Written by Jennifer Patico
I grew up in suburban Maryland, and when I was in eighth grade, in the spring of 1986, I had the opportunity to perform locally in a musical called Peace Child. The show portrayed Soviet and American teens becoming friends and imploring their respective leaders to end the Cold War to avoid the prospect of nuclear destruction. The Peace Child Foundation, based in the UK, had presented the musical in London in 1981, in Washington, D.C. in 1982, and in Moscow in 1985. In 1986, the first cultural exchange tours featuring American and Soviet teenagers performing together took place in the USSR and United States.
A teenager from my hometown had performed in a local production of the show. She also had returned recently from a cultural exchange trip and had decided to mount her own local production of Peace Child. She advertised in a local paper for performers. I auditioned and joined the cast of the show, which was made up exclusively of local teens, some of whom had already participated in other versions of the show. I had auditioned simply because I wanted to be in a musical production. I knew little of the content of the show; but after an intensely positive and emotionally charged experience with the cast and Peace Child’s themes, my heart set itself on traveling to the Soviet Union with Peace Child myself. Two years later – summer 1988 – I was placed with a group of about 15 U.S. teens who went to Tashkent, Uzbekistan for three weeks. During this time we prepared to perform the musical along with about 15 local Soviet kids, before spending one last week in Moscow.
These were the last days of the Cold War, but we did not perceive it at the time. Our effort at peace-building felt quite urgent and daring. A number of our group members hailed from Seattle, which must have been related to the fact that a sister city relationship had been established between Tashkent and Seattle. At that time, a Peace Park was being built in Tashkent with the participation of Seattleites. During our group’s first days in Tashkent we visited an open-air market. As we walked through, broadly smiling vendors stepped forward to give us snacks and flowers as gifts. Whether anyone had informed them of the nature of our mission or if they simply recognized us as foreigners and likely from the West, or even from Seattle, I do not know. But their offerings suggested generosity and yearnings for connection that buoyed our own sense that we were on the right path.
During our weeks in Tashkent, we American teens and our U.S. chaperones were housed at a pre-revolutionary villa that we were told had been used (in the past, or perhaps in another area of the property?) as an orphanage. We didn’t see those children, if they were there. The atmosphere was hot, green, leafy, and fragrant. The building in which we slept was relatively small, like a private home, though also institutional in some way. It felt somewhat grand to me. It had large and pretty windows. We performers were given our meals in a small, lower-level cafeteria that catered just to our group. There were rich noodles, meats, flat breads that we tore with our hands, and black tea. These foods felt to me new and distinctive but increasingly habitual and satisfying — so different from the low-fat lunch meats and breakfast cereals I had been eating a few months earlier to lose weight back at home. We spent our days rehearsing for the show, all of us together, American and Soviet teens. The local kids went home to sleep at night when we all had finished rehearsing, but there were times when we were able to hang out together outside the dormitory.
Most of them did not speak English, or not very much. There was a girl, Yulia, with whom I sang a featured duet in the show, and we became friends in the off hours as well. Yulia was very slim and about my own age. She had pale skin exposed by tank tops in the Uzbek heat and wore her hair pulled back to the nape of her neck. There was not a lot that could be spoken between us, but she had extended to me what felt like a quiet but determined friendship, taking my hand or arm in a way that girlfriends at home never did. To me at the time, this felt somehow more pure, sincere and unguarded than the way girls acted at home. We held hands as we sang onstage to the local audience, she in Russian and I in English, in turn.
Among the local teens, one boy knew much more English than most. He was smiling, funny, and sociable. Towards the end of our time in Tashkent, a few of the other Americans and I were invited to that boy’s family apartment for dinner. When we arrived, the table was set for us with a large number of dishes, the central one being plov — a dish of rice studded with hunks of meat and vegetables, which I was happy to see and knew was a special Uzbek dish. The boy’s mother was stout and smiling and his sister was pretty; they seemed very pleased to host these visitors, and many photos were taken. After dinner the family showed us some imported video tapes that they had. One of them was the American comedy Police Academy, or perhaps Police Academy 2. I think I found it surprising and perhaps quaint to know that the family had acquired so proudly what seemed to me then like a somewhat random and not necessarily impressive piece of American culture.
When I got back to the United States after the trip, nothing at home seemed as meaningful as what I had experienced there in Tashkent. I knew this was a kind of reverse culture shock, but I did not necessarily want to get over it. I missed Uzbek cuisine; I recall strolling through my local grocery store’s aisles and finding the familiar, packaged convenience products there to be an impoverished kind of food, less authentic and satisfying than the hot meals I had been eating in the small dining hall in Tashkent. I craved breads that could be eaten in torn-off chunks like the one we had enjoyed every day at the villa.