Published: September 2nd 2012September 2nd 2012
So much has happened, and I’m afraid I’m going to forget it all—but I think I should resign myself to forgetting many things. When you are first somewhere so new and other, everything is a something, and you ride in a bumpy taxi thinking, “Look at that boy carrying a bag of flour on his shoulders bigger than he is! I have to remember that! Look how that woman is swathed head to toe and she’s walking next to a girl in a strapless top! What situational irony! Remember that! Look at how this little girl is putting on my shoes and trying to walk around! Remember, remember, remember!” And then you realize that there is no way you can remember everything, and that the day will come when deadly potholes in the middle of the sidewalk and tea after every meal are as normal as the drive-thru window at McDonald’s.
So! I will try to write about the most interesting things, or at least the things that have stood out most to me. One thing that is most unusual is the lack
of a feeling of shock in myself—at least so far. People at the embassy keep telling me,
“We can’t believe you’re seeming so normal about all this!” And honestly I can’t understand why, though I am sure it has something to do with a visit to the (in my opinion) much more unusual Uganda, years teaching in a school where I was an outsider to all the students, and much much grace.
That said, the language barrier is huge, though here in this early stage of culture shock I am, in a sick linguistic way, enjoying it. Only now do I truly understand those wide-eyed Egyptian students of mine who stumbled through the doors of Cameron Middle School on their first day and were in tears by the end of it. How strange to know how to read, but not be able to even sound out a word because all the letters are different! I have nearly learned the Cyrillic alphabet, so I get an odd joy out of sounding out every word I see on billboards and things and reading them out loud to myself, much to the confusion of those around me. Communication is limited to hand motions, grunts, the two or three words I know in Tajik and Russian, and intuition (I think
this person wants me to give them two somoni for this water bottle).
The weather here is hot and dusty and dry. We drove today to a village outside of the capital to do a teacher training workshop, and the scenery along the way reminds me of Napa Valley: dry, hilly, and covered in surprising apple orchards. However, you will not see cows and goats crossing the road in Napa, nor policemen wantonly pulling people over to “check registration” (not the big rumbling embassy Land Rovers we were in, thankfully).
The food I like, though I know it won’t be long before I’m missing Mexican. They don’t use lots of meat here, but potatoes and eggplant I’ve had, and the national dish osh
, which is very good: rice and carrots and meat and a single spicy pepper on top.
I think I’ll end with the most telling difference between this new strange land and my old one, and it has to do with food. At the teacher training workshop we conducted, a teacher from the village where we were asked us, “In America, what food is important to you?” None of us really understood the question: did they mean, what food do we like? What do we eat a lot of? Our stumbling answers varied from “barbecue” to “pizza” to “cereal.” It was only when they responded, “Oh, in Tajikistan, bread is important to us,” that I understood what they meant. I realized it on my first day in the country. I’m staying with a host family here in Dushanbe (those are their children you see in the pictures), and the host grandmother made me dinner. Afterwards I wanted to help her clean up, so I mostly got in her way moving dishes around. Finally I scraped up some crumbs of bread from the table and was about to throw them in the trashcan when she cried out and grabbed my arm. She laughed awkwardly, I think feeling like she had scared me, and then tried to explain how bread in this county is “important,” and if you throw it away it is one of the most disrespectful things imaginable. I heard that one village even kicked out an English teacher like me because he kept throwing bread away. Instead, it is given to birds or stray dogs. The degree to which bread is important here is harder for me to wrap my head around than the Cyrillic alphabet, but I will start trying.