One of the cultural differences between Kyrgyzstan and America is the difficulty in politely turning down food. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of the time someone invites me to come in for tea and food, I’m totally down, but every once in a while I really can’t. After a couple of times turning down an invitation and leaving a friend disappointed, I sort of had it in the back of my mind that there must be some kind of way to do it sensitively. I had been thinking about it for a while when one evening a neighbor stopped by during dinner to borrow some tools. My host mom invited him to sit down to eat with us.
“Oh no, no, I couldn’t”
“Please, please have some food.”
“Well, maybe just an ooz ti.”
“Ooz ti,” in Kyrgyz, literally translates to “mouth touch” but it’s meaning is more like “a taste.”
So, he pulls up a chair at the table, tears off a little piece of bread and eats it, then runs his hands over his face and says “omin” (the traditional way of signaling the end of a meal). Then he thanks my host mom and heads out the door.
Then everyone went on with their meals like nothing had happened. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. How did he get away with that? Could I? I logged it away in my mind for the day I might try it out myself.
A few months later I was in Naryn working with Angie on her bathroom building project when we stopped by her house to pick up cooking supplies for dinner. She introduced me to her host family and her host mom invited me for tea.
“Please, come in and have tea.”
“Oh no, I can’t. We are going to Dinara’s for dinner.”
Then the lightbulb went off in my head. This was my chance.
“Maybe just an ooz ti.”
She lit up and said, “oh yes, here,” and handed me a wicker basket with some bread in it.
I tore off a piece and ate it, ran my hands over my face, said “omin,” and thanked her.
“You’re welcome. Here have a piece of candy too.” She handed it to me smiling and Angie and I headed out the door.
Yes! It worked – like some kind of cultural cheat code!
I happily munched on my piece of candy as Angie and I made our way to Dinara’s house and we got there right on time.
I’ve only found myself using that one other time since, and even though it’s pretty nifty when the need arises, I’m not exactly going out of my way to turn down tea and a snack.