Summer in Tashkent

One summer in high school, the girl traveled from her home in the U.S. to Tashkent and Moscow to take part in a cultural exchange program that brought together American and Soviet teenagers to perform in a musical about peace-building to end the Cold War. It was 1988 and she was 16. During their weeks in Tashkent, the American teens were housed at a pre-revolutionary villa that they were told had been used (in the past, or perhaps in another area of the property?) as an orphanage. The Americans didn’t see those children, if they were there. It was hot, green, leafy, and fragrant. The building in which they slept was relatively small, like a private home, though also institutional in some way. It felt somewhat grand to the girl; it had pretty windows. The performers were fed their meals in a small lower-level cafeteria that catered just to their group. There were rich noodles, meats, flat breads that they tore with their hands, and black tea. These foods felt new and distinctive but increasingly habitual and satisfying — so different from the low-fat lunch meats and breakfast cereals she had been eating a few months earlier to lose weight back at home. They spent their days rehearsing for the show, all of them together, American and Soviet teens. The local kids went home to sleep at night when they all had finished rehearsing, but there were times when they were able to just hang out together.

Most of them did not speak English, or not very much. One boy knew much more English than most, and he was smiling, funny, and sociable. Towards the end of the Americans’ time in Tashkent, the girl and a few of the other Americans were invited to that boy’s family’s apartment for dinner. The table was set for them with a large number of dishes, the central one being plov — a dish of rice studded with hunks of meat and vegetables, which the girl 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 the visitors, and many photos were taken. After dinner the family showed their American guests some imported video tapes that they had. One of them was the American comedy Police Academy, or perhaps Police Academy 2. The girl found it surprising and perhaps quaint to know that the family had acquired so proudly what seemed to her like a somewhat random and not necessarily impressive piece of American culture.

When she got back to the United States after the trip, nothing at home seemed as meaningful as what she had experienced there. She knew this was a kind of reverse culture shock, but she did not necessarily want to get over it. She missed the Uzbek foods; she strolled through her local grocery store’s aisles and found the familiar, packaged convenience products there to be an impoverished kind of food, less authentic and satisfying than the hot meals she had been eating in the small dining hall in Tashkent. She craved breads that could be eaten in torn-off chunks like the Uzbek bread she had enjoyed every day at the villa.