A small tear formed in the corner of my eye as I stood in front of my host family, modeling the brightly colored traditional Tajik dress that Mavzuna and Ganjina spent much of the previous day making for me.
“Ochen kraseevaya,” they exclaimed with excitement.
“Tajik devushka,” proclaimed my host mother Mouhayo with huge smile on her face.
When I arrived in the village of Shing in the Zerafshan Valley of Tajikistan two weeks earlier, I never would have imagined such a scene.
I was nervous and uncomfortable as I met my host Sarvar and his wife Mouhayo, both around my parents’ age. Although they spoke Russian in addition to Tajik, I was worried that it would be hard to communicate, especially when as I tried to teach them English. Indeed, when Sarvar commented that I should speak Russian better considering how much I have traveled in Russia, I was intimidated.
That first afternoon, Sarvar sent his youngest daughter Mohpisand (14 years old) and her cousin Farhunda (12) to take me on a walk around Shing. They were shy as they led me through the village, often whispering to each other so quietly I could barely hear them. I was at a complete loss for what to say until finally I thought to ask if they spoke Russian. Mohpisand responded affirmatively so I asked a few questions before we returned to walking in silence.
The next morning, I emerged from my room to see a group of about twelve family members anxiously waiting to start our first English lesson. Sarvar and Muhaiyo had six daughters, two sons and at least ten grandchildren that I counted while I was there – they didn’t all live with them, but they were around so frequently that they may as well have. I had no idea I was teaching so many people or such a variety of ages, ranging from 10-year-old Mehron to Mavzuna and Ganjina, who were my age. I struggled through that first lesson, trying to learn names and hoping they wouldn’t catch on to how nervous and unsure I felt.
To my surprise, they quickly they embraced me.
After our afternoon lesson, Ganjina’s oldest daughter, 16-year-old Jonona, took me for a walk and blurted out that she loved me. I was caught off guard; I don’t think I responded with more than a smile. But it broke the ice and showed me how excited the entire family was for me to be there – and that Mouhayo meant it when she said that I would another daughter to her. Indeed, on the same walk, Jonona asked me if I had any sisters and when I said no, she said she would be my sister. The next evening, Shohpisand visited me in my room, bearing an English phrase book that she used to try to converse with me. Before she left, she gave me a big hug and also declared she loved me.
The more time I spent with the family, the more they put me at ease. Mouhayo, Ganjina and Shohpisand regularly lamented the fact that I couldn’t eat all of the enormous meals they put in front of me as I tried in vain to explain I was simply full – there was too much food! Mouhayo also got a kick out of my terrified look when she spoke of killing chickens, making a throat-slashing motion as she said the word “chicken” (I was afraid she wanted me to behead a chicken but luckily she just liked to scare me). And the whole family found my attempt at riding a donkey in the mountains hilarious – I am 100% certain they enjoyed it more than I did.
Mohpisand became my personal guide, taking me on walks around the village and leading me hiking up into the mountains on Sundays with Farhunda or one of her other cousins in tow. When Mohpisand wasn’t available, Jonona or Shohpisand enthusiastically took her place. And when I returned from one hike in the middle of a thunderstorm, Mouhayo had a hot meal waiting for me and insisted I immediately take a hot shower while she washed my muddy clothes.
While the prospect of daily English lessons continued to put butterflies in my stomach, they were often full of smiles – and laughs. The kids were their own harshest critics, often chiding each other when someone accidentally answered in Russian instead of English. Mohpisand got the giggles as she asked Farhunda if she had a donkey (she doesn’t). 11 year-old Boborjan drew laughs as he asked 14-year-old Dodojan if he had a woman (he apparently does). And everyone cracked up when Mehron grabbed my post-it note with the word “baby” written on it and stuck it on his chest.
My time in Shing flew by before I knew it.
With just a few days left until I was scheduled to depart for another village, Mouhayo, Ganjina and the others began to tell me how sad they would be when I left – that they would cry and that if I didn’t like my other homestay, I could return. Shohpisand even came to my room again, this time in tears, begging me not to leave.
They invited me to come back to Shing next summer with my parents and Sarvar spoke of trying to speak by Skype when I return to the United States. And in an incredibly warm-hearted gesture, they decided I needed a traditional Tajik dress and pants as a parting gift – Mouhayo joked that when people would see me in it, they would think I was not American, but a Tajik girl (not that my blond hair and fair skin would give me away or anything…). Their excitement as they measured me for the outfit and then sat on the floor carefully sewing it together was contagious.
On the morning of my departure, Mouhayo, Ganjina, Jonona, Mouhayo’s daughter-in-law Husniya, Farhunda and Mohpisand took turns embracing me and giving me three kisses, alternating cheeks. Then Mohpisand grabbed the smaller of my two backpacks (still big for her) and dutifully swung it onto her back to carry it out to the jeep waiting to take me to my next homestay. The rest of the family followed and as I got settled into the front seat of the jeep, they all stood less than a foot away, waving goodbye and wiping away a few stray tears as I did the same.
It was by far the most difficult goodbye of my entire trip.