Central Asians discover the real US

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 schoolteacher in this Central Asian city, Ms. Mahkambaeva reached out to America last year, establishing an e-mail relationship between her high school students here and their counterparts at a 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 past school year.

The program improves her students' English and widens their horizons, she says, adding, "I can help my students overcome the bad impressions they get of America from movies and TV."

In other words, she's doing work the United States State Department ought to be doing, although she wouldn't see it that way. Her teaching initiative is the result of her experience in 2001 as a student herself in Bozeman, attending a special course for foreign English teachers – a course paid for by the US Agency for International Development. Those two months were enough to teach her that Hollywood's movies can be misleading. "That's not the real America," she says.

Mahkambaeva is one of 2,600 citizens of the five republics of Central Asia who have studied in the US since those countries became independent in December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

High-schoolers, undergraduates, graduate students, and teachers have spent from two months to two years in the US, studying and making discoveries through programs named for people such as the late Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

Most residents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have not traveled widely – Europe and North America are too distant and expensive. So for these 2,600 exchange students, the opportunity to study in the US was an eye-opening adventure.

It would be difficult to overstate the differences between these new nations of Central Asia and the US. 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 millenniums.

These countries fell into independence with very little warning, and 11 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 US 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 says. 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 US.

First of all, it means discovery.

American journeys

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

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

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

Readjusting to life in Central Asia can be difficult.

"When I came home people told me I used too much 'thank you' and 'please,' " says Nargiza Abraeva, an Uzbek who spent two years at George Washington University. "My family and friends thought I was very changed," she said, admitting she had difficulty feeling at home again.

Many of the students, who faced stiff competition to win their US fellowships, were disappointed in the lack of rigor in American schools. Zarina Davlyatova, a high school teacher 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 attended a US school for a year came home so rusty at science that he missed out on a gold medal for achievement that he easily should have won, she said.

The mobility of American life and the easy separation of extended families alarmed many students. Family remains by far the most important social structure in Central Asia.

The experience also taught many to see their own country differently. Yevgeni Onokhin, an ethnic Russian citizen of Uzbekistan who earned a master's degree in public administration in Massachusetts, says he heard American businessmen complain about the Uzbek government's economic policies. He also discovered that its human rights policies were controversial.

"I read and heard a lot of bad things about Uzbekistan," he says, "and this was shocking to me.... I thought I lived in a nice country, where everything was fine."

Western ideals

American patriotism surprised these Central Asians. "We don't have that in Kyrgyzstan," says Maksat Tynayev, 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."

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

She is alluding to the fact that thousands of young Central Asians have given up on their homelands and moved abroad. Those who study in America are expected, by many of their friends and contemporaries, to use it as a means to escape their countries.

According to the American Council on Education, which tries to track former exchange students, 96 percent return from the US, but perhaps 12 percent of those go on to leave their countries later.

A Turkmen citizen who studied in the States says an important lesson was that even in Turkmenistan, a country ruled by a 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 US – most important, the fact that other countries have completely different systems based on different values. Like the other Turkmen youths interviewed, this person requested anonymity.

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's 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," says Sukhrob Khoshumkhamedov of Tajikistan, a country wracked by civil war in its first five years of independence. But his US experience convinced him that "security is not enough. You need to change laws and the economy, [and] you need to change the minds of the people.... Many people [in Tajikistan] are thinking in a closed way."

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