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I recently wrote a small letter to future Turkmenistan Peace Corps Volunteers detailing the struggles and problems during  my two years there from my unique, Asian American Christian perspective. It was written for a project headed by a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Turkmenistan who is compiling extracts from these letters into a reference book for incoming PCVs. This is the letter I wrote.

 

For the Asian American/Christian/quieter personality:

 

Being an Asian American in Turkmenistan put me in a unique position where I was able to really integrate into the local host culture. I could walk the streets without drawing a glance if I dressed the part and kept a low profile. Even towards the end of my service when I was able to pick up a pretty good Turkmen accent, some folks even took me for a Turkmen from a different Welaÿat (prideful grin)! I see this as a great advantage for the Asian American volunteer – just by looking a little bit like the host population helped me blend in without rousing any suspicion.

 

At the same time, however, there certainly were frustrating moments when I had to explain and re-explain to locals that I was NOT actually from China, Japan, or Korea, but from America. Incredulous, they would badger me with a barrage of questions about my origins until I would finally acquiesce and submit to them that I was indeed, Chinese. I consider this a minor inconvenience in light of all the other challenges in living as an alien in a foreign country.

 

Actually, while learning how to adapt to the host culture was difficult, I personally found that it was just as strenuous in trying to fit in with a diverse group of questioning, opinionated, boisterous, uncouth Peace Corps Volunteers (half-joking)! It should be noted, however, that I grew up in a conservative environment where drinking, smoking, and fraternizing at weekend parties weren’t the norms, but instead, weekends at church, and daily sports activities filled my schedule. Yes, I know, this might sound strange to some who are reading this now.

 

It was hard to find common ground with “Mainstream America”, represented by the other Americans hailing from different parts of the States. I did not grow up in the world of Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, the zany 80s, or the zillions of “classic” movies from which my Peace Corps friends could so often quote verbatim. I can’t tell you how many times when one of my Peace Corps buddies quoted a line from some 1970/1980s movie to me, hoping to evoke a jovial and affirming reaction that would have signified our shared American heritage, but only experienced disappointment (and incredulousness) when they saw my inability to appreciate the humor (‘Heyyyyy youuuuu guuyyyyyyssss!!’ ‘What? what guys?’).

 

At times I felt I was working twice as hard in trying to “fit in” compared with other volunteers who shared in the dominant American culture. It was as if I was a working man who had to work hard all day at being a Turkmen, but at night, when I could finally come home and relax with my American family during the many reveling weekends at MST or PST or whatever, I realized I couldn’t exactly just “be myself” but that I had to work just as hard to stay social with Americans. I had to work hard to fit in with Turkmen, and I had to work hard to fit in with Americans, and that’s just how it was.

 

And yet, they say that you reap what you sow, and what little I sowed brought forth an abundant harvest. Not only did I learn to adapt and make real friends with Turkmen by adapting to their cultures and customs, but I also learned a lot about mainstream American culture and developed true friendships with other Americans so incredibly different from myself. I remember one sunny afternoon where I was sifting through my sitemates’ itunes playlist, transferring Johnny Cash, Hotel California, and Beatles’ music into my little thumb drive in an attempt to understand why such music appealed to the musical taste buds of my American friends. Through self-imposed listening sessions to American rock, I grew fond of certain songs and even play them from time to time.

 

RELIGIOUS ISSSUES

 

While being an Asian American in T-Stan proved challenging, being a conservative Christian among a crowd that was generally composed of humanistic, pluralistic liberals (“I believe what works for me, you believe what works for you”) presented a unique challenge as well.

 

I don’t want to go too deep into it, but in the event that a conservative religious/practicing believer is to be found among the future cohort of PCVs, I’ll offer a small comment: you will be challenged. I often found myself at odds with my environment everywhere I went, as my concept of morality, my definitions of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ abrasively grinded against other peoples’ thoughts and opinions – and this goes for both Turkmen and American cultures alike. Some of these challenges came indirectly and directly. I remember conversing with a Turkmen friend over tea one pleasant afternoon when suddenly the conversation turned to religion, where I eventually found myself on the uncomfortable end of his evangelism pitch for Islam. Another time, in a drunken stupor, one of my Peace Corps friends jokingly remarked to me that if he held the same religious views as I did he would “kill himself”. I let it slide and attributed it to the alcohol.

 

The forced intermixing with both Turkmen and Americans tested me mentally and spiritually, and the natural struggle for dominance among competing ideas in the arenas of our minds – West vs. East; Individualism vs. collectivism; Theism vs. Atheism/agnosticism, etc. — proved beneficial as it stretched me mentally. At the end of my service I learned to become more tolerant and accepting of other viewpoints while retaining my core values – and that, I think, is a great success for an unimaginably challenging two years.

 

Russell Hsieh
T-Stan, 2008-2010

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