Our Tajik dad who we affectionately call Muallim-Jon (dear teacher).
Muallim-Jon, at 63 still climbing the fruit trees to pick fruit. He has a bucket full of apricots here.
Rees and our Muallim-Jon
Sometimes I wonder about and wonder over the whole idea of adoption. It is really amazing to me how people can receive someone (or multiple someones) as their own. That’s profound to me. I grew up knowing something about being adopted as my dad adopted my brother and me when he married my mom. No step-dad stuff there, he went all in. I’ve always thought I was extra fortunate because I’ve known both being wanted but my (biological) dad not knowing who he was going to get, and also being chosen – as my dad who raised me (my biological dad died when I was two) knew me before choosing to be my dad.
When we moved to Central Asia, our friends set us up with a host family. There is a school of thought (and apparently some research to back up) called, “bonding.” The idea is more or less that people who are “newborn” to a culture will bond with those who care for them, similar to how a newborn bonds with those who primarily care for him/her. So if you are wanting to form strong, close relationships with locals it’s best to have your earliest experiences and “lessons” be with locals.
There was a local family about 15-20 minutes outside the city, in a village, who were open to hosting us for our first month or so in country. They had no idea who we were or what we would be like or what in the world we believed about anything or anyone. They only knew we were a husband, wife, daughter and son from America who knew none of the local language or customs. Once we had learned enough language to talk about it (a year or two after the fact) we found out that they thought that maybe they were about to see and meet the first “black” people of their lives. They were kind of surprised when we got out of the car and looked like “Russians.” I can appreciate now how difficult this must have been for them. They were taking responsibility for being our first teachers and, in a sense, care providers. But they didn’t have a common language to communicate with us and we seemed so incredibly odd to them. I wrapped up my baby (Emmett was four months) and put him in a crib and then left him to drift off to sleep, all alone. They would never do that. They wrap their babies in a type of cradle and rock them to sleep and are careful not to let them cry and rarely leave them alone (so as not to allow them to get scared). I looked like a negligent parent at first. They still marvel at how nicely Emmett would go to sleep as a little baby (I do too!). They have a certain bucket bath system that they’ve all grow up using and I was all thumbs trying to wash my baby, squatting by a fire, on a dirt floor (that was turning to mud), with a bucket of water (I wasn’t supposed to put him all the way in the water). Eventually one of my sisters-in-law grabbed him from me, worried I was going to allow him to get cold and thus sick. Truthfully, I was humbled and humiliated by that but also thankful because I didn’t know what I was doing.
Our local “dad”, who the whole village affectionately refers to as “Teacher,” knew from the start that it would take lots of time and patience to teach us language and culture. Not everyone knew that. A lot of people were surprised that, after a month of living here, we weren’t fluent yet. They would actually chastise us for that. But not our dad. He would daily say the same greetings to us, having us repeat what we were supposed to respond with. Every meal, he would point to things on the dasterkhon (tablecloth on the floor) and say their names over and over and then have us repeat them. Then he started quizzing us on the names of certain items, enthusiastically affirming our correct answers and correcting our incorrect ones with gentleness. We didn’t know then that this amount of patience and encouragement was actually going to be rare.
As we grew in our language ability, we began to understand more of his story. He had been in the Soviet army in Siberia and when he returned, he worked as a teacher and chose one of his students to marry (not scandalous here). They built a little house on some land that the government gave him and lived there together, not with his mother (which is the more typical thing to do). His wife, our “mom,” would tell me about how he would help her with the housework, caring for the children and keeping the fire going in the winter. She told me about how he never once hit her (also very atypical) and how he would ask her advice about any decision he had to make. He told us horrific stories of the civil war during the 90’s. Their home was in the midst of brutal fighting and he sent his wife and younger children to their extended family in a more peaceful city a few hours away. He stayed, looking after their home and helping people in need, eventually taking on the task of teaching children. He shared traumatic stories of being held at gun-point repeatedly, told to hand over all his earthly possessions because he would no longer be needing them. He told us about the time he got snatched and brought to an interrogation center, walls spattered with blood, his oldest son in another room, also being interrogated. The soldiers were looking for any reason to kill them, trying to find any way in which they were aligned with the wrong side. They told our dad that they already shot his son and they were going to kill him too. After a whole day spent this way, apparently someone who knew him and knew he was completely innocent on all sides, convinced the interrogators to let him go. He was driven back to his home, so traumatized that he didn’t even recognize it, saying to his captors, “where have you brought me?” He and our “mom” were unable to communicate during that time. Neither one knowing if the other was still alive. When the war was over and UNESCO came to the village to build a school, he helped the process along and was chosen to be the director of the school. He was still working when we moved here and finally retired a couple of years ago. The news station came to do a program on his life and service to the school. He was highly regarded throughout the village and surrounding villages.
