Earlier this week, I went to a weekly dinner I’d been invited to. Apparently, one of the other usual attendees had heard about my big move to Central Asia and wanted to talk to me about going to a local Mediterranean restaurant. It seemed that the owner was from the part of the world I’d soon be calling “home”.
During the conversation, others chimed in, but when there was a lull in the action, the guy leaned over to me and said, “Just promise me one thing.” “What?”, I asked. “That you won’t come back a Muslim.” This from someone who is an actively engaged member of his Christian faith church community.
And this, in a nutshell, is why I felt it was even more necessary that I was moving to a primarily Muslim country in Central Asia. In all sincerity, I am still processing that moment.
I returned to the US last October and did basically nothing except sleep, hang with my dogs, and watch Netflix for a month in order to decompress. I was exhausted. The kind of exhausted you feel after running around for 8+ years. I needed to rest. Then came the hunt for the next opportunity, the next adventure.
I applied to dozens of jobs, fellowships, special positions, and projects throughout the US and around the world. But then the election happened. This disruption brought with it a lot of reflection about whether to pursue a path abroad or at home in the US, where it seemed my intercultural and international skills could be of particular use. I struggled with how to reconcile leaving my own country again amidst the uncertainty and intolerance of a Trump administration. Who/what needed me more? Where would I fit best?
Nine times out of ten I was better received by organizations outside of the US or international in nature. Perhaps I was meant to serve as an informal diplomat, doing my best to personify the best the US has to offer the world on a human-to-human level. In an interdependent world in which we see countries increasingly “pull back” from others a la Brexit, we need more collaboration and cooperation to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. I believe this starts with perspectives and perceptions on the ground.
When the opportunity to take a position in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan presented itself, while I was thrilled about a new potential adventure in a less explored area of the world, I wrestled with it internally. Would I be abandoning my country? Was I leaving options for US civic leadership and international engagement at home on the table? Was I part of a “smaller brain drain” in which many – not all – globally-minded Americans choose to stay abroad over the years instead of returning home to offer their skills?
Ultimately, after scores of questions and consulting the right people, I chose to accept the offer to join the American University of Central Asia’s business department faculty in August. I will be teaching their brand new undergraduate Cross Cultural Management course, their undergraduate/graduate Project Management elective, and a portion of the Management module. We are already in talks about offering an International Event Management course in the spring in the wake of Central Asia attracting more international events, such as the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan, and the 2017 Future Energy Expo in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Currently, my work mix will also include a limited amount of international student recruitment, attracting and organizing more conferences to the university, and working to build up a women-centric component of their burgeoning social entrepreneurship program. AUCA hopes to attract more women from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan to help train and educate them to become changemakers back in their home countries. With Unreasonable Institute, an entrepreneurship think tank, coming to the university this summer, I’m pretty excited to hit the ground running when I arrive.
The role offers a wealth of autonomy, support, and the space to be creative in a positive organizational culture. Although this could easily be “just talk”, my conversations with several current faculty members revealed it to be true. I thought one of the interviewers from Singapore, who actually did his PhD at my undergraduate alma mater of William and Mary, was going to jump out of his chair when he discussed what he liked about his job.
Of course, all of this is fine and dandy, but what does it *mean*? On another, more powerful level, the comment made to me at the dinner brought everything full circle. The move has given me a chance to break down misconceptions and stereotypes about the people in Central Asia and our brothers and sisters in the Muslim world. In my mind, Muslims are not “the other”; we can and should be partners working together. Commonalities > differences.
I recently attended an event sponsored by a couple of Lutheran churches that brought together people of different faiths in my Seattle-Tacoma community. Attendees were Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. Organized by a local Lutheran pastor and local Iman (Muslim leader) who have been traveling around the state of Washington, this event featured a talk about the heart of Islam by a white American Muslim, a talk by the Iman about how it feels to be a black Muslim American in the US, and a presentation by the pastor that used facts and statistics to quell fears and misbeliefs about Islam, Muslims, and terrorism.
The event ended with a Q&A session that resulted in a lot of basic questions about the Muslim faith. This demonstrated that some simple characteristics and traditions, like the reasoning behind wearing the hijab, of Islam should have been explained at the beginning. In closing, the religious leaders promised to continue the discussion through future events. Sitting in the back, I viewed it as a very successful example of dialogue and understanding.
Now, I get to be a greater part of this conversation by living in an emerging, predominantly Muslim country. But make no mistake, Kyrgyzstan – similar to other Muslim countries – does not only equal its Islamic faith. It’s only part of the story. Whether it’s via my Facebook or on here, you can look forward to more personal, humanizing stories from Central Asia this fall as proof that being a Muslim isn’t “bad”, it’s just different. We still strive for many of the same things! People are people. Additionally, on a grassroots level, I aim to continue to show that all Americans aren’t full of the vitriol splashed across the media these days. A country is rooted in its individual people – not its government, politics, or religion. Coming at you from Kyrgyzstan in early fall 2017!