Eleanor Dunbar reflects on her summer on the Eurasian Regional Language Program in Dushanbe as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient and learning languages from her host family.
“Be khord, be khord,” my Tajik host mother orders in a shrill tone. In Farsi, this is a command to eat, and my Tajik host family takes eating quite seriously. I groan as I am served yet another enormous helping of ash, one of the national Tajik dishes made of rice, garlic, chickpeas, shredded carrots, and the occasional bits of beef. My host mother tends to feed me as if I am a soldier returning from battle, no matter how much I protest that I am full or that I am not particularly hungry.
My host family always maintains an impressive array of fruits and nuts on the kitchen table. Fruit is incredibly delicious and extraordinarily abundant in Tajikistan. Cherry, apple, grape, fig, and apricot trees grow with abandon and are almost seen on every neighborhood corner. In the southeastern part of the United States where I am from, figs are only in season towards the end of August and are relatively expensive and scarce, so I am delighted to have the opportunity to buy figs at an incredibly cheap price in Dushanbe. My host sister also taught me the Tajik way to eat a fig: split the fruit in half, and rub the two halves of the fig together first before eating it. Apparently, by using this method, the sweetness of the fig is spread more evenly. I’ll admit think I have noticed a slight difference in the sweetness factor.
Most of my host family interaction takes place around the kitchen table, where my host mother’s three granddaughters, daughter, and I congregate on a daily basis. I have learned most Tajik cultural cues, customs and mannerisms just from being at the kitchen table. There is also a specific etiquette for eating at the kitchen table. For instance, I can only eat meals in my “house clothing.” It is a Tajik custom to have clothes for that are appropriate for public matters and clothes that are more suited for a domestic setting. Because shorts are mainly worn by young Tajik boys and almost never by women or girls, I admitted to my host family I was uncomfortable about wearing gym shorts at home. I consistently made apologies for my relatively “scandalous” attire, but my host family insisted that I could wear shorts without fear of offending them.
I’ve also made a point to participate in the prayer after the meal is finished. My host mother utters a prayer in Arabic while we hold our arms above the table, palms upward. Then we make a sweeping motion with both hands over our faces, kind of like the gesture you would make if you were gently splashing water over your face. My youngest host sister usually giggles at me while I attempt to partake in the prayers.
There is another important Tajik custom I have discovered as it relates to kitchen etiquette. One night at dinner while my host sisters and I were seated at the table, chattering away about famous American actors, my host father walks into the kitchen. The room immediately became silent and my host sisters quickly jumped up and stood at attention. Bewildered by their serious comportment, I awkwardly clambered to my feet at the last second.
My host sister laughed and told me that I was a guest, and that there was no need for me to stand. This is a sign of respect for the elderly, and even my host mother stands for her husband when he enters the kitchen. Even though I am not necessarily obligated to stand, each time either of my host parents enters the kitchen, I stand because I would prefer not to be the offending guest deliberately ignoring an important custom.
The television is a primary centerpiece in the kitchen, and my host family has an impressive amount of channels from Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia and Turkey. Tajik television channels seem to be less popular among my host family. We spend most of our time watching American television shows like Once Upon A Time or Wipeout that are dubbed in Russian or Turkish, or sometimes we watch Iranian baking shows. I find this ironic because my host mother only wants Tajik to be spoken in the home. Two of her granddaughters mainly speak Russian and are most comfortable expressing themselves in the language. My host mother’s youngest granddaughter struggles to string together a sentence in Tajik just as much as I do. My host mother is exasperated by this, and she constantly admonishes her grandchildren to only speak Tajik, or else, “Eleanor will not be able to learn!” Sometimes even my host mother forgets her own rules and lapses into Russian, and it’s my host sister’s turn to remind her to speak Tajik.
However, I am learning quite a bit of Russian through my exposure to the language being spoken at home and through television shows. My host family is very accommodating to my linguistic needs, they take time to translate Tajik words into Farsi or English for me and speak Farsi in more simplistic terms that are better suited for a first-year speaker. At any given time, four different languages are being spoken at the table. I am continually amazed by their linguistic adeptness, as I am more accustomed to being surrounded by monolingual Americans. My initial fears about my ability to assimilate into the family have dissolved almost completely, there is no better way to be integrated into Tajik life than living with a host family.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.