Our “dad” was a great homesteader too. Hannah spent lots of time squatting next to him in the garden as a little girl, harvesting potatoes and pulling weeds. When we’d come to visit during apricot season, he’d climb 20 meters up into an apricot tree with a bucket and fill it up. I remember one day, being in the outdoor kitchen, and one of the chickens kept coming in and causing trouble. He warned that chicken that if she came in one more time, we would be eating her for lunch. We had chicken for lunch that day. He and our “mom” would give us advice, sometimes holding back judgemental language about someone, just telling us something to the effect of, “that’s just someone who is not going to be good to associate with.” They also repeatedly encouraged us to be gentle and grace-filled toward our spirited two and a half year old, as she was in a new place and needed time to get adjusted. We were concerned that if we let up on discipline, we’d have a real problem in the future. But in retrospect, they were right. Our local “parents” brought us to weddings and funerals and taught us how to be hospitable to guests according to local customs.
I really can’t overemphasize the incredible gift it is to have a local “home” when you live so far away from what you’ve always called home and everything is so different. We are still quite different from each other, and there are things we will never fully understand about each other, but it is a wonderful thing to be accepted into a family and not just tolerated but received. There was a rumor going around in those first few years that years ago, our dad had gone to America and had an American wife and a son with that wife. Now that son (Rees) had come to find his father. Our “parents” just laughed at that story, but let the village busy-bodies think it was true. Our dad called Rees his son and if too much time had passed since seeing us or hearing from us, he’d tell our mom, “Let’s call my boy and make sure he’s ok.”
About four weeks ago, I called our mom to see how our dad was doing. He had been looking fragile when we last saw him and I knew he had been weakened by that terrible flu that went around this year. I could tell by her voice that he wasn’t well and we decided that we’d get out to see him the next day. We were surprised and worried when we arrived, to see men milling about outside and a stream of visitors going inside. This frequently indicates that someone recently died. We rushed in and found our dad laying on a bed on the floor, our mom by his side and our brothers and sisters gathered around him. He was still alive, looking around, turning himself from side to side, but not talking and clearly not well. Apparently he had just had a stroke when I called the day before. The kids kneeled next to him, hugged him and Emmett prayed for him. We kissed his cheeks and sat with them, telling him how thankful we are that he called us his children and loved us so well, thinking these may be our last moments with him. We stayed most of the day and then came back the next day and, wonder of wonders, he was eating a bit, trying to sit up, still not able to talk, but doing a bit better. Rees went back a few days later and he was still improving. We were calling our brothers every day to check on him but had to go to Bishkek for new visas. Those visa trips usually result in the kids getting sick when we return so we returned and kept the phone calls going, our brothers came to our house, but we didn’t get back out to the village for fear that the kids would pass on their flu to their “Bobo” (grandpa) and he was already so weak. I have unfortunately witnessed people with lowered immune systems dying of such things as colds and flus when I worked in oncology and I was really concerned that might happen with our dad. On Sunday, I told Rees that if Hannah (the last one to have a high fever) was still fever-free on Monday, we should get out to see our dad. On Monday, Feb. 13th, we got the call that he had passed away. We’ve spent a lot of time in our village this week, grieving with our family there and employing the ministry of tears and hugs. Our local dad was truly a cream-of-the-crop kind of guy. We haven’t met many men like him here. He was honorable and wise, kind and faithful and will be truly missed. Our mom told us that last Friday he told one of the granddaughters, “I’m tired of life” and proceeded to refuse food for the next two days. He had always said that he didn’t want to die during the winter, not for his sake “it won’t matter to me!” he’d say, but for his family’s sake. He wanted to die on a warm, sunny day. It has been a cold, wet, foggy winter here but we had the warmest, sunniest day of the winter the day that he died.
We received a grace we never imagined when we first set out to live here: being received with open arms by a humble, village family and getting to be called “children” by one of the best men in the country.