September 22, 2002 - Washington Post: Central Asian Students See the U.S. -- and Themselves -- in a New Light

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Uzbekistan: Peace Corps Uzbekistan : The Peace Corps in Uzbekistan: September 22, 2002 - Washington Post: Central Asian Students See the U.S. -- and Themselves -- in a New Light

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Central Asian Students See the U.S. -- and Themselves -- in a New Light

Read and comment on this story from the Washington Post on a program RPCV teachers may want to get involved in for establishing an e-mail relationship between students in Uzbekistan and their counterparts at a high school in Montana at:

A World Away*

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A World Away

Central Asian Students See the U.S. -- and Themselves -- in a New Light

Caption: Uzbek English Teacher Gulchehra Mahkambaeva High school teacher Gulchehra Mahkambaeva established an e-mail relationship between her students in Uzbekistan and their counterparts at a high school in Montana. (Lois Raimondo - The Washington Post)

By Robert G. Kaiser

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, September 22, 2002; Page F01

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- At a time when Americans are wondering how to reach out and touch ordinary people in the Muslim world, Gulchehra Mahkambaeva is worth knowing.

A 33-year-old schoolteacher in this Central Asian city, Mahkambaeva reached out to America last year, establishing an e-mail relationship between her high school students in Tashkent and their counterparts at a high school in Bozeman, Mont. Students in her class at a special high school attached to Tashkent's University of World Economy and Diplomacy exchanged essays, opinions and experiences with young Americans throughout the school year that ended in June. Each class made a videotape of its home town for the other to see.

The program improves her students' English, widens their horizons, and one more thing: "I can help my students overcome the bad impressions they get of America from movies and TV," Mahkambaeva explains.

In other words, she's doing work the U.S. State Department ought to be doing, although she wouldn't see it that way. Her teaching initiative is the result of her experience in the summer of 2001, when she spent two months as a student herself in Bozeman in a special course for foreign English teachers -- a course paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gulchehra Mahkambaeva is a beneficiary of American foreign aid. Her brief time in Bozeman was enough to teach her that Hollywood's movies can be misleading. "That's not the real America," she says.

She is one of 2,600 citizens of the five republics of Central Asia who have studied in the United States since those countries became independent in December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Under programs named for the late Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey and others, these Central Asians -- high school students, undergraduates and graduate students, and teachers like Mahkambaeva -- have spent from two months to two years in the United States, studying and making discoveries.

Most residents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have not traveled widely -- Europe and North America are too far away and too expensive. So for these 2,600 people, the opportunity to study in the United States was an eye-opening thrill, and a life-changing adventure. It may also provide the definitive cross-cultural experience.

It would be difficult to overstate the differences between these new nations of Central Asia and the United States. Here the very idea of nationhood is a novelty. Families, clans and tribes have long been more important than nationality in Central Asia -- "long" meaning centuries, probably millennia. These countries fell into independence in 1991 with very little warning. Eleven years is a short time to adjust to becoming a nation-state, especially for peoples with no prior experience of the concept.

For the young, the most obvious attribute of independence has been the absence of opportunities. One young man from Turkmenistan who visited the United States said he felt pangs of envy -- why should Americans have so many more chances? "People my age [in Turkmenistan] are so eager to learn more, but they can't," he said. His is generally considered the region's worst-governed, most backward country.

Conversations this summer with two dozen veterans of the American academic exchange programs in all five of the "Stans" demonstrated what it means to give young people from restricted environments the chance to experience the United States. First of all it means discovery.
American Surprises

Most of these exchange students live with American families, and most are sent to small towns and cities. The wealth of the United States amazes them, understandably; For most of them, a monthly salary of $200 is a princely sum. But less tangible qualities ultimately make a stronger impression, it seems.

Irina Shames, 19, who spent a year in high school in Santa Fe, N.M., was struck by the way Americans would "fight for a better life," an idea foreign to most Uzbeks, she thinks. She was one of many who said she realized, after seeing America, how passive and accepting most Central Asians are.

Zhandos Shaikhy, 20, a Kazakh university student who spent 1999-2000 in high school in Cloudcroft, N.M., was impressed by Americans' shared acceptance of an elaborate set of rules. "I realized how much we lack order," he said. "Order is what makes a society strong -- order and clear rules that everyone wants to comply with."

Gulchehra Mahkambaeva was surprised that Americans don't seem to think much about democracy. "I realized that it's like water," she said. "If you have enough of it, you don't talk about it."

