Tandurusti ("Body-correctness," or Health)

As a recipient of funding for this language program, I’m required to contribute blogs entries to a website. I wrote the following about a week and a half ago in partial fulfillment of this requirement.


Falling victim to stomach illness is inevitable for American students coming to Tajikistan. The perfect storm of novel bacteria, copious amounts of cooking oil (including unfamiliar cotton- and flax-based varieties), and unfamiliar dairy products will tend to put newcomers out of commission for at least a couple days. When I first came to Tajikistan in 2009, my gastrointestinal performance was pitiful for about 10 days straight. Over the course of three stints adding up to almost two full years, my gut has assimilated to the country’s once foreign microbes and I’ve become so accustomed to Tajik cuisine’s oil-to-other-stuff ratio that I’ve adopted it myself, sometimes eliciting guffaws from friends and relatives back home.

I no longer seem to have much difficulty staying healthy here, and most other students adapt within a month or so. A far greater obstacle than staying healthy is negotiating local concepts of sickness and healthy living that don’t comport with our own.

If you admit to your host-family that you aren’t feeling well, you’ll likely be diagnosed with a slew of possible roots for your illness that you never imagined. While students might blame the unwashed hands of a cook at a restaurant, their host-families are likely to ask if you’ve consumed anything colder than room temperature (despite the widely acknowledged “dangers” of ice cream, it’s still immensely popular). One student’s rash (we all called it a heat rash) was blamed on eating too much watermelon. Blood pressure is believed to fluctuate on a daily basis, and people will miss a single day of work for self-reported hypertension. Leaving the house with wet hair will usually result in a talking-to.

It’s difficult to know how to respond when those around you are trying to be helpful with their advice, but following it would be inconvenient and ineffective. The best I’ve come up with is explaining American medical narratives as another “set of beliefs”, thereby framing medical explanations as fallible and culture-specific without demeaning theirs. Actually, the best I’ve come up with was probably telling my host-family that I built up a resistance to cold beverages, and “proved” this over an entire summer by freezing water bottles until they were half ice and drinking them at dinner in front of everyone. After healthy months the family was putting all their drinks in the freezer, too.

The most common prescription for ailments usually involves some kind of abstinence: stop drinking cold things, stop leaving the house without long sleeves, stop eating so much fruit. However, one of my favorite suggestions for an upset stomach (because I feel like it would make me throw up instantly) is to take a shot of salted vodka. In fact, even some more religious families who normally steer clear of alcohol will have a bottle of vodka in the cupboard in case someone falls ill.

Today in Dari class I received a lesson in anatomy that was completely new to me. I asked my instructor about folk medicine (literally called “Greek medicine” in Dari) in Afghanistan. To display its merits relative to Western medicine, my instructor began explaining the “four liquids of the head” and their properties: salty tears, poisonous inner ear fluid, sweet saliva, and foul-smelling nose juice. He told me that he once challenged a young doctor trained in Western medicine to account for the salinity of our tears. (As I started to ask if it wasn’t just so that our eyes don’t freeze over easily he quickly interrupted and told me to stop being impatient.) He gave the doctor a month to give him an answer, but the young man never could. My instructor then gave this doctor the lesson I’m about to recount below, and as a result was purportedly given free medical treatment and medications thereafter.

Tears are salty because the salt is needed to keep your eyes alive. You can remove eyes from someone’s body and place them in salt water, I was told, and they can be put back in and work fine. If you put them in fresh water they’ll die. Ear fluid is bitter and poisonous because it keeps creepy crawlies from entering your brain and making you crazy (“if it weren’t for that bitterness we’d all be dancing like idiots as we walk down the street”). Nasal fluids are sticky to keep the dust we inhale from reaching the back of our heads (I can more or less get behind that explanation). I don’t remember what he said about saliva being sweet, but he did mention that it’s an extra slippery liquid, which is important for digestion.

