Growing Up In Uzbekistan
I was born and raised in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and for some time was the only version of Uzbekistan and of the world that I knew, at least outside of what I saw on TV and read about in books. I lived in the center of the city in an old one-bedroom apartment with my parents, older sister, cat, and dog. I remember how cozy it was, though small, with floral print wallpaper that my sister and I had ripped off in some places and drew on in others. Gas stove in the kitchen. Just one bathroom. No dishwasher or working washing machine. We had a microwave, a TV, a computer, and dial-up access internet. A typical post-soviet Tashkent apartment for a typical lower-middle-class, young Uzbek family. The apartment belonged to my late grandfather on my dad’s side. My father received ownership of the apartment after I was born since we could no longer live in his parents’ 5-bedroom apartment where two of his married brothers and their families lived.
We attended the nearby public school. My sister and I were enrolled in the Russian department of the school (versus the Uzbek), which is how I learned to speak, read, and write in Russian. After school, I trained at The State Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre 3-5 times a week for at least 3 hours a day. At the time, I probably didn’t realize how much these experiences would shape my life as an adult: playing a child in the operas, dancing on pointe, watching my dad fall asleep to La Traviata because he had seen it so many times before.
Despite coming from a “blue-collar” family (or so to speak in American terms to describe our condition), I was incredibly privileged. I was privileged to have progressive Uzbek parents who wanted me to learn Russian and to be involved in performing arts after-school activities. I was privileged to have lived in the center of the capital of Uzbekistan where most of its diversity, both ethnic and religious, are situated. In short, we had no money but we were rich in cultural experiences and in close relationships with those very different from us.
Moving To The United States Meant Confronting A Lot Of Uzbekistan Stereotypes
When I was 13, we immigrated to the United States. We moved to a suburb in north NJ as we already had some family and friends there, a support system. This was in November of 2008. Obama had just been elected for context.
I was different. I dressed up for school while my peers showed up in sweats. I wore flare jeans with colorful belts and turtlenecks. I had really, really long hair that I had never strengthened in my life. It was always braided. Most girls around me had straight hair, lighter skin, and wore Uggs. I don’t have the best memory, but I vividly remember a few things my American peers said to me when I first immigrated:
“Are you a terrorist?”
“Why do you dress up for school? You’re not a Barbie doll.”
“Uzbekistan is in the Middle East, right?”
“Are you forced to wear a hijab?”
“Have you ever even used a computer?”
Yes, these are real questions my peers asked me. I remember them so clearly, like they’re tattooed in my brain. Maybe it was my vulnerability that inked them onto my memory, or maybe it was the shock at the underlying ignorance and lack of education about my culture that they revealed. Either way, I’m writing this article to address to educate so that other kids will be spared of such demeaning questions and may be welcomed with more thoughtful ones instead.
Who Are Central Asians?
Central Asia is home to over 105 million people and five republics, yet we are not represented by a simple checkbox in any of the race/ethnicity identification questions I have ever encountered. Usually, I check off white or Asian, though I don’t quite identify as either.
I don’t identify as White because culturally we typically think of a White person as having White skin and having origins in Europe, which I do not. I have light brown skin and I’m from Central Asia. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born and raised in Uzbekistan as far as I know.
However, according to the US Census Bureau’s definition, I am White because my ancestors are likely from the Middle East:
“White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
Seems a little broad, doesn’t it?
“Asian – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.”
As you can see, there is no mention of any Central Asian countries in the Bureau’s definition of “Asian” either.
If you were geographically Central Asian and yet were not considered Asian by the US government, wouldn’t you have a bit of an identity crisis, too?
I’m not the only one confused by this. If you just google “Are central Asians White” you’ll find over 34k results. Here is a convincing blog post arguing that Central Asians should be considered Asian. Check out the comments. A reader commented “As an Afghan, I wish there was a Central Asian category on these census forms. I feel like our region is often overlooked and ignored.” That’s exactly how I feel too, and I wonder how many others feel the same.
The kicker is that these definitions are guided by the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards on race and ethnicity. They are outdated and could use another look in the 21st century. Simple as that.
Traveling As An Uzbek Person Has Not Been Accessible
Now, I will be honest. I’m not nearly as well traveled as I’d like to be. I didn’t get to study abroad while I was in college and I can’t really afford an immersive trip at this point in my life either. Suffice to say, traveling is a privilege that most people have to work for years to earn. This is especially true in Uzbekistan. I don’t know many Uzbeks who have taken trips to Paris from Tashkent for fun. Traveling out of the country for most middle-class working Uzbek families is out of the question because it’s so costly.
That said, I have had a couple of opportunities in my life where I got to travel, and they were amazing. Two years ago, I took a short trip over spring break to Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Austin. Traveling to these American cities as an Uzbek made me realize that people assume my ethnicity. I look ethnically ambiguous, especially to those who have never met a person from Central Asia before. So, they assume. Hispanic and Latinx folks start speaking Spanish to me when they first see me. This has happened many times, but it happened remarkably often on this trip.
