Thanks to the provision of God and some wonderful family and friends who supported me, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Central Asia this summer making friends, learning the language and culture, helping with an English club, and seeing beautiful places with four fellow OU students.
(Note: the reason I say “Central Asia” and not the name of the country is that this country is becoming more and more difficult for Americans to visit. For the security of my friends there, I can’t give a lot of information about our program. But bear with me, and feel free to use your imagination and speculate where I was!)
My friends Erin, Anna, Dillon, Stephen and I spent the bulk of our time in a city of millions of people, with a few excursions and weekend trips to other parts of the country. The district we lived in was populated by universities, students, restaurants, pubs and coffee shops. So. Many. Coffee shops. Coffee culture has been introduced to the city in the past five years, and it is thriving.
I wish I could sum up our six weeks in this post, but it’s impossible because each day was completely different. Some days, we volunteered our English speaking abilities at a neighborhood club for students and professionals seeking to improve their English. Other days, we set out into the city in search of good food, interesting places to shop, and friends to show us around.
This has been my first international trip longer than ten days. The six weeks I spent in Central Asia have changed the way I see the world, people, America, and myself.
A warm welcome speaks volumes.
In Central Asia, we met some wonderful friends who took us around the city, to restaurants, and into their homes and places of worship. We were strangers in their country who spoke little of their language, got lost frequently, and asked lots of redundant questions, but they graciously helped us beyond pointing us in the right direction. If we needed a place to sit down and have coffee, they would come with us and chat for a while. If we wanted to purchase certain items, they took us to the best places to buy those things and then helped haggle the prices down.
Now that I’m back in the United States, I want to be the friend to international students that my friends in Central Asia were to me.
I recently heard the story of a student from Africa who studied in the United States for a total of eight years and was not once welcomed into an American’s home. And I’m sure he isn’t the only one. What does that say about Americans and our culture?
Love has no language.
Anna, Erin and I experienced significant language barriers this summer. We knew very little of the language coming into the country, and picked up some helpful words and phrases but were never conversational in the short period we were there. Thankfully, many of our friends speak English much better than we speak their language.
I struggled through some conversations when I wanted to explain complex things, and when I knew my friends wanted to explain complex things yet only a word or two was understood. I learned to listen well, and to explain things in creative ways that my friends understood, verbally and nonverbally.
But even though many things were unsaid because of the language barrier, our friendships did not suffer. Two of my closest friends in Central Asia do not speak much English, but I had many a wonderful time with them regardless. We swapped stories and talked about what true love is and whether it really exists and told each other our hardest struggles and biggest goals in life.
Love is not just words – love is actions. One friend I met, who hadn’t yet taken her year of English preparation and could only speak in broken phrases, said that she felt loved (as she made a hugging motion to her chest) by the way that me and my friends were talking to her, even though most of the words weren’t understood.
Love is listening and patiently striving to understand. Love is respecting the surrounding culture, and giving up rights and freedoms in order to build bridges instead of walls. Love is seeking to know another person and everything that makes up who she is – her family, her interests, her quirks, her beliefs, her view of the world.
In America, I take my privileges for granted. And to effectively learn about and live in another culture, I need to lay down my privileges, expectations and rights.
I like having a personal space bubble with a two- or three foot radius. I like it when everybody obeys traffic rules and abides by the law. I like being familiar with currency, food, public transportation, toilets. I like knowing exactly what kind of meat I’m eating when I stop at a food stand or a diner.
I like to make appointments with my friends and have them arrive and leave on time. I like being able to speak the language of my country and understand what passers-by around me are saying.(Unrelated tangent: I learned on this trip how helpful knowing another language can be when traveling, even if it’s not the national language. I encountered several people in Central Asia who did not speak English, but did speak German, so I got to put my German speaking abilities to the test! I’m barely functional in German, but those encounters gave me the motivation to keep improving it.)
I like having the freedom to criticize the president, or the legislature, or politicians, or the law, when I feel they are unjust or unscrupulous. I like to read news uncensored by the government. I like that if ever accused of a crime, I’ll be innocent until proven guilty. I like going where I want, when I want, and not having my motives scrutinized.
I like life to be predictable, controllable and safe. I like to run around my neighborhood and know the only things I’ll have to avoid in my route are construction zones, not political rallies. I like not having to worry whether my friends and family were in the wrong place, at the wrong time when I hear there’s been a bombing in a large public area and dozens were injured and killed.
I harbor expectations for life that differ from those around the world. In the United States, all of these things that I like are seen not as privileges, but as expectations, as standards of normalcy. But in Central Asia, life didn’t always work exactly as I wanted it to.
If I had entered the country expecting things to be exactly as I like them, I would have been shocked. Much of the culture shock I experienced was caused by differences that are neither good nor bad, just different. I learned to take the word “weird” out of my vocabulary. “Different” does not mean “weird” or “abnormal.” If my friends from Central Asia visited Oklahoma, there would certainly be elements of American culture to which I’m accustomed that they would find different, too.
The political turmoil I described affected the people I encountered in day-to-day life even more deeply than they did me. The residents of the city I called home for a mere six weeks were caught up in a conflict that they, too, had no control over, conflict in the city they call home permanently, the city that many have called home for their entire lives and have no desire to leave. Now that I am home, I can mentally process all the things I experienced, but my friends in Central Asia must go about their normal lives.
Yes, all of the above list were things that I had to let go of this summer. But for the sake of cross-cultural understanding and growth and my new friends, who have become very dear to me, laying down all of these things has been more than worthwhile.
More than a month later, I’m still thinking through all of the things that happened this summer and the implications of what I’ve learned. Some of those thoughts will likely end up here in the near future. Until next time,