If language immersion is doing its job, you start responding in your target language involuntarily. The interesting side effect of language immersion in Tajikistan is the simultaneous cultural immersion. After living here for a while, you start following some of local medical advice reflexively and uncritically. And sometimes, while it’s maybe just a placebo, saying no to watermelon, avoiding ice cream, or putting raspberry jam in your tea really seems to work.


UPDATE: Perhaps in response to my “I-never-get-sick” cockiness, I got sick a few days after sending this in. I had a fever, my whole body ached, and my stomach was really upset. In response, the mother of my host family prohibited me from consuming cucumbers or cold water, and they forced me to drink tea with raspberry preserves inside (“a natural antibiotic”). I got better on Saturday, and then Sunday I drank cold water and ate ice cream…last night I was awakened by severe stomach cramps.

Unrelatedly, the topic of health came up again today with my Dari teacher. He explained to me that just as there are “good bacteria” there are also “good illnesses”: people with chronic eye pain will never go blind, and people who regularly catch the flu will never get tuberculosis.

Hot Dog Count: 41


Persian Language Fun Facts

One of the Persian words (at least in Dari and Farsi) for genitalia is "sharmgoh"* (شرمگاه). This can be literally translated as "place of shame," which I found hilarious.

At first, I thought that this said a lot about Persian culture, but some quick research taught me that we have something similar in English. You may not hear people throwing the obscure word "pudendum" around a lot, but it's a proper English word for genitalia, and it supposedly comes from Latin meaning "that whereof one ought to feel shame".

*Speakers/learners of Iranian Persian will disagree with most of my transliterations. This is their mistake.

Back in the Hovel

After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I've decided to re-light the peat stove and try my hand at blogging again. It's not so much that I have anything to say, but I'm in Tajikistan (again) for the summer, and a number of people asked if I'd be blogging again. I don't know if I'll have the endurance for this, but I'll give it a try. You'll notice the layout has changed somewhat; the header is new and improved (now with fewer colors and too narrow!).

A new temporary feature will be the Hot Dog Count at the end of each entry. Homestay families in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, are world famous for their serving of (chicken) hot dog upon hot dog ("sasiska" in Russian) to American students for breakfast, like breakfast sausages. Some friends and I brainstormed a methodology to keep track of not just how many I eat but also how many I'm served, but since the hot dogs are often served communally (albeit with the expectation that I'll eat the majority), this seemed too problematic. So my Hot Dog Count will just include the smaller and much more incriminating statistic of how many I've actually eaten.

This is my third time in Tajikistan. The first was August 2009-September 2010, then February-March 2011, so this two-month trip will be my shortest. I'm ostensibly here for intensive Dari (Afghanistan's lingua franca) classes, but a big motivation was just to be back in a place I enjoy and see people I've become close to over the last few years. I had also planned to tag on a short trip to Kabul to organize my thesis research prior to my language classes, but problems with my visa and the organization I'm studying with have foiled these plans.

Since my last time here almost exactly a year ago, there have been a few changes:
-The new National Library has been constructed. It was designed to be impressive rather than to meet the storage needs of any existing book collection. It's supposedly very empty and mostly has numerous copies of a very limited number of books. A call was put out for citizens to donate their own books from the library. I hear there's a lot of Marx and Lenin
-It's old news now, but shortly after I left, the prudent government constructed the world's tallest flagpole (over 540'), which happens to hold the world's longest flag. The flagpole alone cost about $32 million, which is equal to USAID's Tajikistan budget. (Also, Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world.)
-Dilnoza, the 13-year-old daughter of the family I'm living with, grew approximately 12 feet.
-Parvina, the 8-year-old daughter of the family I'm living lost all of her front teeth (which had been blackened and eroded by countless cups of syrupy, sugary tea) and now has a  fresh row of clean, white, big teeth.
-Everything's gotten more expensive, but the justification for taxi prices remains simply the word for gasoline barked with a shrug that implies "what can I do?".