I don’t mind people assuming that I’m one of them. It’s kind of nice in a way. Makes me want to learn Spanish so I can truly get away with fitting in.
Last summer I took a trip to Saint Petersburg and Moscow, Russia. The trip was led by American University professors who grew up in Russia and sponsored by The Carmel Institute or Russian Culture and History. It was incredible. Really, it was everything I could’ve asked for in a short study abroad trip: unbiased history lessons, Russian, Uzbek, and Georgian food, local bilingual tour guides, and performing arts experiences.
Traveling as an Uzbek in Russia, in many ways, felt like traveling in Uzbekistan. Of course, there are huge differences and Russia has a unique and rich culture of its own, but I couldn’t ignore all the things that reminded me of where I came from. After all, they used to be part of the same whole (the Soviet Union, to be specific).
The modern dance performance we saw at the New Mariinsky Theatre was one I will never forget. I felt that all I am had culminated in that night: my first exposure to professional dance at the Navoi, Russian cultural influences, and modern dance classes I took all throughout college at this westernized, state of the art theater. This is the power of dance, it can make you feel something and move you to your core. The piece itself was deep, complex, and as I concluded – a commentary on war and the effect it has on women. I wrote about this as well.
I had a uniquely Uzbek moment when I helped my American peers buy some scarves on Arbat Street by negotiating prices with a few Kazakh women in Russian. It’s no secret that Americans tend to pay full price if not more as tourists all around the globe. My newfound friends (mostly broke college students just like me) appreciated that I made sure they didn’t have to pay more just because they are Americans. And I certainly appreciated practicing bargaining in Russian like I used to back in Uzbekistan when I went on grocery runs at the bazaars as a kid.
Another memorable moment was when my professor started singing and dancing to what I would call a 00’ Russian pop classic while we were souvenir shopping on Arbat. I started singing too and he was so surprised:
“Iroda, you know this song??” he asked me in Russian.
“Of course, I do,” I replied. “I grew up listening to them.”
We sang through the rest of the song together with huge smiles across our faces. I just remember being so happy; I don’t get to connect with others on this level often. Usually, I don’t know the classics everyone around me seems to and they don’t know the classics I know by heart.
For context, Russian culture was a huge part of my life growing up. I watched Russian TV, danced Russian dance; Russian pop culture was my pop culture and despite the fact that Uzbeks have their own music, TV, films, books, etc, I didn’t actively separate the two in my head. Russian pop culture was universal, while Uzbek pop culture was made for Uzbek speakers. Both naturally played a role in my upbringing.
Touring Uzbekistan: So what is Uzbekistan like exactly?
Here are 5 things that I think you should know before touring Uzbekistan:
1. Before Touring Uzbekistan, understand its geography.
Uzbekistan is the dinosaur of Central Asia. That’s right, a dinosaur. It just looks like a big dinosaur on a map. This doubly-landlocked country is located south of Russia and Kazakhstan and north of Turkmenistan in Central Asia. It is important that you know this because its mere location has shaped the history and the current makeup of Uzbekistan.
2. Before touring Uzbekistan, let go of your preconceived notions.
Uzbekistan is more diverse and peaceful than you probably think. Uzbekistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, is predominantly Muslim and most of its population consists of Uzbek folks who live peacefully with almost 20% of non-Uzbeks (Tajik, Kazakh, Russian, Korean and other ethnic groups) in Uzbekistan.
While most people are not surprised by my fluency in Russian, they are shocked to learn that I grew up among Jews, Orthodox Christians, and atheists in addition to Muslims. My experience was that my childhood best friend was Russian and her name is Natasha. My neighbors were half Uzbek half Russian. My classmates consisted of kids of Korean and Russian descent in addition to every ethnic group from the neighboring “stans.” All of us were citizens of Uzbekistan and all of us spoke the same language: Russian. We were in the Russian department of the school after all. There were plenty of Uzbek speakers, but not everyone.
This may be based on the memories of an idealistic child, but I genuinely do not remember ever witnessing any sort of racial or religious tension growing up. I emphasize this because to this day when I introduce myself as from Uzbekistan, I usually get “Oh, Pakistan/Afghanistan?” in response. Or “Oh, that’s next to Pakistan, right?” Wrong.
Uzbekistan does not share a border with Pakistan. And it seems the immediate association people have of Pakistan is civil unrest and terrorism. So within seconds of meeting me, the person I’ve just met has already come to conclusions about me.
Americans aren’t the only ones guilty of this. Surprisingly, immigrants from other countries are just as uneducated about Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole. Taking Ubers around DC illustrated this for me as I’ve had to explain that Uzbekistan is not Afghanistan and it does exist but it is not in the Middle East. I’ve had to explain this to African and South American immigrants just as much as American citizens I’ve encountered in my life.
