Estelle is an alum of the 2021 Russian summer program. This story was submitted as an entry to the NSLI-Y 15th Anniversary Storytelling Competition.

image of estelle standing outside in front of a small shed

10:36 AM, Saturday, June 30.

That was when I received the message from my VSI Coordinator, Gabe. It was a simple conversation about something cool he found at the Museum of Nomadic Civilization in Kyrgyzstan:

image of a text conversation that reads "hey estelle, i saw this today at a museum and thought you might be interested! there was a decent sized kalmyk population around issy-kul in kyrgztstan

While it may not seem like much, it meant the world to me. My eyes lit up in surprise: Kalmyks in Kyrgyzstan? It was the first time I heard about such a thing. Eagerly, I called my mom from the kitchen.

“Мама! Смотрите!” (Mom! Look!)

“Что хочешь?” (What do you want?)

“Калмыки в Киргиз стане!” (Kalmyks in Kyrgyzstan!)

Image of estelle

My mom hurriedly left her half-cut cucumbers to look at my phone. She grinned in pride; she was just as astonished as I was to see a full museum entry about our people.

Kalmyks are a Mongolian ethnicity that immigrated to Russia in the late 1500s/early 1600s. We are a small population of less than two hundred thousand, but our nomadic nature motivated us to travel all across the globe; My own family immigrated to America before I was born.

However, finding information about Kalmyks is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most of the historical records are situated in Russia, not online, and the Kalmyk language has no formal education. Because our population is so small and spread out, my ability to find others like me was relegated to family and friends. For so long, I bemoaned the fact that no one knew about us. Every time I had to explain my cultural background, it came with long-winded explanations of who the Kalmyks were, what we do, so on, so on, and so on. Whether it be a friend or teacher, they’d often nod along and change the subject before they had to listen to another five minutes of explanation.

It upset me greatly; we had our own songs and our own great epic, Djangr. Will I ever get a chance to see us recognized?

Will we ever be seen?

But when that message came in, it was like a breath of fresh air. Thoughts raced through my head: What does it say? How did he find it? Oh my goodness this is literally the coolest thing ever!

My mom sounded out the words and helped me translate the museum entry. It described how the Kalmyks came to Kyrgyzstan and their current whereabouts. My heart was pounding. Swiftly, I texted Gabe back:

image of a text conversation where estelle writes "thanks so much for the info! it's really interesting to learn about kalmyks and translate the text :) thank you so much for thinking about me! what museum is that?" and her rd replies: "it's the museum of nomadic civilziation"

The Museum of Nomadic Civilization? I put a metal checkmark as a location in Kyrgyzstan to visit. My mom was flowing in and out of the kitchen and the living room, chatting with me about Kyrgyz Kalmyks while also being just as excited as I was. “We Kalmyks are everywhere,” she uttered, and I couldn’t help but give a hearty laugh.

I surfed the web for more information regarding Kyrgyz Kalmyks. While there wasn’t much in the way of English videos, tons of Russian videos sprang up. When my mom finished with lunch, we sat down together and surfed through the web, looking for a perfect video to watch. Eagerly, we also sent it to Gabe.

image of a soup with greens and carrots

Watching videos about Kyrgyz Kalmyks was one of my favorite moments of the summer. Though it only truly lasted one afternoon, sitting down with my mom as she helped me understand our history felt invigorating. I was bouncing up and down, my eyes and ears open to soaking up more about this unknown facet of life. Apparently, Kyrgyz Kalmyks have been influenced by the country’s culture, and while they no longer practice Buddhism like we do, still share many similar traits during celebrations and dancing. Despite the differences, I still loved knowing that there were more of us Kalmyks in the world, that there were people like me.

All throughout the program, Mr. Sheir was extremely kind and informative. Whenever I talked about my culture, both in regards to Kalmykia and Russia, he would listen intently. Talking about my experience as a heritage speaker to him elicited more conversation about his own experiences navigating Russia and Kyrgyzstan. When he sent the picture of the museum entry, my jubilation was immeasurable. He didn’t forget about my background and my story. I felt seen; someone had thought of the Kalmyks. For the rest of VSI, I studied intently in my Russian, and spoke it everyday to my family for practice. Soon, my mom was writing in full Russian phrases while I replied in tandem. My knowledge in Russian grew, and so did my appreciation of it. Nights were spent huddling together with my family, watching classics from their childhood like Diamond Arm and Shirli-Myrli.

image of a nsli-y green t-shirt, russian nesting dolls, and paint

But the conversation with Gabe was never forgotten. After this short interaction, I was more interested than ever in my culture. While there isn’t quite the breadth of Kalmyk movies as there are Russian, we had a plethora of songs. Simply searching on YouTube provided me with ample soundtracks for my daily life. Sounds from my childhood I longed to remember returned to my mind; songs like “Akhtubin Ghol (Akhtuba River)” or “Halumgud (Kalmyk)” carried me through treacherous summer assignments. Even after NSLI-Y, the language learning never ends! I am planning to reapply next year for the full, in-person experience in Russia. And my endless research for Kalmyk has borne fruit: currently, I’m taking Kalmyk classes and learning how to sing the songs from my youth once again. I hope that by January, I can sing for my grandmother and give her my take on a traditional recipe. And I always make sure to learn at least one new Russian and Kalmyk word a day. And to think, all of this inspiration spurred from one off-hand conversation with Gabe!

Without NSLI-Y, I wouldn’t have found out about Kyrgyz Kalmyks or the Museum of Nomadic Civilization. And without Gabe, I wouldn’t have learned more about Kalmyks, too. I feel more connected to my family and our origins than ever before. NSLI-Y and the wonderful people in it helped me connect with both Russia and Kalmykia again, and that reward is worth more than gold.

image of estelle with a log cake