I'm thankful to be living with the same family I spent 12 months with the first time I was here. Everything seems very familiar, but it's going to take me quite a bit of time to be as conversant in Tajik as I was before. When I replay in my head past conversations with my host-family, everything is in nuanced English. This reminds me of an episode of RadioLab which explained that every time we remember something we reconstruct that stored knowledge. Counter-intuitively, more times we remember something, the more opportunities there are for mutations of the original memory (like an internal game of "telephone") so that the current way you remember something can be quite different from what actually happened. In reality,  conversations in my household are (and always have been) rife with Russian and Uzbek--two languages I've never studied.

I got a piece of bittersweet news yesterday. My old Dari teacher and good friend Baseer is leaving for Johannesburg with his family in 10 days, so he won't be here to teach me as anticipated. He left Afghanistan with his family a few years ago for security reasons, and he's tried unsuccessfully to get to Canada, where his wife's family has emigrated. He will be taking ESL classes and hopes that being in South Africa make him better poised to get a Canadian visa.

Hot Dog Count (after nine days): 18


Tajik Language Fun Facts #2

-Like English, calling someone “honey” is a term of endearment. Unlike English, calling someone “my liver” has the same meaning. The explanation? You only have one liver (as opposed to a lung or kidney) and you need it to live. I’ve learned to not ask follow-up questions in Tajik class.

-In Tajik literature and poetry there are a few typical compliments for a girl’s beauty that people generally recognize: Her eyes look like antelope eyes. Her eyebrows look like snaketails.

-Another literary expression: if someone is running around frantically you say they are like a “foot-burned” chicken. This comes from the fact that chickens scratch at any sort of pile to find food, and historically these piles were often leftover from little fires and the chickens would step on a hot coal and go crazy

-The word for bat literally means "blind moth."

-The categories for different species haven't been updated to conform to modern taxonomies. The word for "animal" really just refers to mammals. A whale falls under the heading of "fish," and reptiles and some amphibians are categorized as "things that crawl." Even though a zoo has lots of reptiles and possibly some fish, it's literal name is "garden of mammals."

Christmas and New Year's

For the holiday season, most of the expatriates (i.e. my friends who celebrate Christmas) left the country and went home. Since about December 20th, Dushanbe has seemed fairly quiet. Luckily I’ve been kept company by my host family, language teacher and her family, and my couple friends who are still in town. Still, making Christmas seem the least bit Christmassy was a daunting prospect, and ultimately all efforts in this regard were abandoned.

The week leading up to Christmas I had pain in my foot that I thought was an injury from Thanksgiving football that flared up after a 30-foot sprint to avoid getting run over by a car. After several days of this pain, my opposite knee inexplicably swelled up and I had a hard time walking. I went to the doctor on Christmas Eve for a consultation, and to celebrate Christmas morning I went in again for blood work. By Christmas afternoon, all I had done is eaten bread, showered, and been diagnosed with gout. It was clear that Christmas was not happening this year.

I won’t go into much detail about gout, but basically it’s condition that was historically associated with aristocratic lives of excess but is now thought to often be genetic. This makes a lot more sense, since my diet and lifestyle since arriving in Tajikistan has changed in ways that should make me much less susceptible to gout and I’ve found out that two close relatives have had gout. Hopefully this new view of gout won’t preclude me from being prescribed spats, a silk ascot, and cane in the future.

I did get together with a Canadian and an Italian for pasta, champagne, and ice cream at the latter’s place. It was very pleasant, but my joints were throbbing, and more than ever I felt distinctly like I was in the wrong place. All in all though, it wasn’t hard too be away from home because it really didn’t feel like Christmas ever happened.

How boring life must be in Tajikistan, you must be thinking, how much spite must these Tajiks have for revelry? No Christmas, no Festival of Lights? Well, Dionysus does here dwell, but emerges from his grapy burrow for different occasions. In just the last two months there have been Constitution Day, Flag Day, I think “honey day,” and probably some other holidays. The big winter holiday here, though, is New Year’s, which has been adapted from Russia’s new year’s celebrations, I’m told.

