Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Envoy in Asia

Laurie Rich '00 taught Shakespeare and learned Uzbek as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here, she tells her story.

Our bus is winding its way through Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. It moves slowly enough to give us our first good look at our new home. Forty-nine of us are aboard the bus. We are Peace Corps volunteers, freshly arrived in Central Asia from the United States and en route from the airport to a hospital, where we will begin our on-site training. When our journey began there were fifty-one of us; but we lost one guy on the very first day of training in Philadelphia, and another freaked out in the Istanbul Airport and went home.

Now, the looks on our faces as we take in the streetscape must be a sight to see.

We knew we were coming to a remote desert country, a former Soviet republic about the size of California but with very little of the affluence. Still, we expected Tashkent, with its 2 million people, to be different—to fit our American conception of a city, at least a little. Our conception did not include dismal, dilapidated, Soviet-era architecture, or sagging homes made of mud and straw, incongruously sprouting satellite dishes. And as we peer out our bus windows, that is all we see.

I doubt there is a person on the bus who doesn’t want to be here today. But I wonder how many of us are thinking about the terms of our commitment to work in Uzbekistan. Twenty-seven months: it’s a long time.

In 1960, when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy floated the idea of the Peace Corps in a campaign speech at the University of Michigan, he didn’t urge the college kids in his audience to serve society on the familiar streets of Ann Arbor. He asked those who were willing to go and make a difference in places like Ghana, Haiti, and Palau. The Peace Corps is not only about service and sacrifice; it’s also about diving feet first into the unfamiliar.

Now, when people ask me what made me want to join the Peace Corps, I think of a small incident that happened a few years ago as I was walking down a sidewalk in Elmhurst. A boy of grade-school age came riding his bike toward me; since the sidewalk had room for only one of us, I stepped aside. As he rode by, I indulged myself with fond thoughts about the pleasures and simplicity of youth. Then a cell phone rang. The boy stopped pedaling, reached into his backpack, whipped out his phone and said, “Talk to me.”

I was two years out of college, working as an editor at West Suburban Living, a magazine published in and for DuPage County. I liked my job. But I felt I was ready for something new, ready to find some way I could help where help was really needed.

Something in the way that boy answered his phone that day, something about his brashness and confidence, told me that this was not the place where my help was most needed. When a friend from high school joined the Peace Corps, I started thinking of it as a possibility.

The application process took about six months. I survived writing the dreaded application essay, then went through interviews, consultations, information sessions, and medical exams. It was daunting, but not as daunting as explaining to my mother why going to Uzbekistan for twenty-seven months was a good idea.

I would be helping people, I told her. I would be safe. It would look good on my résumé.

All that was true. But when I received my assignment to Uzbekistan, I started to worry myself. On a map I could see that Uzbekistan is next door to Afghanistan. That was enough to give me pause. Moreover, I was to teach English to grade school and high school students in a city called Bukhara. I had never taught before, and knew not a word of Uzbek.

I had spent a lot of time thinking about ways I could help others. Now, with my assignment suddenly a reality, it seemed that I was the one who would be needing help.

My first home in Uzbekistan is in Baytquorgon, a village outside Tashkent. I stay with the Mirolima family—a couple and their four children, two girls and two boys, ages seven to fifteen. The family lives in a modest home with a dirt-and-cement floor and an outdoor pit toilet.

The Mirolima children begin to teach me Uzbek. They make it a game. I point things out around the house—a table, a dish, a chunk of lamb—and ask how to say its name in Uzbek. They tell me, then laugh at my attempts to repeat the words. Something about seeing an adult reduced to the vocabulary of a child is comic, and we spend a lot of time laughing.

I am to live with the Mirolimas during my training period, twelve weeks that kick off a Peace Corps assignment. My main task is to learn the language. All the volunteers in the area meet for classes six days a week. At the end of the training period, we will be tested in the language. I’m not at all confident that I’ll pass.

This is not my only challenge. As a vegetarian, I have particular trouble adjusting to the Uzbek diet, which has meat fat as a staple. Every dish seems to include some kind of meat. I grow accustomed to walking into the Mirolima kitchen and finding a hoof floating in the soup.

My vegetarianism poses problems of etiquette. Eating meat is a sign of affluence here. A guest is expected to feel honored to be served meat, just as a host feels honored when a guest eats everything served. I do my best to blend in, but draw the line at turning fully carnivorous. Thankfully, my hosts come to accept that I am different, that I can blend in only so much.

