At World Crossroads in Central Asia, Identity Is Submerged

For Uighurs, Koreans, Kazaks, and others, ethnicity comes second to making ends meet

On a Saturday night on a collective farm in eastern Uzbekistan, the village disco booms the latest Western dance tracks into the still night air. Several streets away, a Uighur Muslim family and friends celebrate the ritual circumcision of three young boys.

Whether by force or volition, different peoples and cultures have been intermingling for centuries here at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

And at Kim Pen Hva, named for the ethnic Korean who ran this kolkhoz, or collective farm, during Communist times, decades of Soviet social engineering have produced a surprising cosmopolitanism for such a seeming backwater.

The reality of life makes ethnic identity secondary to the main task of getting by. The average monthly wage on the cotton farm is less than $20, and many villagers look back wistfully to the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when founder Chairman Kim made the kolkhoz rich and famous, by Soviet standards.

Yet despite the homogenization and relative racial harmony, Central Asia's ethnic groups still cling to their identities, however tenuously.

Of the village's 9,000 inhabitants, only about 50 percent are ethnic Uzbeks, with Koreans, Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Russians making up the other half. They live side by side in low one-story houses hidden from the main road by high, overgrown fences.

Korean teenagers, chatting in Russian, assemble outside the disco while, on the other side of the village, Uighurs and Uzbeks dance to traditional tunes.

But there is no segregation here, and the village's ethnic groups mix easily.

"We have never had any conflicts," says Ella Kim, a kindergarten teacher who during the summer sells vegetables at the sparse kolkhoz bazaar.

"We all live peacefully together, work together, drink tea together," she says.

An ethnic Korean, Ms. Kim married an Uzbek.

"At first, my parents were against the marriage," she says. "But then they got used to him. They understood that the most important thing was not his nationality, but his personality."

Surprisingly, Kim concedes that if her own two children had wanted to marry Uzbeks, she would have been opposed.

Forced migration

Ethnic Koreans are especially rootless here, speaking Russian as their first language and giving their children Russian names. Fearing that ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Far East would collaborate with the Japanese, Joseph Stalin had more than 70,000 moved to Central Asia in 1937. More than a dozen other ethnic groups received similar treatment from the suspicious Soviet leader.

Today some 230,000 of descendants of the Korean exiles live in Uzbekistan, which has the largest Korean minority of any country in the former Soviet Union.

'Daewoo-stan'

The ethnic ties have had a benefit: In the past five years, South Korea has become Uzbekistan's biggest foreign investor, pouring more than $1 billion into the country.

Some businesspeople jokingly refer to it as "Daewoo-stan," after the South Korean conglomerate.

The legacy of the multiethnic USSR has left now-independent Uzbekistan with an easygoing tolerance.

Even at the Kim Pen Hva kolkhoz, it appears that most villagers are at least bilingual. "I know three languages: Uzbek, Uighur, and Russian," says Abdushkur Kasimov, an ethnic Uighur boy living on the farm. "And in school we're starting to learn German."

While the signs around the kolkhoz are all written in Uzbek, Russian remains the lingua franca of the community, as it does throughout most of Central Asia.

In the kolkhoz's main office, it's a matter of practicality, since the manager is Uzbek, his assistant Uighur, and the head accountant Korean. "We're all one family," says one office worker, a Kazak.

Few mixed marriages

Although the inhabitants of the kolkhoz seem genuinely to disregard ethnic differences, there are few mixed marriages.

"It's rare, that's true," says Shakura Yakubova, the Uighur assistant to the manager. "Religion is the main reason." Uighurs, Uzbeks, and Kazaks tend to be Muslim, Koreans are usually Buddhist or Christian, and Russians Orthodox Christian.

Yet Ms. Yakubova, who is unmarried, says ethnicity would not play a role should the time come for her to wed.

"The most important thing is that he love me," she says. "But, still, the majority of people don't think that way."

Muyassar Yudasheva, her Uzbek secretary, agrees. "For my parents, it's important that I marry an Uzbek. But nowadays, they can't go against our will."

Akmal Atamkulov, an ethnic Kazak farmer on the kolkhoz, sees a connection between the USSR's ethnic diversity and an easier life.

"Before, when we had the Soviet Union, all the republics were together," he says clasping his hands.

"Now they're all on their own. Until recently, we lived like brothers - of course it was better to live together like that," he says.

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