In fact, it has felt like the Christmas season here (even though nothing happened on Christmas day) as New Year’s is celebrated with decorated conifers (plastic) in the home, and wreaths and snowman statues in public areas. The most exciting part of the holiday for children is the visit on the night of the 31st from Bobo Barfy (literally Grandpa Snow), who is essentially Santa Claus. Bobo Barfy also has a grandchild sidekick, who I’ve only heard referred to as “grandchild-of-Bobo-Barfy”. So there are also pictures and statuettes of Santa Claus all over the place. According to the “Eastern Zodiac” which is a little different from the Chinese, I think, this is the year of the tiger. Because of this there have been lots of tigers depicted in store windows and along with Bobo Barfy, so I initially thought that in Tajikistan he had tigers instead of reindeer. Now I realize how stupid I am (tigers aren’t domesticated nor can they fly). In response to your likely question, it’s still funny to me when I hear someone say “Bobo Barfy.”

As the Christmas of Tajikistan, New Year’s is usually a family-oriented affair when people stay at home. People do stay up until at least midnight, and many people drink far too much champagne or vodka and stay up until three or four in the morning, but they do this with their siblings, children, parents, and grandparents. I left the house right after dinner, so I can’t say for sure what all happened in my house.

My same buddies from Christmas and I decided to head to the city’s main square for a big concert. We assumed that they would last until midnight, but they actually ended at 10pm, thirty minutes before we got there. We arrived in time to snap photos of the large New Year’s Tree and get ushered away by cops.

Walking around the city felt kind of like being a villain in a Home Alone movie because of the terrifying ubiquity of firecrackers and roman candles. They were constantly in people’s hands, leaving people’s hands and moving towards our heads, exploding under our seats inside of the bus, etc. There are still a number of fireworks out there that kids are having fun with. One exploded under my foot while I was walking to class yesterday. I looked around for about 30 seconds and didn’t see a single person. It may have been lobbed over the wall of a prison I was walking by.

When I told my Tajik teacher about the fireworks in the bus she didn’t seem to understand what I was trying to explain to her. My speech was correct, but when I finished my story she thought it was just the lead in. After it became clear that I was surprised that people were detonating explosives in an enclosed automobile she looked down and shook her head. “Karim-jon, you keep forgetting that you’re not in America.” Now she was the one with a good story, and proceeded to tell each member of her family the hilarious fact that I was surprised by fireworks in the bus.
Having failed at experiencing a uniquely Tajik New Year’s at the main square, we resorted to familiar celebration and had a late night at a couple of the local clubs.

Соли Нав = New Year


Growing up, we all dream of having a storybook Thanksgiving in Tajikistan. Luckily, one of my good friends here took it upon himself to organize a wonderful Thanksgiving at the home of his Farsi teacher.

The day was beautiful and sunny, and another American organized a football game with about seven Americans, as many Tajiks, and an Iranian. We met at a field which, upon close inspection, turned out to be covered in asphalt. Wandering around to find a better surface, we saw the city’s main stadium in the distance. On a whim, we walked up to see if there was a way we could get in. One of the Tajiks found the groundskeeper, who said that we could all play there as long as we wanted if we paid him about $9. We played touch football under the totally clear skies for about two hours, repeatedly explaining to the one Iranian that you can’t blitz on every play.

As you can see, the skill positions were filled by Americans.

That afternoon we went to the hostess’s house to begin cooking (don't have pictures). Except for cranberries, pumpkin pie, and sweet potatoes, all the normal Thanksgiving favorites were there. There were 20 Americans, Iranians, and South Africans all eating together, and then the party split into one room of high-octane dancing and one room of debate about US environmental policy, race relations, and urban planning.

Though not the most classic celebration, being hosted by Iranians—given the current relationship between their government and ours—cooking for them and eating alongside them made this Thanksgiving seem to embody the spirit of the holiday more than any other I’ve had.