In my second week in my new home, I can’t sleep for three nights. I throw up repeatedly and feel a bit delirious. But I still don’t speak Uzbek well enough to explain what’s wrong or ask for help. As it turns out, no words are necessary. Food poisoning is an international language.

Later, I get sick again, and write it off as another case of food poisoning. Then my hair starts to fall out. I finally get to a doctor and learn that I have bacterial dysentery. I lose ten pounds, which I don’t mind so much, but I also lose so much hair that I end up cutting off more than a foot of it. That’s the part that really upsets me.

I complete my training, pass my language exam, and begin my assignment teaching English in Bukhara, a city of 228,000 on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that links Europe and China. I work in the primary and secondary schools of the Bukhara State University, teaching students from the second to the eleventh grades.

For the students, having a native speaker teach English seems to make learning the language more interesting. For the more advanced students, I simplify articles from The Economist and bring them in. The idea is not only to enable the students to practice reading English but also to expose them to a Western news source. Uzbekistan has a repressive government, and magazines like The Economist are hard to find.

I learn quickly that Uzbek schools operate under different rules of discipline than do American schools. Corporal punishment is a common practice here; the students are accustomed to being hit. One day I go to pat a younger student on the head. He flinches, and I realize that he thinks I am about to hit him. I take the opportunity to explain to the students that I would never hit them. Of course, that makes it a little harder for me to maintain discipline in the classroom.

I really like working with students between classes and after school. I help them work on their pronunciation, teach them a few new words, give them an idea of everyday life in America. It’s when tutoring a student one on one that I think I make the most difference.

As someone whose job it is to teach a new language, I am especially impressed that everyone I meet seems to be at least trilingual—able to switch from Russian to Uzbek to Tajik. My host family in Bukhara, the Bobomurodovs, includes two teenage daughters, Feruza and Nargiza, who are incredibly bright. They like to entertain me by performing scenes from Romeo and Juliet, first in Uzbek, then Russian, then English. We play out the death scene, at their insistence, over and over again.

My new home is a radical departure from the Mirolima home, where I stayed during my training period. The Bobomurodovs are educated and wealthy by Uzbek standards, and their home is a roomy, two-story affair with flush toilets and marble staircases. When I first saw it I was horrified; it didn’t match my idea of what a house in an impoverished country should be. I wanted an authentic Peace Corps experience, not a vacation; and I was proud to have survived my first home, handling the animals and the pit toilet and learning to wash my clothes by hand. Now I think I have it too good.

I consider asking for a transfer, but my hosts are wonderful people, and I decide to stay with them. The girls’ mother, Sayora, treats me like a daughter. She even tries to teach me how to cook.

One night Sayora sees my light on late at night and knocks on my door. She wants to show me her jewelry collection. She produces a small pouch: inside are bits of gold, false teeth that Sayora has had removed. One day, she says, she will have the gold fashioned into rings for her daughters.

I teach in a dilapidated building of green stucco, built back when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. The stairs are rickety, the windows won’t close properly, and the students’ chairs regularly collapse under them. What’s more, the textbooks are badly out of date; some are decades old.

I decide to write to one of my former professors at Elmhurst, Wally Lagerwey. I ask if he and his students would be interested in organizing a book drive to benefit our school.

Seven months later I get a message from people at the local post office. They’re holding fifteen boxes of books addressed to me.

With a group of students, I head for the post office. We form a small parade, transporting the boxes back to school. The books inside—science books, children’s books—are beautiful. It’s almost enough to make me cry.

In some of the schools I visit here, the books and computers are kept behind locked doors and rarely used by students. Their main function seems to be to impress visiting politicians.

I like knowing that these books from Elmhurst will be of real use.

Peace Corps veterans refer to the second year of their tour as the “monument-building phase.” It’s when you start thinking about the kind of impact you’ve made, the tangible legacy you’ll leave behind. I can’t think of anything “monumental” that I’ve accomplished here. But I do think often of a little girl at school named Dildora. A timid child, she is often the target of the other kids’ teasing. English doesn’t come easily to her, but she likes to stay after class to talk and practice her new language. In those visits, she emerges a bit from her shell. I guess the novelty of getting the attention of the exotic visitor from the United States is drawing her out, little by little.

At the end of the school year, I meet Dildora’s parents. They tell me what a difference they’ve noticed in their daughter.

That, I think, can be my monument.

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