Yssyk-Ata is a resort close to Bishkek famous for its natural hot springs. I had just hiked up and down the valley and was now relaxing in a pool with another German woman. We let the hot water spurting from a pipe run over our backs.
A woman passed us to stand under a waterjet next to her friend. She said something to her in Kyrgyz, I only understood the word “djünbasch”. I was shocked for a moment and then said in Russian “Who’s a djünbasch?” She didn’t react and I didn’t press the matter further.
“She just said the Kyrgyz word for ‘whitey’. Like ‘nigger’ but for whites,” I told my German friend. “Do you think she was talking about us?”
She looked around. We were in the only non-Asians in the pool.
“Djünbasch” literally means “woolhead”. The Kyrgyz think that the hair of Europeans is softer than theirs, soft like sheep wool. Sheep are considered stupid animals and so to call somebody a ‘woolhead’ is to call them stupid. The word is a racist slander and seriously offensive in Kyrgyzstan. Just like the n-word in the United States or “Kanake” in Germany.
Only once before had I heard the word being used and then it wasn’t aimed at me. It was in a boxing gym when we all stood to attention before the training. One boy in the group had Asian features but brownish hair, he was probably half-Kyrgyz, half European. The trainer said something to him in Kyrgyz with the word “djünbasch”.
“Hey, if he’s a djünbasch, then what am I?” I said.
Apparently the word isn’t just used for completley white people but also for people of mixed-race.
Read more about Kyrgyz bad words in my post “An Annotated Collection of Kyrgyz Slang and Profanities.”