The Wedding

Two weeks ago the aunt in my family got married and moved out. Weddings are historically such big parties in Tajikistan that the government has restricted their size and duration because families were constantly bankrupting themselves and borrowing sums of money that they could never pay back (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19085173&sc=emaf). Officially, you cannot have more than 150 guests and the wedding can only last three hours. In reality, though, these restrictions only apply to the main wedding party--akin to our "wedding reception"--and wedding activities actually stretch over several days, with variations according to what regions the bride and groom are from.

My first activity was the wedding osh, which was the day before the main wedding. I woke up early to go to the groom's house to eat large portions of osh with the men of the neighborhood. A special osh cook came to make enough to feed a continous stream of men during this two hour open-house-style gorging. Not having any idea that this was actually a casual event, I dressed to the nines and headed over on my own (waking up too late to go with my host dad). On my way out, the bride and my host mom wanted to make sure that I would eat lots and lots of osh, but I still haven't learned the significance of that. We ate outside, where there were six long tables set up that each seated about 15 people. We were shown to tables in groups of five or so as we showed up, at which point the usher would start things off with a half-hearted prayer and then head to the back to bring heaping plates of osh for two or three of us to eat from. There was silent eating for about twenty minutes, and then we all went our separate ways and made room for the next flock of eaters.

The next day was the actual wedding. I stayed in bed at least an hour after waking up, paralyzed by all the unknown women's voices and flurry of activity that was happening inches from my head on the other side the wall in the kitchen. It was kind of like being outside of a cave of shreiking bats. And much like bats, they poured into my room soon after I opened the door, thankful for additional space to stage the wedding preparations. Luckily my room was presentable, as I had recently polished my meth-lab equipment and re-alphabetized my lewd magazine collection.

All of this was in preparation for the groom's arrival with his posse, which I think was solely composed of his relatives. This preparation first meant lots of cooking and then lots of primping, on the part of the bride's posse. When the groom (a spry 41-year-old) arrived, he was flanked by men in dark suits and a quintet of casually dressed wedding musicians: a clarinet, a couple drummers, and a couple guys with giant bugles that are like straightened alpenhorns. They took their seats around piles of wonderful food in the front room and the groom's female contingent retired to a back room. I don't know what happened in the women's room, but in the men's area it seemed like they were giving a test to the bride' family with constant requests that sent the women from "my" extended family running around like PCP-addled employees at a crowded McDonald's.

After a half-hour of this the men were full and anticipation was mounting. Finally, the moment came when the groom took his bride. She was standing in a corner of the back room with a curtain put up in front of her. With twenty on-lookers, he went up and threw open the curtain, at which point he walked through it and stood next to the bride as if posing for a picture. They stood still for at least fifteen minutes, making the room feel like a poorly supplied but well-advertised wax museum. Meanwhile, my host-mom put lots of delicious-looking food that I wanted eat on tablecloths in front of the new couple. These were then tied up into bundles and given to the groom's family--symbolic gifts. A neighbor said some prayers while waving candles in front of them, and then they lead us out of the house.

Despite the ritual and general acknowledgement of the life changing consequences of this day--a bigger life change than American newlyweds face--there was a definite laid-back air to these moments owing to the do-it-yourselfness of the event and the fact that no one was totally sure of exactly how and when do what. Key people were asking the crowd for confirmation on what to do, the crowd would respond with criticism or jokes, and people were constantly and un-self-consciously laughing. Only the bride and groom remained stoic and silent.

The procession out of the house was accompanied by another serenade of rented cacophony, and the bride and groom got into a decorated black Mercedes that was rented for the event. We all headed to a restaurant for precisely 3 hours of 150-person revelry. I had been under the weather that week and called my parents earlier to ask if I could have DayQuil with alcohol. They said that the package said you shouldn't have more than three drinks with it. After five minutes at the wedding party, I was glad that I had decided against the DayQuil.
I was seated with my host-family and a number of people I'd never met, most notably, two old men across from me whose faces looked partially dehydrated. Having surprisingly little interest in why a foreigner would be seated with immediate family of the bride, they began pouring me vodka shots. After the first few shots I started timing the intervals on my watch and calculating the pace. I soon became a big fan of the three-hour wedding limit, not for the economic reasons that precipitated it, but for my own health.

