Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of life in different placements. This month, Samantha Steiner, a 2017 ETA in Argentina, talked with Canyon Darcy, a 2013-2014 ETA in Tajikistan.
I’ve actually been to Tajikistan twice. When I was a high school senior applying to colleges, I didn’t have a very strong sense of what I wanted post high school. I was just going through the motions of applying, and didn’t see college as much more than an expensive camp where you learn to pregame. At that time, a Tajik English teacher was doing a Fulbright at the university of Texas at Austin. She came to my high school and gave a talk about Tajik culture, and I was fascinated. A classmate and I engaged with her after her talk, and she invited us to come to Tajikistan then and there. It sounds outlandish, but if you go to Tajikistan, you’ll find that level of hospitality is the norm. So we took a gap year and lived in Tajikistan, volunteering in her classroom. It wasn’t through any program. We just bought tickets and went.
2. How was Tajikistan different from the U.S.?
It was different in almost every way. Describing the similarities would take less time, although nothing really comes to mind when framed in that light. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to generalities, which gloss over the nuance I experienced in Tajikistan.
One thing I’ll try to communicate is what I perceived as the isolation of Tajikistan. Take out a globe and look at where Tajikistan is. It’s a tiny, land-locked, mountainous region. When you go to the bazaars at the onset of winter, you notice the variety dwindle dramatically. We’re not used to that in the states, where you can get avocados year round. I never met anybody in Tajikistan who’s tasted an avocado. At first, being from Texas, I was shocked by this. Over time, I came to appreciate the absence of this kind of globalization. In a similar way that islands evolve utterly unique ecosystems from their mainland counterparts, Tajikistan’s location has given rise to some fascinating cultures. And it’s old. America isn’t even 300. In Tajikistan, you can visit cities that are 5,000 years old by conservative estimates. It’s an incredible part of the world.
3. Could you describe your experience navigating issues of race, gender, or sexuality in Tajikistan?
This question is tough, and my answer may sound blunt and insensitive. A conversation that lasted more than seven hours included more than my privileged middle-class white American perspective would be far more valuable. I had several of those conversations when I was in Tajikistan, and they were all fascinating.
From my experience living there, Tajikistan would score an F on all of the above: race, gender, and sexuality. Saying anything else or highlighting the small exceptions (which do exist) would be to bypass the pervasive intolerance and discrimination against women, ethnic minorities (even within Tajikistan alone), and non heteronormative sexuality. Naturally, letter grades are a terrible metric for discussing these kinds of issues (the U.S. is far from an A or even a B or C, depending on whom you ask). One should not move to Tajikistan expecting a captive public audience for talks on diversity.
4. What did a typical weekday look like for you?
Wake up, take shower. Warm water expires at the 5 minute mark. Make coffee (Nescafé unless your friends ship you real coffee). Grab some blinis from the store below your apartment, and walk to the American Corner. It is in the city center, about a 10 minute walk. Disregard the pointing, staring, and yelling of shop owners and passersby, until they disregard you (roughly around the 7 month mark, unless you have a red afro like mine, in which case resign yourself to this in perpetuity).
At the American Corner, you lead a morning class (grammar, conversation workshop, reading group) with a small group of students. The afternoon is much busier, as the Corner serves as a popular place to hang out after school, take advantage of the free wifi, and watch the American. In the mid-late afternoon, your classes are finished. You spend the rest of the day as you like.
5. How did you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?
As a Fulbright ETA, I found myself to be an object of interest for various communities, but always in a presentational way. Be it a volunteer effort like environmental cleanup, a speaking engagement at a local school, or even a routine pickup game of basketball with some locals (and a 6’4” German) — in all cases my connection was always as an outsider. From my conversations with expats, this seems quite common. It can be frustrating and isolating to be constantly received as an outsider, and perhaps this explains why expat communities exist: they all relate to each other around this feeling.
While feeling isolated wasn’t exactly enjoyable, it also offered nothing constructive. Nor did thinking about community at all, frankly. I didn’t come to Tajikistan to feel accepted, but rather to learn and to exchange perspectives with people. In fact, as I think back on my time I can’t recall a single instance where connecting with my community was on my mind. I wouldn’t have known what ‘my community’ even meant. It was solitary in that sense.
But what did happen was that in focusing on learning and cultural exchange, I was able to build individual friendships that with people of many different generations and nationalities. Maybe that’s community.
6. What were some of the challenges you encountered as an ETA?
I mentioned isolation above, that was certainly a challenge. Another was being constantly seen as a representative. If a Fulbright scholar goes to Tajikistan, they’ll be expected to answer on America’s behalf to a long list of pointed questions. “Why are Americans fat?” “Why is American football popular, when real football is clearly superior in every way?” “What does America think about this or that?”
These conversations often come from a place of good intention, but they touch on sensitive issues and involve a level of nuance that is hard to communicate across cultures. It’s important to respect how impactful your words can be when your audience sees you as a standard bearer for a whole country, regardless of your insistence to the contrary. Teenagers are not mollified by “it’s complicated, and many people in the U.S. think different things”. They want to know your opinion.
7. What were some of the highlights?
The natural beauty of Tajikistan. Sharing and experiencing new food. Having conversations with people who had views that were so different from my own. Looking at my values in a new light, and seeing which were strengthened and which needed revision. Making a few dear friends.
8. Why should prospective grantees apply to work in Tajikistan?
I would recommend this experience to anyone who wants to challenge themselves as an individual. A lot of your experience is up to you. If you’re looking for a structured environment that provides a known “put in X, get our Y” formula, then a Fulbright may not be the right thing for you — let alone in Tajikistan. There is no structure, and I mean that. And yet there are wonderful opportunities. Opportunities to grow as an individual, and as a leader. I’d recommend it to anyone.
9. How have your experiences in Tajikistan changed you?
This is a great question, but it’s not something that I can answer. On the one hand it’s very hard to articulate how my experiences changed me. On the other hand, I don’t feel comfortable sharing such close-to-heart things in such an open, off-handed manner. It would belittle them in my eyes. If you read this interview and meet me in person some day, I’ll be happy to share more.
Canyon Darcy is from Austin, TX. He graduated from the University of Texas’ Radio-TV-Film school in 2013. He currently lives in Denver, where he runs a small video production company.