The Mehmon Experience

If you remove your shoes prior to entering a house and greet someone with the traditional Uzbek salutation, “Asalom u alaykhum” which means “peace be with you,” you will earn a few brownies points. If you don’t remover your shoes before entering a house and make the big mistake of walking on the carpets, you will get a pretty dirty look from your host (I should know I made that mistake).

In Uzbekistan many PCVs live with host families, and it is the luck of the draw that determines if the host family is cool or not (fortunately in my case, Christine had a very cool host family). Guess this is as good a time as any to explain why it is important to have a cool host family. Do you think heat in the winter is important, what about getting enough food to subsist, or what about just being civil? While traveling around I encountered some PCVs who had major problems because they either, did not have heat during the winter, received very little food, or had personality clashes with their host families.

Getting back to my story, upon entering the house (after I removed my shoes) I was whisked off to the kitchen and told to sit down. One large dish of “Plov,” essentially it is rice pilaf placed in one big communal dish at the center a table. I was told “Oling, oling” which translates as “You better eat this food which was prepared just for you and enjoy it.”

During a mehmon, a guest is expected to sit at the honored head of the table, eat, and be pummeled by questions. A mehmon, feels more like an interrogation, because you are forced to eat bread, drink vodka and answer questions.

I was pummeled by pretty much the same basic questions, during a mehmon and while just wandering around, but every once in a while I was asked something unique.

Uzbek: So where are you from?

Me: The states...

Uzbek: Which state?

Me: Uh, California, I live in San Diego....

Uzbek: Huh, so you live in California, know any movie stars?

Me: No.

Uzbek: So do you know the American group, the Spice Girls?

Me: Nope, don’t have that pleasure.

Uzbek: So, what do you?

Me: I’m a bum.

Uzbek: No, what do you do for work?

Me: I try and avoid work...

Uzbek: So how much money do you make?

Me: Enough! (PCVs told me to avoid the subject of money)

Uzbek: So do you have a car?

Me: No (they don’t understand that it is common to have a Mercedes or two, and that the Ferrari in the garage is just used to impress chicks)

Uzbek: Did you know you look like an Uzbek?

Me: Now I do... (the typical Uzbek has not encountered that many foreigners, they know what Russians and Koreans look like, but that is about it, I don’t look like a Russian nor a Korean so they guess I look like an Uzbek. The typical American stereotype they have is of a WASP)

Uzbek: So are you married?

Me: Nope...

Uzbek: What year were you born?

Me: 1965 (instead of asking how old you are they ask what year you were born)

Uzbek: So why are you not married?

Me: Because, I have not met an 18 year old babe, with a trust fund... (in Uzbekistan, a women over 22 and not married is an old maid, a guy over 30 without a wife and mistress is abnormal)

Uzbek: So do you have any brothers and sister?

Me: Nope. (the Uzbeks have very large families by western standards, and they were surprised I was an only child)

Uzbek: So what do you think of Uzbekistan?

Me: It is an interesting place.

Uzbek: So what part of Uzbekistan do you like best?

Me: Where I am right now. (best be to a politician, and tell them what they want to hear, in general most Uzbeks do not travel much, outside of Tashkent a journey of 30 km or about 18 miles is a major undertaking)

Uzbek: So have you been circumcised?

Me: Excuse me? (I was actually asked that by a mother who just had her son snipped. I was thinking of dropping my pants right then and there but I did not want to start an international incident)

An Uzbek mother who has her son dressed for a circumcision ceremony.

After the novelty of the interrogations wore off, I wished I had a FAQ bio sheet to hand out. The typical Uzbek does not get out much, and what they know about the United States either comes from Hollywood movies, or Communist propaganda (two sources of information with pretty much no basis in reality). One trick that proved to be somewhat effective in stopping short an interrogation, was to say initially you were from New Zealand or Belize.

The Mehmon is just one of those intense cultural experiences Uzbeks take for granted and visitors (such as Americans) may find alien. I imagine there are many cultural norms a visitor from Uzbekistan may find alien in the United States, such as not being able to bribe (in general) officials or politicians (that right is reserved for political action groups working for multi-national corporations or other special interests).

Uzbek Logic About Appearance

In a Mehmon, a host goes to great lengths to appear hospitable and they expect their guests to reciprocate. In other words Uzbeks attach a great deal of importants on personal appearance (this seems to be a common theme in other eastern block countries as well).

My personal preference is comfort over style, and I usually do not give a second thought about the condition of my clothing. On this trip I brought an old Irish hand knit sweater that has served me well over the years along with a pair of old jeans. Both those items of clothing look like they have been through a few rough spots, being slightly worn (ok I’ll admit that jeans were more than slightly worn), but they were clean and comfortable. So early into my trip I attempted to walk out the door with my “shredded” jeans and well worn sweater. I was immediately reprimanded by my Uzbek host for wearing clothing in such disrepair.

Diplomatic talks were started and I was persuaded to pack away my “shredded” jeans, but respectfully declined having my sweater mended. Having just flown in from casual Southern California, where informality is the norm, I forgot for a moment that I was half way around the world.

A few years ago, while bumming in Eastern Europe, I had an interesting discussion which seems to explain why clothing appearance is important in the former Soviet Union.

Basically I was asked why Americans dressed so casually. I responded that most of the Americans in the this part of the world (this discussion occurred in the old part of town in Kosice, a pretty big city in in Eastern Slovakia, but pretty much off the beaten track as far as most tourists are concerned) are younger individuals who are just bumming around and need rugged comfortable clothing.

Then I asked why Slovaks dressed so nicely and seemed to enjoy parading around the town square. Basically I was told that under Communism there was not that much to buy. A car was out of the question because of the expense, and getting a new apartment was difficult, so people bought nice clothing to stand out and show that they were successful.

I suspect that in Uzbekistan, like in Slovakia, ones appearance is important because it is a tangible measure of social success. Uzbek logic about appearance goes something like this, all foreigners are rich, rich people wear fancy clothing, therefore all foreigners should wear nice clothing. Uzbeks get confused when a foreigner chooses to wear old clothes.

Foreigners appear monetarily rich to Uzbeks, because with the exception of PCVs, they mostly hear of and see free spending tourists on holiday (in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva) and assume that is normal. What Uzbeks do not realize is that in parts of the US there are pockets of poverty in Appalachia, on Indian reservations, etc.

Since I was on holiday in Uzbekistan, I had comfortable rugged clothing and did not consider the appearance aspects. In training prospective PCVs are told, since Uzbekistan is influenced by Muslim ideas, modest clothing is essential (that means shorts and sun dresses should be left back home).

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