In addition to the vodka that refilled itself every time I blinked, we were served about seven courses of food. Almost without exception, I’ve been wholly unsuccessful in Tajikistan at guessing how many courses there will be. Repeatedly I’ve found myself uncomfortably full 20% into the meal, and I've overcorrected at times by barely touched a first course, not realizing that the second course is a small dessert of chocolates and grapes. After the third course at the wedding I could feel the food piled up to my uvula. Not wanting to offend by neither eating nor drinking, I tried to weigh which superfluous ingestible would be least likely to make me throw up in front of the wedding party. Thoroughly feeling the pressure of food from my esophagus all the way to my intestines, I chose the tiny glasses of liquid over the heaping plates of ground mutton dumplings.
As it turns out, I made the right decision. About two hours into the party my host-mom summoned me to dance with her (as in, at the same time as her) in front of the bride and groom for all to see. Normally, I would meet such a request with a look of “I don’t speak Tajik”, but the drinking had made me amenable to the idea. The newlyweds sat at a raised table that overlooked the whole crowd, and periodically people came and danced at/for them. They stood with their right hands over their hearts, ostensibly to recognize the gesture of us dancing for them, but I like to think that in my case they were actually pledging allegiance to me. Seeing a foreigner in the crowd, several 18-25-year-old Tajik girl-women sprang up from their spots and the group of us danced “with” each other for about ten minutes. Of course, there’s no physical contact, but more a kind of menacing circling and braiding of trajectories. Mimicking the other dancers that I’d watched, I approximated the traditional Tajik dancing style that involves lots of upper-body movement but subtle, simple footwork.

The reinforcement provided by my dance partners' fervor and host-family's praise gave me enough energy to dance off-and-on for the rest of the wedding. My host-father apparently has the same fear of public dancing and same susceptibility to “liquid courage”: he was dancing the whole time, and my host-mom said that in their 11 years of marriage she had never seen him dance before.

Between the cheering, harem, and post-dancing compliments, I was initially impressed with my natural gift for Tajik dancing. After seeing the videos of my dancing, however, I was impressed with the kindness of the guests who led me believe that I had some sort of natural gift for Tajik dancing. While I thought I had finally found a style that showcased my grace, the footage undoubtedly shows the spasms of a stork with an elephant’s pacemaker who has his wings and ankles bound together with surgical tubing.

When the procession left the restaurant it was still daylight. I had been abandoned by both my adopted family and my fan club, and wandered the city for a couple hours before heading home for a nap. Here's a photo of the groom's mom, who was also coaxed into dancing in front of everyone.


Convincing Advertising

The below text was in the classified section of a local e-newsletter I get. I don't think I'll do any googling to ruin the mystique.


oil HADO

HADO? ? is the unique repair technology in the world, which allows repair of machines,
units and mechanisms and restore them to the level of regular exploitation.
The key element of HADO technology is the creation of REVITALIZATION, which not only changed the whole concept of repair process, but also revealed new opportunities in exploitation of machines and mechanisms.
contact tel: 918 61 10 65 Jamshed address: Dushanbe city Ayni str 6

More General Updates

Family Life

When I first arrived in my homestay I had taken seven Tajik lessons. After we established that we couldn't really have a conversation, we (tacitly) agreed to not speak with each other except for obligatory hello's and thank you's. As my Tajik skills progressed, we failed to re-examine the usefulness of this contract and we didn't provide ourselves with any opportunity to see if we could actually talk. This changed when my host mom had her birthday about a month ago (she turned 27--she's 13 months older than me--which has made it weird to continue referring to her as a "host-mom").

I came home around dinner time as usual and was ushered into a half of the house where I had never been allowed. It's basically a giant TV room with several couches. My host mom's father, mother, aunt, and two brothers were there and were eager to talk to an American. My host family seemed pleasantly shocked when I was able to answer the questions asked of me and carry on some semblance of conversation. The evening was mostly a bigger-than-average dinner with a wider array of desserts, but what's notable is that it marked the beginning of my having conversations with the family, which now happens all the time.

