Catherine Cartier (ERLP Tajikistan 2019)
Following an intensive educational and cultural study abroad experience in Tajikistan through the Eurasian Reginal Language Program (ERLP) in the Spring of 2019, Catherine Cartier reflected on her experiences in an interview with American Councils:
American Councils (AC): How did you first become interested in Central Asian languages and culture?
Catherine Cartier: My Arabic studies and immersion experiences in the Middle East led to my interest in Persian and the cultures of Persian-speaking countries. After relying on my Arabic skills for research and volunteer work, I wanted to study Persian more seriously to push my speaking abilities to a new level. I hope to use both Persian and Arabic while working with refugee communities in the future.
AC: What were your impressions of Tajikistan when you arrived?
Catherine: When I first arrived, I was surprised by how quiet Dushanbe seemed – perhaps because we arrived in the early morning. But I quickly realized that the city is very lively – from little cafes that are popping up around the city, to bustling bazaars, and a range of public parks and museums. Dushanbe is full of stories and talking with local residents about their experiences in the city and how it’s changed over time was my favorite part of the semester.
AC: Tell us about your experience in the academic program.
Catherine: Academically, I felt challenged—in a good way. I still remember the feeling of panic that washed over me the first day when my host sister asked me if I wanted green or black tea—I couldn’t understand a single word! Through the rigor and encouragement of the academic program, my Persian skills and experience in Tajikistan were transformed. I really loved the discussion club, and towards the end of the program I presented about ethical thought experiments and other abstract topics, leaps which I attribute largely to our patient teachers!
AC: What type of extracurricular activities did you take part in?
Catherine: When I first came to Tajikistan, I took some dance classes at a local studio. Throughout my time, I taught English at a center for students who are refugees from Afghanistan and ran a discussion club at a local cultural center. I spend a good amount of time hiking in the mountains on the weekends. I’m interested in journalism and I published this article about the cultural scene in Tajikistan.
AC: What do you believe you got out of this experience?
Catherine: Primarily, my Persian skills have grown tremendously, as has my knowledge of Persian literature and poetry. I’m grateful for these tangible gains, but also for the intangible ones: the feeling of being at home in Dushanbe and being connected to a place that felt so far away when I registered for the program. I also value my close relationship with my host family, and I love learning about the history of Tajikistan through their memories.
AC: What are your plans for the future? Is Tajikistan or Persian a part of those plans?
Catherine: Next year I will graduate from Davidson College and I hope to move back to the Middle East to continue my research about oral storytelling, while linking this to research I conducted in Tajikistan. I was privileged to interview several elders about oral storytelling and I am currently working to publish my research. In the long run, I plan to pursue a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies, continuing to study Arabic and Persian along the way. I want to understand how oral storytelling traditions in Syria and Afghanistan have been affected by conflict, and how storytellers continue to narrate the world around them, in the face of serious obstacles.
AC: What was the most interesting/special experience you had living in Tajikistan?
Catherine: The most special experiences during my time in Tajikistan were the ones I shared with my wonderful host family, who made me feel at home from the moment I arrived. Of the many moments we shared, one from Nowruz (Persian New Year) stands out to me. During Nowruz, women gather to cook sumalak, a thick paste made of wheat, oil, and flour. The process takes 24 hours and women stir the pot through the night. Each woman gets to make a wish. My host mom walked with me through the winding streets of our neighborhood, determined to find sumalak for me to see (since she was not making it herself). We entered a neighbor’s house and she showed me how to stir the huge pot (which could have fit both of us inside!) and encouraged me to make a wish for the new year. Welcoming in the New Year with my host mom is a memory I hold dear!
AC: What was the most difficult experience you had living in Tajikistan?
Catherine: Academically, the most difficult experience was learning Cyrillic script and Russian words because I had not studied this before! I also missed having close female friends, because the program ended up being three men and myself. I would recommend reaching out to Tajik students you meet early on, I was surprised by how easy it was to build friendships from small interactions and this helps to mitigate the loneliness of a small program.
AC: What was it like living with your host family?
Catherine: Living with my host family was the highlight of my experience. I had two older host parents, whose children all lived out of the house, and I deeply valued the conversations we shared about their lives. I was privileged to learn about Dushanbe during the day through my own eyes, and in the evenings, through their stories and memories—they are both lifelong residents of the city. I enjoyed our family gatherings for birthdays and special occasions, and I would travel back to Tajikistan just to see them!
AC: What would you suggest to future program participants preparing to live in Tajikistan?
Catherine: Learn the Cyrillic alphabet as much as you can before you leave. I’m grateful that I had looked it over before and wish I had done more. Also, try to read about Tajikistan online through websites like Eurasia.net and the Calvert Journal. This will help to contextualize what you experience on the ground. The more you are familiar with the history of Tajikistan (even just a bit), the richer the experience will be. Also, download a good VPN, and bring some hot sauce if you like spicy food. Brownie mix is a great host family gift that you can easily prepare in Tajikistan, and my host family loved brownies. English language books can be hard to find so in retrospect, I wish I had brought a Kindle or e-reader.
Catherine in Tajikistan while on the Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERLP).
Published by AC Study Abroad staff in July 2020.