The woman’s coughing interrupted the inky quiet of the pre-dawn. I was reading an international collection of essays called “What We Think of America,” which was published about six months after 9/11. She was probably getting out of the cardboard box in which she sleeps on the landing between the first and second floors. She is not as old as I thought when I first saw her a couple of weeks ago. She was unwilling to make eye contact then, perhaps thinking that if she didn’t look at me, I would be unable to see her and was consequently less likely to shoo her away. But it seems no one did that, not me, nor anyone else in this building. So, understandably, she has become more comfortable and even spoke a sentence to me a couple of days ago that I couldn’t understand. The exchange, however, allowed me to see her face and I realized she is probably a decade younger than I first imagined, meaning she, like me, is in her 50s. At the risk of making a simplistic generalization, 50 years of age in the United States and Central Asia are seldom equivalent.
Two days ago, Kyrgyz police questioned me about whether I knew anything about my next-door neighbor who had been found dead in his apartment earlier that day. No, I only saw him once or twice, shortly after moved I in, I explained as best I could. He was old man, stooped over, maybe a pensioner, I thought at the time. “Sixty-eight,” said one of the officers in English.
Meanwhile, at American University, students are celebrating diversity week, which is either poorly timed because it occurs at the end of the semester, which are always crazy, or wisely timed because it provides a welcome diversion from the madness. There is a daily break in the class schedule from 12:20 p.m. to 1 p.m. and each break this week has been filled with students in the traditional clothing of the Tajik, Pamir, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Afghan, Uighur, Tatar, and Dungan peoples of Central Asia as well as Russians, Koreans, Turks and others. Wednesday was food day—a must for this chow hound who enjoyed a wonderful plate of Afghan food, much of which I couldn’t identify, and would have sampled even more except that people, mostly students but faculty and staff too, were wall to wall talking, eating, laughing and at times dancing to the driving hybridized blends of traditional and western rhythms.
Ethnic Korean students, many of whom are the descendants of families that were deported to Kyrgyzstan from the far eastern regions of the Soviet empire by Stalin between 1931 and 1945, wore black T-shirts with “Got Rice?” in white typeface. There was even an American food table, thought the only item I could seen over the tops of many heads was a plate of chocolate-chip cookies embedded with M&Ms. A pretty representative choice, I thought.
The explosion of colors, smells, sights and sounds only accentuated the palpable enthusiasm and optimism that exists everyday among AUCA students. In many ways, they are among the “best and brightest” of Central Asia and some will move into positions of influences in their native lands. But the students are not naive Pollyannas either. They know that their degrees don’t necessarily guarantee anything. Many of the Central Asian bureaucracies, private and public, are riddled with corruption, favoritism and nepotism and the good jobs often go the unqualified. Some of the students will gain skills and expertise for which there is no market. Some will leave Central Asia, either because they want to or because they feel they must; departing for some will be easy, for others it will be wrenching. Some of my students have told me they know that their university years are a glorious respite from political and socioeconomic uncertainty as well as those deeply held traditions that frown on their “modern” beliefs and appearances. But for now, their world includes more than what they love and struggle with here. The world also contains what exists elsewhere, both the real and the imagined, and, most importantly, what it could be. And that is more than enough reason to sing and dance today.