I mostly talk with the host-mom, but have also been talking with the aunt a little bit. The kids are starting to warm up, but are sometimes hard for me to understand because they don't enunciate, slow their speech, or use correct grammar. The father usually has nos, the local oral snuff, under his tongue, and (like many Americans who talk to foreigners) thinks that the only way he can aid my comprehension is by increasing his volume. Another language obstacle is the number of Russian words they use (and their lack of Tajik vocabulary). Sometimes when one of them is talking to me he or she will deliberate for a while with the others to try to figure out the Tajik word for something. There are certain words that are so infrequently said in Tajik that I have either only learned the Russian word (like the words for strawberry and backpack) or have been taught by my teacher to only use the Russian word (like for airplane).

The girls and I don't converse that much, but I exchange silly faces and expressions of fake wrath with the littlest one and help the older one with her English homework. After dinner we always play some kind of little game involving hiding things from each other. With each culture having its own manifestations of playful guile, I'm pleased to find that I can surprise them with novel tricks that would just make the average 8-year-old American roll his eyes and say "yeah, I saw that when I was like two" while relighting his joint.


I finished my second big task at work, which was to develop a standard format for content and layout of project profiles writing a profile of every current and recent project that the FAO has implemented in Tajikistan. This ended up being about ten projects. There isn't a whole lot of text, but the process involved culling together lots of information from past reports and interviews with employees. I might read 70 pages of impact assessments and reports to write a very-distilled eight lines about project achievements. Now my internship-py work has hit a lull, but I've added two new private students (1 - the sister of a current student, 2 - my Tajik instructor!) and will VERY soon FINALLY start teaching the FAO staff, as was agreed two months ago.

I'm worried about how much of my time will be taken up by English teaching and this has become my main source of stress and anxiety now: coming to a place with a mission to gain certain skills and (save my language lessons) spending little to no time working towards that goal. I'm trying to be realistic about what opportunities are actually available to me, thankful for the experience I am getting, and patient with the evolution of my reponsibilities.

Visit to Hissor

A co-worker of mine invited me to go with him to his hometown of Hissor, about 25-30 minutes away and home to some amazing historic sites. The struggles of communication delayed our departure about a hour, during which time he drove up and down a three-mile stretch of road that was about a quarter of a mile north of me. When I got in the car I was surprised to learn that we were not going to the famous fort, but to his aunt's house in a small village. We sat outside on a raised, covered platform (these are all over the place; you can see one in the photo of the retreat that I posted earlier) eating nuts, fruit, desserts, and drinking tea with three other guys. After the food and conversation, we walked around the environs for a few minutes and left. His aunt really wanted me to come back the next week for a relative's funeral, but unfortunately that was my b-day weekend.

On our way back to town we passed an old friend of his--a Chinese language specialist for the Tajik army and supposedly the first Tajik to marry a Chinese woman--and ended up being invited to his mother's home. I said that I had about fifteen minutes before we had to head back, and they responded by serving us a full meal. The dining area was an unlit building that was probably 30 feet by 8 feet and full of pillows. We sat on the ground and started with the nuts, fruits, and sweets while the finishing touches were being put on the subsequent mutton and potato dishes. I think this will not be the first time that I'll be invited by someone to sit around in several places to eat nuts, drink tea, and occasionally talk.


My Birthday and Other News

The weather has changed considerably. While you can stay pretty warm walking around in the sun, nighttime temperatures dip into the high 30s and it is consistently about 55 degrees in my bedroom. Leaves are falling all over the place, and the first rains have come. Fruit and vegetable availability has changed considerably. These days, pomegranates are “hot” and melons are “not.” Persimmons, which I never ate before coming here, are just starting to reach their peak, but many of the trees are bare due to impatient miscreants. I welcome the colder temperatures and the luxury of wearing long pants in weather that demands them, but I’m sure I’ll be less enthusiastic after the cool weather gives way to freezing weather. Please enjoy the vignettes below.