To be fair, I knew nothing about Trinidad and Tobago until I met my freshman-year roommate in college. So, I get it. Most of us learn about new places by meeting people from there or by going there. However, when you don’t know anything about a “stan” that’s just been mentioned to you, let the person explain rather than interrupting with questions about Borat to make yourself seem knowledgeable. My point is: it’s okay if you don’t know. Just listen, look it up later, and check yourself and your assumptions.
3. Before touring Uzbekistan, know Uzbekistan’s culture is that of community, family, and respect.
The people of Uzbekistan are known for being incredibly welcoming and kind. This starts with the emphasis placed on family and respecting your elders. In a traditional Uzbek family, older members are referred to with utmost respect and this is reflective in the language itself. For example, there are two words for “you” in Uzbek: “sen” and “siz.” Sen is used for those of equal age to you and “siz” is used for those older. In other words, I refer to my sister as “Ziyodahonopa, siz…” versus “Ziyodahon, sen…” The first contains “opa” at the end of her name which indicates “older sister” and “siz” which translates to “you” implying respect due to our age difference.
This concept of respecting elders is likely rooted in Islam but has become a cultural unspoken rule in Uzbekistan. Even when we meet strangers, Uzbeks often refer to them as “siz” regardless of age, as a sign of respect.
If you’re touring Uzbekistan, you can expect to be welcomed into homes, fed, and given tea for nothing in return. You’ll be treated like family no matter where you go. This is just the Uzbek way and we’re very proud of it.
4. Before touring Uzbekistan, come hungry.
Go to Uzbekistan for the food. Food is one of my favorite aspects of growing up and touring Uzbekistan. Some of the staples of Uzbek food are naan (bread), osh (pilaf), barak (dumplings), mashhurda (soup), and somsa (samosas). Osh is a dish that is served at every kind of event you can think of in Uzbekistan: weddings, birthdays, national holidays, and when welcoming guests. In every major Uzbek city, osh is made differently than the next and the people take a lot of pride in those differences as well as their delicious cooking. Here’s the best video I could find on how osh is made in Uzbek traditional settings.
Another thing I love about food in Uzbekistan is that you are not limited to Uzbek food. Growing up, I also ate Korean, Russian, and Kazakh food. It’s really amazing. So, go to Uzbekistan and see for yourself.
A brief history lesson on how Koreans ended up in Uzbekistan
In the 1860s, Korean immigrants began to settle in the Russian Far East to work as farmers. Russian czars welcomed them, and two decades later Koreans were receiving temporary citizenship in Russia. Their communities thrived in Russia for some time, however as the Soviet-Japanese disagreements grew, Koreans became more “othered” in Russia. Stalin worried that there were Japanese-loyal spies among the Koreans. He ordered to close Korean schools, burn their books, and ban their language, among other things. After Japan annexed Korea in 1937, more Koreans fled to Russia. On September 9 of 1937, thousands of Koreans were rounded up and deported to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on Stalin’s orders. THAT is how Koreans ended up in Central Asia.
The crazy thing is I had no idea! No one taught me this in school. I wonder if my Korean classmates know this history. What a horrid story. Tens of thousands of Korean families were forced to travel in harsh Siberian weather for two weeks in “windowless cattle trains,” according to the National Geographic. If you’d like to learn more about the mass relocation of Koreans to Central Asia, check out this three-part article by Victoria Kim published in The Diplomat.
5. Before touring Uzbekistan, know it is full of artists.
Uzbekistan is bleeding with talent. I saved my favorite one for last for obvious reasons. When you visit, check out traditional Uzbek dance, music, and theater. But also check out contemporary work, Uzbek pop culture, and young artists whether they’ve been established for years or are just getting started.
Here’s my favorite dance video to give you a sense of Uzbek traditional dance.My favorite Uzbek singer Sevara as a glimpse into Uzbek pop music.The best representation of Uzbek traditional music and instruments I could find.
It’s not just the performing arts. In every souvenir store, you’ll find handmade ceramic characters, plates, fruits, and traditional dishes. You’ll find intricately hand-carved furniture, photo frames, and even pencil cases made out of wooden materials.
Touring Uzbekistan: So You Want To Travel To Uzbekistan?
In my opinion, there’s nothing better than touring Uzbekistan with someone from Uzbekistan to show you around and help you experience all of these things. So if you’ve got an Uzbek friend, hit them up and start planning. The second-best thing I can think of is going on a guided tour.
Conveniently for you, my aunt and I are starting a travel business together: Explore Eurasia! Explore Eurasia provides fully-guided tours to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. You can take a trip to Uzbekistan and Georgia with us as soon as this spring! Our goal is to make traveling to these countries seamless by taking care of all the planning, tour guides, and accommodations in affordable packages. You can go alone, with a travel buddy, or in a group – we got you. Shoot us an email if you are interested in learning more at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading and hayr!
About the Author
Iroda is the marketing lead at Explore Eurasia. She likes writing songs and working out at Body Revolution. In a perfect world, she says she’d be living somewhere warm, singing and dancing every day, writing and producing songs and getting paid for it. You can find her on Instagram.
***Originally written for and published in How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch.***