It’s 5am and the electricity has just come back on here in my Khujand apartment. I know because the sheet metal of the ‘70’s era space heater plugged into the wall has started to creak and crack as it warms. I’m not typically up at this hour but it’s D-day – my departure – and I’m anxious to get started on the 3 day, 5 country journey back home. Today Tajikistan to Uzbekistan, tomorrow Uzbekistan to Moscow to Amsterdam, and finally Amsterdam to… America.
I’ve grown accustomed now to calling my homeland, ‘America.’ Early on here I didn’t know what to make of the blank stares when I told someone I come from the US or the United States. I later learned that the term ‘United States’ connotes the former Soviet Union and its dozens of republics. Even before I arrived, I contemplated the reactions I would get considering Tajikistan is the northern neighbor and close cultural cousin of Afghanistan. “What do they think of Americans?” my aunt asked me before I left. I was stumped by the question but I knew I would soon find out.
I still remember from a decade ago the hordes of students in Europe with Canadian flags stitched into their packs. More than half were Americans in partial disguise, otherwise given away by the ballcaps and Tevas. You could always out them by trying to start a conversation about the Stanley Cup finals that year. I also remember resolving myself to avoid hiding who I was and where I was from and instead act as an informal ambassador to those I meet on my travels. Here in Tajikistan I was true to my pledge. Mostly.
The reaction I received as an American was absolutely 100% unwaveringly positive. In fact, it was so positive I had to wonder why. We hadn’t provided them any aid, hadn’t liberated them from an occupying power, hadn’t established close diplomatic ties, and they didn’t even have Coca Cola. Sure, they knew Chuck Norris and Michael Jackson but was that enough? After enough time here I finally figured it out.
Tajikistan is living proof of communism as a failed experiment. That conclusion isn’t based on any economic analysis or survey. It’s based on the overwhelmingly wasted talent of the population. The country has a 99% literacy rate but you don’t need to read to drive a cab. Doctors make the equivalent of $100 a month. Mothers of five sell gum and cigarettes on the street corner. It’s a long story, but the Soviet plan designated Tajikistan to produce cotton and the country was bred for just that purpose. The government here halfheartedly clings to the notion that there is such a thing as a cotton superpower, but deep down it realizes it has no viable industry or economy. Mostly what people want is the freedom to earn a living and pursue their talent.
Consider the fact that we ask our children, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ (Some of us are still pondering that question well into adulthood.) We ask because it taps into what every child in America has; possibilities. When I talk with teenagers and young adults here about their future plans, inevitably they tell me it’s their dream to go to America. It’s not based on some infatuation with Levi’s and McDonald’s. It’s because in America they have possibilities.
As much as my ego would enjoy it, I realize it’s not me they love when their eyes light up upon hearing of my nationality. It’s that, in their mind, they instantly associate the word with every spark of ambition they’ve ever had in their short lives. Growing up I wanted to be a truck driver, a veterinarian, a metallurgist and a filmmaker. Instead I ended up a Kiva Fellow, but every one of those options was a real possibility for me. Some probably weren’t the most prudent career paths, but they were mine if I wanted them. Everyone else wants to be able to dream the impractical dream if they choose – and therein lies the appeal of America.
With sincere thanks to the good people at MicroInvest and all the friends I’ve made in Tajikistan, I’m signing off from Central Asia… for now. After the holidays I will be working with CEVI in the Philippines.