November 1st was my birthday. I spent the first half of the day trying to sleep off the headache and upset stomach that my friends here had gifted to me the previous day, so let’s start with that. Conveniently, the day before my birthday was both Halloween and a Saturday, so it seemed pretty clear that people would be going out. A friend of mine accompanied me to a restaurant where a group of about 15 friends, acquaintances, and a couple Iranian strangers had assembled to surprise me. We had a little “VIP” area (though no one else was in the restaurant) where they had procured a cake and an unspeakable number of vodka bottles. With all vessels and platters emptied, it took little convincing to get me (and everyone else there) excited about going to our favorite dance club (of the two that most of us have been to).

I don’t know what time we arrived, but we danced until about 2 am. One of the most unique characteristics of Tajik dance clubs is the way that girls flatter themselves by fairly aggressively pushing away guys who have made absolutely no signs of wanting to approach them. The first time it happens you might feel guilty and wonder if you accidentally bumped into someone, but after you accrue a few more battle scars, you realized that these truly are pre-emptive strikes. Given the layers of make-up, length of false eyelashes, and reflectivity of the materials they wear, you’d never guess that they were trying to create such a large buffer of personal space.

We made it home in one piece, and I immediately fell upon a platter of osh—the national dish of oil, rice, red meat, oil, carrots, onions, and oil—and shamefully gorged in the dark of the kitchen.

After taking the next day easy, I had digested my osh and regained my appetite in time for dinner. Good thing, too, because my host-mom had baked me a delicious cake. They put on 26 candles, sang to me, and even bought me a scarf. I can’t finish talking about my birthday without mentioning the gift that my Tajik instructor got me.

In her typical blunt, sweetly deprecating style, she explained that this is her and me. She, of course, is the larger swan with full wings looking down at the other one. This is the teacher-pupil relationship. The wings represent our respective commands of the Tajik language. While I do have wings, they are still tucked. “Perfect for the guy who has everything.”


There have been two earthquakes in the last month, and both have happened while I was in my bedroom. The first was supposedly a 6.2 (I don't know any details about epicenter depth or location) and shook me awake in the middle of the night. It was actually kind of relaxing, but I was disconcerted by the tumult of my light fixture that--given the number of 'dangly bits' it has--I'm sure was designed by a wind-chime specialist. The second one seemed a lot less intense, but it was a little scarier because it happened when I was standing and it pump-faked with a few momentary lulls. I inspected the light fixture after one and I swear it's a couple inches lower.

My Language Classes

I continue to have a lot of fun with my language classes. Due to the weather we've moved the classes inside, which just adds to the distractions that come with holding them at her residence. There are visits from relatives, neighbors, and bureaucrats; arguments between her kids; loud Hindi music (if her daughter's home) or trance music (if her older son) coming from adjacent rooms; litters of puppies being born; gardens being tended; and delicious food being cooked and sometimes given to me. These interruptions are actually welcome, as one-on-one foreign language classes can hurt the brain. My teacher is totally aware of the time that's lost, so we'll often go 30 minutes to an hour over time free of charge.

I can understand many things that she says to me, but have a hard time replying. She will often say something that is universally insulting to me and incites a rebuttal attempt from me. My speaking, even when correct, is so slow that these arguments (which arise several times each meeting) lose steam after two statements from me. I can usually express complex thoughts in writing, but my speaking is admittedly very slow; I'm putting too much effort into being correct and not enough into getting my point across. This will improve quickly with the help of my instructor's feedback: "Karim, you're killing me." "Your brain is slow because you're a man."
"This is not the first time you've made this mistake, Karim." "Tajik is easy!"

Some of the writing assignments I've done include retelling The Giving Tree, discussing all the animals I've eaten, explaining my family's annual cider-making event, translating song lyrics I've written, and writing about Seattle summers.


I have lots more planned to write, but will just post this now instead of waiting until it gets really long! In the future: Soviet nostalgia, mice, weddings, more dancing...! For now, I hope you'll be satisfied with some barf: