I was hit with an acute case of déjà vu as I disembarked from the plane at 4:30 am in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This feeling was not without due cause, for 14 months earlier I had arrived in the very same spot when I first came to Tajikistan to participate in the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. I had anticipated such feelings when I first made the decision to return to Dushanbe, this time for nine months. I have never had any problems traveling to new places, but returning to a place that exists in that fuzzy, indeterminate space between completely foreign and wholly familiar proved a new sensation for me.
When I reached my homestay, the same homestay I had lived with for two months during CLS, the family greeted me with the same familiar smiles and warm welcomes. Many aspects of my homestay have not changed, like my Sunday soccer matches with my five-year old homestay brother and friends in our house’s courtyard. I still spend hours with all five of my homestay brothers watching the same episodes of Russian-dubbed Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, my oldest homestay brother, a recently enrolled student in Dushanbe’s medical school, now takes his studies more seriously, as my second-oldest homestay brother aims to follow in his footsteps. We eat meals around the same table and have similar conversations as we held previously, but I now have the opportunity to complete those conversations that I had only started, and ask those questions that 14 months ago I lacked the language ability to pose. I now have the chance to meet those family friends I had only seen in pictures, and experience those holidays and celebrations I had only heard about.
My classes and academic program likewise are a reflection of embracing both the foreign and familiar. While I’m continuing my study of the Persian language, a language I have studied previously, I am experiencing the challenges of learning a new dialect in studying Afghan Dari. In each class I not only gain a greater understanding into the linguistic variance in dialects, but I receive lessons and deep personal insight into Afghan life and culture. For example, my teachers, both refugees from Afghanistan, through their lessons share with me deeply personal, eye-opening perspectives and memories about living under Taliban rule and their decisions to leave their homes and come to Tajikistan. These lessons become much more than reading texts on a page or a mere listening activity, as they reveal that every person has an illuminating story to share.
Returning to Tajikistan has only reaffirmed my belief that there is no limit to the depth and value of cultural exchange as I cultivate a greater and more deeply ingrained capacity for empathy. While the streets of Dushanbe may be familiar to me, the residents who walk those streets are willing to provide a vast array of ever-changing perspectives and new outlooks on the world, as long as it is over a cup of tea.
Posted by Jeremy Rotblat / 10.24.2016