At orientation in Philadelphia, I, along with 63 other Peace Corps trainees, received little instruction about the intricacies of life in Uzbekistan. Instead, we were given a general overview of the Peace Corps' objectives -- world peace, global understanding and sustainable development. We were also taught a few coping mechanisms to deal with the inevitable culture shock. Then we were handed our passports with three-month visas stamped in them, bussed to New York and, 24 hours later, we arrived in the Uzbek capital Tashkent.
For the next three months of Pre-Service Training (PST), I lived with an Uzbek host family in the suburbs of Tashkent, about a half hour away from the city center. During PST, they tell you culture shock is going hit you every day and they are right. It suddenly made sense to me why it had been covered so thoroughly during pre-orientation. My world turned upside down, as, in many instances, Uzbek customs differed dramatically from common practices back home. For example, if offered choy (tea) and non (bread) I learned to always accept, never say "no thank you." In Uzbek culture, it is considered rude and disrespectful to decline. Also, I constantly faced in Uzbekistan what, in the United States, are viewed as personal and intrusive questions. "How old are you?" and "Are you married? Why not?" were just some of the queries that I received from people I was meeting for the first time. In retrospect, it's not surprising that a significant number of Peace Corps volunteers opt to terminate their commitment during the PST phase.
Authorities in recent years have sought to strengthen Uzbek national identity. Accordingly, many vestiges of the Soviet era have been de-emphasized All over Tashkent, and throughout Uzbekistan, there are big billboards that laud the Uzbek cotton industry, hail the benevolent government, and extol the greatness of Uzbek culture.
Despite this, the Soviet legacy in Uzbekistan remains a very powerful influence, especially among urbanized citizens. This is hard to detect if you are not living in the country, not interacting with Uzbeks on a daily basis. Many Uzbeks still recall with pride some of the Soviet Union's most significant accomplishments, including the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II and Yuri Gagarin's first space flight in 1961. Uzbeks celebrated Victory Day, May 9, with great pride.
In general, many urbanized Uzbeks harbor nostalgic feelings for the Soviet era. Before independence in 1991, various Uzbeks told me that economic conditions were better, jobs were available, money was worth more, and shortages of gas and electricity were less common. Many quietly blamed President Islam Karimov's administration for the country's myriad economic and social problems, such as sporadic running water in many areas and a lack of heating during winter. In hushed conversations in bazaars, cafes and taxis, Uzbeks would paint a bleak picture of life in Uzbekistan, one that was, in many cases, the exact opposite of the government's portrayal of conditions. Making sense of this dual reality, along with learning Uzbek, were the two most challenging aspects of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan.
Soon after arriving in the country, I came to appreciate cotton's vital role in the Uzbek economy, as well as its strong influence over society, especially in western areas. Soviet central planners insisted on turning Uzbekistan into a center of cotton production, even though the local agricultural conditions weren't ideally suited for the crop. As a result, grand irrigation schemes were developed to provide the vast amount of water needed cultivate cotton. Little thought was given to the potential consequences of diverting water from Uzbekistan's two main rivers -- the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya. Of course, the diversion of water set off a chain of events that has resulted in an environmental catastrophe -- the rapid disappearance of the Aral Sea. Those living in western Uzbekistan, especially in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, are now exposed to a variety of health hazards connected to the shrinking sea.
Cotton cultivation is also a disruptive influence in education. Harvesting cotton is labor-intensive, and in order to meet the demand for field workers, the government buses students to work in cotton fields September through mid-November. Students work, without pay, all day for almost three months. The government provides the transportation and is well aware that the students are not in school, yet, teachers are required by the Education Ministry to write lesson plans and dispense grades as if the students were in school.
As training in Tashkent drew to a close, our visas remained un-renewed, and I grew concerned that I might never deploy for my teaching assignment. Uzbekistan's recent turbulent past of Islamic radical violence, coupled with the Uzbek government's increasing wariness of Western non-governmental organizations operating in the country, provided a precarious backdrop for the visa renewal process. We knew that a group of Peace Corps volunteers who had been scheduled to come six months earlier had never arrived because their visas were never issued. If ours weren't renewed, we would need to leave the country.
As the visa uncertainty dragged on, the Uzbek-granted accreditation for Peace Corps Uzbekistan expired, creating yet another bureaucratic hurdle. But finally, just a few days before our visas were set to expire, the Uzbek government came through. The catch was the extensions were only good for one month. Peace Corps administrators were familiar with these maneuvers and arranged for us to go to our permanent sites while they kept negotiating with the Uzbek Foreign Ministry. The whole thing was nerve-wracking, yet, for program administrators, it was seen as somewhat normal.