Uzbekistan notebook: The experiences of a Peace Corps volunteer
30 August 2005
by Jessica Teicher
Part 1: Departure
At orientation in Philadelphia, I, along with 63 other Peace Corps trainees, received little instruction about the intricacies of life in Uzbekistan. Instead, we were given a general overview of the Peace Corps’ objectives -- world peace, global understanding and sustainable development. We were also taught a few coping mechanisms to deal with the inevitable culture shock. Then we were handed our passports with three-month visas stamped in them, bussed to New York and, 24 hours later, we arrived in the Uzbek capital Tashkent.
For the next three months of Pre-Service Training (PST), I lived with an Uzbek host family in the suburbs of Tashkent, about a half hour away from the city center. During PST, they tell you culture shock is going hit you every day and they are right. It suddenly made sense to me why it had been covered so thoroughly during pre-orientation. My world turned upside down, as, in many instances, Uzbek customs differed dramatically from common practices back home. For example, if offered choy (tea) and non (bread) I learned to always accept, never say "no thank you." In Uzbek culture, it is considered rude and disrespectful to decline. Also, I constantly faced in Uzbekistan what, in the United States, are viewed as personal and intrusive questions. "How old are you?" and "Are you married? Why not?" were just some of the queries that I received from people I was meeting for the first time. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that a significant number of Peace Corps volunteers opt to terminate their commitment during the PST phase.
Authorities in recent years have sought to strengthen Uzbek national identity. Accordingly, many vestiges of the Soviet era have been de-emphasized All over Tashkent, and throughout Uzbekistan, there are big billboards that laud the Uzbek cotton industry, hail the benevolent government, and extol the greatness of Uzbek culture.
Part 2: Part II: Khorezm: “Where the Weather is Hot, But the Water is Not”
I was assigned to Khorezm, in the western part of Uzbekistan, where the climate is hot, dry and dusty. My host family during Peace Corps training in Tashkent was worried about me, because Khorezm is known throughout Uzbekistan for its salty drinking water. During our training, we were told to make up a catch phrase for our regions, and we expressed this common sentiment: "Khorezm: where the weather is hot, but the water is not."
I studied the Uzbek language intensively during my three months in Tashkent. But in Khorezm, I found that people spoke a more Turkish-sounding dialect. Social customs were different, too.
One new Uzbek word that made life easier was "oling," or "take just once." In Tashkent, whenever I was eating and had an empty spoon in my hand, my host would say "oling." As a guest, one must eat and drink with relish to show respect for one’s host. I felt annoyed with this pressure, and "oling" was a polite, sincere way to appreciate a host’s generosity.
My new Khorezm family was warm and welcoming. There is an Uzbek proverb, "treat your guest better than your father," and I experienced this both in Tashkent and Khorezm. I can never forget how my host families willingly offered me everything they could to make me comfortable.
I had imagined going to a clay shack in the desert, where my host family would force-feed me oily slabs of meat washed down with turpentine vodka. But instead, their large, two-level house was quite comfortable. We had electricity most of the time, although running water was scarce, and sinks were located outside the house.
Although I had a moment of disappointment, since I thought a Peace Corps volunteer should brave harsher conditions, I confess that I adapted myself to what were, for an Uzbek family, relatively high living standards.
Part 3I: Frustration Over Andijan
Ten days after we heard about the May 13 shootings in the city of Andijan, a colleague of mine at the school where I taught took me to a teachers’ meeting. The school director echoed the government’s version of what had taken place in Andijan – that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the violence. He said accounts broadcast by foreign media outlets about the Andijan events consisted of "mish-mish," or gossip.
"Western journalists are lying. Maybe a hundred people were killed by extreme terrorist groups in Andijan. That is all," the director said. "There is a difference between the Western democracy of those criticizing Uzbekistan and our Eastern democracy. Our version is better. It is true to democratic principles."
True democratic principles? Throughout the meeting, my colleague watched my anger build. I explained to her that refugees who had fled Andijan and crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan were conveying horror stories about what went on in Andijan.
I relayed accounts that I had heard on the British Broadcasting Corp’s World Service, and read on the Internet, about how soldiers in Andijan shot at civilians from helicopters and without warning. I recounted the story about a witness interviewed on the BBC who saw hundreds of dead bodies piled together in a neighborhood school after the shootings. How family members frantically visited makeshift morgues, hoping to find missing relatives, then were followed home and shot.
Knowing the truth about these atrocities, the school director’s lies made me sick. Uzbek television was filled with propaganda, endlessly replaying scenes of an old couple crying over their dead son, who supposedly was killed in Andijan by a terrorist.
I felt so powerless, wanted so badly to tell my community what had happened. I could have printed out Internet stories in the Uzbek language and left them conveniently in a taxi or at the bazaar. But as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was obligated to remain "apolitical."
The Peace Corps does not entangle itself in the internal affairs of host countries. But by not saying anything, by not doing anything to counter the blatant propaganda campaign carried out by the Uzbek government, isn’t the Peace Corps also making a political statement?