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The following entries in my blog represent my State Department Fellowship to Tajikistan in the Spring of 2011. During this time I got to experience the most hospitable culture I have ever known, meet people I will never forget, and fill what was formerly an unfamiliar place on a map with living memories, faces, tastes and experiences. I am a better person because of this trip, and the American students who come through my classroom will know this place better because of this experience.
By the way, the government requires me to post the following proviso regarding my blog entries for the trip they funded:
This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the grantee’s own and do not represent the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program, the International Leaders in Education Program, IREX, or the U.S. Department of State.
Ok, now on to the experience . . .
Most Americans will never have the privilege of visiting Tajikistan, and for my time in this country I am so grateful. I really didn’t know what to expect here in terms of how things looked, topography, landscapes, etc. I can say now that there is no way to generalize its charms (but isn’t that what reality is always like?). It is a land of contrasts, of mountains, fresh sparkling springs and rivers, trees and deserts. For me the deserts were the most inspiring because they were nothing like I had ever seen. Driving to the southern part of the country, I had to ask my driver and host to pull over to let me take some pictures. As hospitable Tajik hosts, of course the obliged me.
Here is a small sample of the beauty and charm of Tajkistian . . .
Tojiddin (my hosting teacher) took me to visit a Lyceum, or private school, across town today. These schools charge tution and generally have more resources than the public or comprehensive schools.
Here again, I was given a royal welcome by the teachers, staff, and students. Students here, as in school #9 where I co-teach, are enthusiastic and most are eager to practice their English. I occurred to me how my native language is seen by so many in the world as a key to a better future, a way to become more integrated in the global system. I remembered in the Istanbul airport when the staff wanted to make an annoucement to everyone waiting to board the plane that they instinctively used English to address as many people as possible. This observation is usually lost to Americans who simply take English for granted and expect it to have preceeded them everywhere they go in the world. Learning English has great significance for these students and it was my pleasure to be a small part of it.
My general introduction to English classes here was to tell some things
about myself, where I am from, about my family and what my hobbies are. When the students returned this information to be about themselves I learn much about their lives and culture. Family is very important to Tajiks and they greatly respect the order and patriarchy of traditional family structures. In terms of music, they seemed to like both their Tajik artists as well as well some well known American pop music and movies. Globalization has not diminished their love of their own country, and they proudly talked about their national heritage, foods, musicians and poets. Naturally the boys all loved soccer (football) but what surprised me was how many children loved to play volleyball. Basketball was also very popular. From one side of the world to the other, no matter our cultural or historical differences, there are enough similarities bewteen us to unite us in the common lot of humanity. Cultural exchanges always bring out the idealist in me.
I experienced many aspects of the Tajik educational system within the first two days of my stay here. I co-taught classes from the moment I got into Qurghonteppa and met the Minister of Methology on my first day. Moreover, I had the opportunity to visit a university and address an English class on the topic of American English and educational systems. Although there were some differences, I found their system generally to be much closer to the American system than the Asian schools I have visited on previous grants.
The Tajik classrooms are teacher-centered and students show a great deal of respect to teachers. When I walked in to any classroom, the students all stood up and greated me with an welcoming “salom.” Yet there is a relaxed and informal feel as well. Like in my classes, students sometimes forget their books, and went to get them at the beginning of class and students like to text during class, but not nearly to the extent that we have in America. Additionally, the students liked getting involved in hands-on learning. To teach them about American holidays, I walked outside the classroom and had students knock and shout “Trick or Treat!” after which I gave them candy with small American flags. They really seemed to love that. I was envious at how small some of their classes were, and thought about how my substitute teacher was dealing with my 30+ classes back in America.
One major difference is the centralization of curriculum. Every subject had a detailed plan which included lesson objectives, methodology and even homework assignments.
I was very happy after meeting and talking to the Minister of Methodology with Tojiddin. He informed me of the help their school district had received from the US embassy. I was pleased to know that my country was involved in helping Tajikistan with resources to improve their education. I felt like it was, although indirectly, some way to return some of the kindess I had received from them.
During my first day in Tajikistan two different impressions began to form that became increasingly powerful for the duration of my stay: the lack of material culture juxaposed with the rich sociability of its people, both of which I regard in sharp contrast to American culture.
I read before I got here that Tajikistan is one of the poorest of the Soviet Republics. The country was ravished by a civil war after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it hasn’t regained some of the stability and infrastructure it had in Soviet times. We had electricty on average about 2-3 hours each day, and this included the school where I was working. There were some places where garbage was thrown out into the streets. But on the other hand, the culture possessed a sense of social and communal health that American society lacks.
For example, in the USA we often tell someone to “make yourself at home,” by which we mean, to act as if they were a part of the household. Nice, but to be a part of the household is, by definition, not to be a guest. Rather than granting permission for visitors to serve themselves at will, the Tajik people endow them with a highly elevated status. They serve their guests, wait on them, observe carefully to see if there is any need or comfort that can be addressed; they make their guests feel like royalty. I had the privilege to be the beneficiary of that kindness today at the parents of Tojiddin, my hosting teacher. I was introduced to Osh, a delicious meal of rice, herbs, some vegetables, oil and meat.
This sociability exists in spite of–perhaps in part because of–the lack of creature comforts. The scareness of electricity keeps the children outside, playing games together until darkness comes. I can hear the laughter and shouting of children playing games together, a welcomed alternative to the soliptic world of the American child, eating microwaved food in front of a video game or TV. The shouts I hear right now in the dusk remind me of my childhood.
I can honestly say, that the Tajik people seem to be the most hospitable and sociable of any place I have ever been. Their help and concern in getting my luggage to me, their attentiveness to every need and comfort of guests, and their warm conversation and social interaction: in this lies their treasure. I’ll take this over our creature comforts any day.
After about 30 hours of travel, which included 12 hours of layovers, I touched down in Dunshanbe airport Monday morning at about 3:30 am, March 28. I left my home for the Atlanta airport at about 7:00 am, March 26. It was hard to come by first impressions because I landed in total darkness, but within a few hours I had two things to go on: my lost luggage and the patience and graciousness of my host. Now, my lost luggage had nothing to do with Tajikistan. It was Turkish Air that lost track of it in the Istanbul Airport. And during the hour plus I spent inquiring about it at the airport, my Tajik host, Tojiddin Haitov, and our driver were patiently waiting outside customs. After finally leaving the airport, dawn broke across the beautiful Tajik hills as we made our trip to Qurghonteppa.