Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nichole's Story

I met "Nichole" the day before I moved into her parents' house. A pretty Uzbek girl in her early 20s, Nichole was fascinated by the foreigners in her city. She had a part-time job working for some of them, friends of mine, and lived in a house not far from them. I needed a local family to live with; her folks could use the rent money. They had the space, and the house was suitable. So we decided to give it a try.

Life hadn't been easy for Nichole. At the insistence of their mutual grandparents she had been married to a cousin in a nearby town several years before. He was carrying on an affair with somebody else and not very interested in the marriage - especially when the child born that first year (right on schedule) turned out to be sickly, not very much fun, and prone to fits of crying. When the baby needed serious medical care and her husband's family would not pay for it, Nichole felt she had no choice but to come home to her parents. They took her back in. After all, she could go out and work, helping to support the family, and they liked having a grandson around. Still, they waited, hoping the marriage could somehow be mended.

Nichole had been badly hurt. She was sure the neighbors disapproved of her. She couldn't see a way out. She had some false ideas about the glamorous life she might lead if she could get out of her neighborhood and live in a big city somewhere, maybe abroad. I knew that these ideas might cause some problems for me, and they did - so much so that I have not stayed in touch.

But clearly she needed someone to be her friend, love her, and help keep her out of trouble. It just so happened that that was what I needed, too.

So began what is probably the most significant cross-cultural relationships I've ever had. There have been others with whom I had more common ground, or learned more from, but nobody I had more fun with than Nichole, nor anyone with whom I experienced more of what differences in culture can really mean - on a gut level.

I found another young woman to be my "formal" Uzbek tutor, but I tried out everything I learned on Nichole and her family and learned as much from them as from anybody. They took me places, and helped me learn my way around, and shared their lives with me. They made sure I was properly clothed and fed and cared for. Without them I would have been helpless, foreign; with them, I could experience at least a bit of what it is to be an insider.

Nichole enjoyed showing me around, sometimes showing me off. And having me around made her feel a bit more glamorous. She enjoyed telling people I was her sister. I remember the time she took me to get my hair cut and then starting boasting to a man in the salon that she and I were with the CIA (!) She liked to carry my laptop computer if we went someplace together - pretending she was an American businesswoman and it was hers. Sometimes we watched movies on it, or listened to music. Before long my Uzbek was better than her English, but we usually communicated in a mix of English and Uzbek words, Uzbek grammar.

I remember sneaking off and buying bananas - an expensive imported food - at the local bazaar, and sharing one with her on a picnic. She was as delighted as I was, having not tasted one of these luxuries in years. It was as good as she remembered, but she stared at the remains for a long time, trying to figure out how characters in the cartoons could slip on a banana peel. How we laughed about that! I was too embarrassed to bring out the other two bananas I had in my bag, having bought one for each of us on the picnic. One seemed like such a splurge.

Sometimes being Nichole's friend presented painful ethical dilemmas. I remember the day she came to me for advice about where to conceal the answer key she'd purchased, a sure way to ace the entrance exams for getting into college. Or her agonizing over how to pay the $5/month to put her son, less than two years old, into preschool - which in that society was considered the right thing to do for kids as soon as they were weaned. And what about her idea to leave her son with her parents, come to America (say, on a tourist visa) and stay to make a new life for herself? She was sure that would be the best for everybody. It seemed to me at the time that if I gave her any encouragement in that direction it would mean betraying her family, as well as betraying my own country.

And sometimes our worldviews clashed. I remember the day I came home and Nichole told me our house was haunted. The witch-doctor had told her mother we had "djinn" and needed to get the place exorcised, basically. I also remember the day her estranged husband came hoping to see his son. Nichole became hysterical, begging me to take him away and hide him in someone else's house so he wouldn't be kidnapped. She thought the father had no right to even see his son if he wasn't going to support the two of them, such as by buying them a flat to live in. This was so different from the way I was used to seeing marriage, custody, and parenting that I didn't know what to make of it.

Enamored with foreign men, she fantasized about meeting one who would marry her and take her away. Never mind that she wasn't, technically, divorced; who needed to know? None of the handful of foreigners in our city was likely to take advantage of her in this but I was afraid she might discover the ways she could meet one on the Internet.

Well, it's been years now. The friends who had arranged for me to live in Nichole's city have all left, and my ability to speak and write the language have waned considerably. I had never answered the many letters appealing for money and other help. So I don't know much about what has happened to Nichole. But last I heard she had reunited with her husband and they were living in the capital.

I hope she is well.

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