We’ve all done it and most people do it very often: stereotype. In fact, our brains are programmed to stereotype because they are fast and efficient cognitive shortcuts that save us a lot of time and energy. However, most of us know that creating stereotypes can lead to negative outcomes, with things like sexism, racism, and lots more “isms”. I was taught a good lesson on stereotyping during my trip to Uzbekistan.
A couple weeks before my trip, I read about an Uzbek man living in Idaho who was arrested and charged in a terrorism plot. I originally brushed it off as a rogue extremist. A few days passed and I saw the article again. This time I started to worry about my trip. What were the people going to be like? Was I going to be in danger? I started reading articles online and found that more and more jihadists were moving towards the Afghanistan/Uzbekistan border. I would be staying in Samarkand on my journey, which is less than 400km from Afghanistan. I started to worry more. Then I read about the tragic event in Andijan in 2005. I won’t discuss too many details, but in short, the Uzbek Interior Ministry and National Security Service killed between 200 and 1000 protesters. The relations between Uzbekistan and the US were fairly good until that point, as Uzbekistangranted the US access to its military base, which was quite strategic for the US given its proximity to Afghanistan. The relationship took a serious hit after Andijan, to say the least. The US pulled out of the air base. Major international companies left Uzbekistan. What would this mean for me on my trip? What were the people going to think of Americans? Well good or bad, I was going to find out.
My worries were quickly calmed. The Uzbek people are some of the nicest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered. On top of that, they are fascinated, almost fanatical, about America and American people. Every time I told someone I was from America, they responded, “Whooooa, America. America, horosho!” Which essentially means America is good. Some examples that come to mind:
- After my first choice for Plov in Tashkent was closed, my taxi driver took me to his favorite spot and we shared a great meal together. He then took me on a mini tour of the city, even walking me through Amir Timur Square. He spoke very little English, but tried his best to be a guide.
- The hospitality of the manager at the Tashkent train station (see linked post for more details)
- I had a night out in Bukhara at the local chillim (hookah) spot called City Lights. The place was relatively empty, but a group of guys welcomed me to their table and introduced me to the “American Boy”. He couldn’t have older than 22 and was decked out in an America shirt, America belt, some red white and blue Chuck Taylors, and around Bukhara was known as “American boy”. We had a fun evening smoking chillim and learning about each other’s cultures.
- On my last night in Uzbekistan, I went to the only bar in town that stayed open to televise the Champions League Final (Go FC Bayern!). After watching the first part of the game on my own, three guys around my age invited me to join them. I came to find out that it was one of their birthdays and ended up taking shots of Russian vodka chased with various slices of meat throughout the game. The next day, Alisher, the birthday guy, met me for lunch at this amazing open market restaurant that goes by the simple name of National Food.
All of this made for a wonderful trip. The cities I visited were spectacular in their own right, but the people made the trip even more special.
It’s a fundamental lesson of life we learn at very young age. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Give people a chance and leave your preconceived notions behind. But’s this way of thinking can be very difficult in practice. And sometimes it takes a trip to Uzbekistan for the message to hit home. I could have easily cancelled my trip and been left with this stereotype of the Uzbekistan people. But I am so happy that I didn’t because I would have missed out on a great trip as well as dismissed a fascinating culture and group of people.
Give people a chance. You owe it to yourself and the other 7 billion people on the planet.