Readjusting to life in Central Asia can be difficult after a year or two in the States, in ways both superficial and profound. "When I came home people told me I used too much 'thank you' and 'please,' " says Nargiza Abraeva, 26, an Uzbek who spent two years at George Washington University. But then she added that "my family and friends thought I was very changed," and admitted she had difficulty feeling at home again.

However, many of the Central Asians -- who faced stiff competition to win their fellowships to study in the United States -- were disappointed in the lack of rigor they found in American schools. Zarina Davlyatova, 27, a teacher in a new private high school in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, who spent the summer of 2001 in a teacher-training course in Columbia, S.C., criticized the relaxed American approach to science and math. A student of hers who went to the States for a year of high school came home so rusty at science, she said, that he lost the gold medal for achievement that he easily should have won.

The American idea, concluded Rushona Salatova, 18, a Tajik who spent a year in a Tucson high school, was "to learn what you want to, not what the school thinks you should know."

Sukhrob Khoshumkhamedov, 26, a Tajik who earned a master's degree at the University of Denver in 2001, nodded at these comments -- high school education in America is not rigorous, he agreed. But at the postgraduate level, he said, things are very different: "In the U.S. it's better by far -- it's like heaven and earth."

The mobility of American life and the easy separation of extended families surprised many of these students, and alarmed them, too. The idea that parents might live thousands of miles from children astounded them. Family remains by far the most important social structure in Central Asia, and Americans' cavalier approach to extended family relations was a surprise.

That was part of learning to see a world very different than one's own. A sojourn in the States also created opportunities to see one's own country in a different way. One who did was Yevgeni Onokhin, 28, an ethnic Russian citizen of Uzbekistan who received a master's degree in public administration from the University of Massachusetts. He now works for a German engineering firm in Tashkent.

In the United States, Onokhin said, he heard complaints from American businessmen about the Uzbek government's economic policies, and he discovered that its human rights policies were controversial. "I read and heard a lot of bad things about Uzbekistan," he said, "and this was shocking to me. . . . I thought I lived in a nice country, where everything was fine."
Love of Country

American patriotism surprised these Central Asians. "We don't have that in Kyrgyzstan," said Maksat ("call me Maks") Tynayev, 20, who spent a year in a Medford, Ore., high school. He saw this comparison as a commentary on the state of Kyrgyzstan's evolution as a real country -- not there yet, he concluded. "Here we don't know our national anthem very well."

Nargiza Abraeva thought her Uzbek countrymen have "the beginnings of patriotic feeling," but just the beginnings. She could not compare them to Americans, who seemed so unified, so cohesive a nation.

During her year in Santa Fe, said Irina Shames, "I became a patriot" -- of Uzbekistan. "I never thought it would happen. People here ask, 'Why didn't you stay there?' They don't realize how much you would miss home."

She was alluding to the fact that thousands of young Central Asians have given up on their homelands and moved abroad. These young people who get the chance to study in America are expected, by many of their friends and contemporaries, to use it as a means to escape their countries. And some do escape. According to the American Councils on Education, which tries to keep track of former exchange students, 96 percent return from the United States, but perhaps 12 percent later leave their countries.

A Turkmen citizen who studied in the States said an important lesson from the experience was that even in Turkmenistan, a country ruled by an unforgiving dictator, there is room to be independent and creative, provided you don't directly challenge the prevailing authority. This young person takes every opportunity to share lessons learned in the United States -- most important, the fact that other countries have completely different systems based on completely different values. Like the other Turkmen young people interviewed, this person asked not to be identified.

The same Turkmen noted how difficult it can be in traditional societies to promote Western notions of pragmatism. In Turkmenistan everyone still knows which of the nation's tribes he or she belongs to, and many people still think it is important not to marry outside one's tribe. The same is true in Kazakhstan. In Tajikistan, membership in the right regionally based clan can be more important than one's education or experience. "Before I went to the States I thought security was enough for a country," said Sukhrob Khoshumkhamedov of Tajikistan, a country wracked by civil war in its first five years of independence. But his experience in the States convinced him that "security is not enough. You need to change laws, and the economy," and then "you need to change the minds of the people. . . . Many people [in Tajikistan] are thinking in a closed way."

How are the minds of entire peoples changed? This is of course a tall order. A transformation is not imminent. But these peoples can't stay where they are, either; to survive and prosper, they will have to adapt to their new situation.

Janybek Omorov, 39, a Kyrgyz banker with a University of Illinois master's degree, suggested a formula for overturning the old order. There are already more than 200 graduates of the various American programs in Kyrgyzstan, he said, and the number keeps growing. One day they will constitute "a critical mass," he predicted, "to change the country."

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