in their home,” Florence recalled. “They also took me to Azkaban Coffee, a Harry Potter themed coffee shop where my host sister had her birthday party last year.”

In the same way those who might be unfamiliar with heavy traffic in Los Angeles or New York, Florence learned there are similar problems in their public transportation.

“One thing that I learned a lot about over this summer was about Bishkek public transportation. One of the most common forms of transport is by marshrutka,” she said. “Marshrutki (plural) are minibuses that go through the entire former USSR,” she said. “They are the fastest way to travel as they usually go a little over the speed limit and are often very packed, with all the seats filled and people standing in the aisle. Traveling on a marshrutka is an experience that I will never forget!”

Florence spoke about the warmth of the people.

“Soviet or Russian culture can be quite different to westerners and the people at first might seem cold or unfriendly. I notice that people are much more direct, and they don’t smile at each other on the street,” she said. “The typical niceties that you would expect in America like your cashier or waiter giving you a smile and asking how your day is, aren’t present. But what I found is that the local people that I got to know were so genuine in everything they say. If they ask you how you are, they really want to know in detail about your life. You know when they give you a compliment, that they really mean it.”

Siena Florence sits at the dinner table. (Photo courtesy Siena Florence)

Florence continued: “I think that it can be easy to get caught up in cultural differences and trying to understand all of the customs and rituals that you can overlook what makes a culture, a culture – the people,” she said. “My opportunity to live on the other side of the world with people who come from such a different background really showed me that even though we come from different worlds and have different values and traditions. They’re just like me.”

Was there one thing Florence especially liked about being in Kyrgyzstan?

“The best part of my trip was the freedom to completely immerse myself in a new culture. My time in Kyrgyzstan was like nothing I had experienced before. Learning about and living in another culture was truly a mind-blowing experience,” she said. “I began to notice all the little differences and I gained a real appreciation for things that I have never paid much attention to before which gave me deeper insight into a new culture and my own.”

Florence then cited an example: “In Kyrgyzstan and many other post-Soviet countries, it’s believed that drinking cold liquid will make you sick, so they drink either room temperature water or tea with their meals and some of the people that I met would even warm the milk for their cereal,” she said. “In our orientation, we talked about the idea of a “cultural iceberg” which is that there are aspects of a culture you can see by just looking at it like clothing, food, language; these are “the tip of the iceberg.”

Florence went on: “Then there are the deeper parts of a culture that aren’t always so easy to see such as traditions, values, customs, and all of those little details like not drinking cold liquids,” she said. “Living in Kyrgyzstan for seven weeks allowed me to go deeper into the culture and I began to witness things that go beyond “the tip of the iceberg” and to get to know what it’s like “under the surface.”

Was there a highlight of the seven weeks for Florence?

“We took a weekend trip with our resident directors to Issyk-Kul’, the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and in Kyrgyz it means “hot lake.” The first night we got to stay in a yurt right next to the lake where we went swimming. Then we stayed the night up in the mountains which were breathtakingly beautiful,” she said. “We hiked to the hot springs and spent hours playing card games together. The last day we drove all around Issyk-Kul’ and saw an Orthodox Church and a Muslim Mosque and then we ate ashlan-fu, a traditional soup of an ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan, the Dungans, and went for a final swim in Issky-Kul’ before returning to Bishkek.”

This entire experience is something Florence will take with her wherever she goes.

“I would recommend NSLI-Y to any student that wants to improve their skills in their target language and their understanding of the cultures that speak it,” she said. “NSLI-Y, I believe, is also a great way to explore things on your own and build more independence and self-confidence.”

Florence also made lifelong friendships.

“Yes. I have been and plan to keep staying in contact with my host family, my language partner, and my new American friends who I traveled with this summer,” she said. “I think that being able to reach across the cultural divide and make connections was one of the most meaningful parts of my summer.”