Leaving Uzbekistan

"I don't have anything in common with my friends," he says under the kitchen lamp light. Our families play games and eat popcorn in the living room, worlds away from the refugee camps of Jordan. 

"I'm tired of trying to put my experiences into words, but I also can't relate to my peers. So I just say nothing."

I get it. Maybe I don't know what it's like to spend years working with and befriending Syrian refugees, but I know what it's like to live between worlds. 

When people ask me about Uzbekistan I still don't know what to say. Even here in these pages, I don't have the words to say what I want. 

In Northern Ireland when I drive around with my husband, he casually points out the place he went to school, the movie theater where he had his first kiss, the field he played rugby on, the church he became a Christian in, endless places that have shaped the man I've married. 

I know what it's like to live between worlds

My stories are locked away in the heart of the Central Asian mountains. We'll probably never drive past my school. But I want to take him there. I want to show him the abandoned amusement park I played on, the mountains at the end of my street I climbed and conquered, the river outside the city we would picnic next to celebrating our own mildly patriotic Fourth of July. 

Instead of fireworks, we'd stare up at the shining Milky Way. Precious water trickling over our dusty feet. 

I want to find the words to share what it was like to go grocery shopping at the bazaar. How we didn't have a car and would take the bus miles outside of town for the Sunday market. People everywhere rushing, pushing, haggling over the price of apricots and rice. 

One time my mom and I saw a woman sitting crouched against a wall openly weeping into her hand while people milled around her. We stopped, my mother put her hand on her shoulder and asked what happened. At nine all I could absorb was that a grown woman was crying in public. I had never seen that before. 

Through choked sobs she explained her husband had sent her from their village with that month's wages to do the household shopping. But for some reason she had misplaced it and now she didn't know how she was going to face her family with no money, no food, and no way of getting either. She burst into a fresh set of tears. 

I looked at my mom-- there were tears in her eyes too. 

"How much did you lose?" my mom asked. It was pennies. Even by Uzbek standards, not an amount most people would weep over. 

"Jesus loves you," my mama whispered and pressed some Uzbek bills into the woman's hands. They cried together, embraced and we went on our way. 

I know what it's like to have a lifetime of stories no one you meet can relate to. 

When my family moved back to America, we called ourselves the Secret Society. Not because we wanted to keep others out, but because we were the only ones who knew our stories, the only ones who felt the same pain, the same joy, who shared the same hot, dusty memories from Uzbekistan. 

"Sometimes there are things you do that remind me you're just a little Uzbek girl," my husband says. 

I always wash my feet before getting into bed. How else do you get the happy, black asphalt off your bare feet from playing futbol all night? 

I know what it's like to have a lifetime of stories no one you meet can relate to.

My first friend in Uzbekistan was my neighbor, M. She was five, I was seven. Even though we didn't speak the same language, we both understood the deep importance of taking care of our dolls. We'd smile, nod, share our toys and play hide-n-go seek outside our courtyard. 

One day I came into our kitchen, and M was sitting on a chair absent-mindedly swinging her legs with blood all over her face. We found out that she was used to having her nose bloodied by her mother and brother. My mother's fury was contained to her eyes, but I could see it there, burning brightly as she gently washed M's face.

I didn't understand why we couldn't adopt M and take her far, far away. 

I wished I could explain to my friends in America, the normalcy and magic of having your power shut off at dinner time. Always unexpected, but we were never unprepared. Without blinking an eye my parents would light the stash of candles we kept in the kitchen and we'd all finish our dinners, faces all aglow with warm, yellow light. 

Last week Chris and I visited the Chicago zoo, and not one person we walked past was speaking in English. There, in the middle of all those languages, I felt at home and at peace. If anything, it's more bizarre to live in a place where everyone speaks my native language. 

"Where is Uzbekistan?"

"Is it a real place?"

Before we moved those questions scared me. At six I didn't like the idea that most adults didn't even know where we were going. Their questions would echo in my mind and keep me up at night. 

At 26 I can finally admit that I never wanted to go. I never wanted to live there, but now, at 26 I'm so glad I did. Even if I can't find the words to tell you how it was. 

I see it all in snapshots. 

My dad pouring dry instant coffee into his mouth and washing it down with a bottle of water so he could stay away on the long night drives to Tashkent. There aren't 24-hour gas stations with coffee on Uzbek highways.

My sisters and I climbing the apricot trees in the summer, feeling the cool packed earth beneath our bare feet when we climbed down. 

Finding a secret garden with my friend across the street and spending a whole summer exploring the abandoned trees and flowers and half-built home. 

Playing futbol on the streets every night and thinking that there was no way in the world I could ever feel more alive. 

Drenching my hair in cold water before bed so that I could find some relief from the heat at night. 

Sweeping the concrete of our courtyard every night, because that's what you do in Uzbekistan. 

"I know what you mean," I look at my brother-in-law who's eyes are so full of stories, people, and places I can't touch and see. I see their ghosts dancing, full of life and power.

I want to tell him that he'll find the words, but the truth is I don't know if he ever will.

It's taken me years to find the words, and I still hold them like little treasures. Some I'll probably never speak out loud, and that's okay too. 

But Uzbekistan was real. 

I have to remind myself of that from time to time, because I might never get to go back and see it. I have to remind myself because sometimes it all just feels like a dream. Like another little girl's life. 

And so I stammer because somedays I need to find the words.

Hate Flags on the 4th of July

When I saw it my stomach dropped cold, heavy and low. Fluttering proudly in the wind against the backdrop of red, white and blue another flag drove out in front of the lawn we were sitting on. A confederate flag flew from the top of a car driving through downtown Nashville and we all stared. 

Tears blurred my vision, and anger invaded my thoughts. Before I moved to the south I could count the number of times I’d seen a confederate flag on one hand, and when they did show up on a bumper sticker, the odd gas station, me and my friends would shake our heads, roll our eyes, as if to say “Can you believe this loser?” I’m ashamed to say then we’d move on. Because we’re white and we could just walk away. 

When I moved to the south things were different. The confederate flag flies proudly and (still) unchallenged. Although it alarmed and disgusted me, I didn’t really know how to respond. Was I even meant to respond? I still compartmentalized it as freakish behavior, a stupid cultural southern thing that didn’t affect me, something I couldn’t do anything about.

But in these last few weeks nine people were shot and murdered because they were black, and seven African-American churches have been burned down. Here, on the Fourth of July in Nashville, people drive around flying the confederate flag. As a white American I feel like I'm getting a wake up call I can't ignore. We can no longer pretend racism doesn’t exist. 

Suddenly, as I sat there, a black family carrying coolers and arm chairs walked on the sidewalk past the car, past the flag. I choked back tears of fury and deep discouragement. I want to know what they were thinking. Did they notice it? Were they even phased by it, or had they learn to block it out? Were they afraid for their safety? Did they feel the need to pull their children in closer to their sides? I don’t know what it feels like to have to face a symbol of hate on a regular basis. But they do.

Is this the nation we’re celebrating today? This can’t be what freedom means! I thought and started to walk over to the car. I couldn’t just sit and let that flag flutter in the wind without a conversation. But as I walked over, the car started driving away so instead I took this picture.


I took it with the intention of blasting the owner on social media, I wanted to shame them publicly, to make a spectacle of their hatred. But as my fingers started typing I realized something

if I let their hatred breed more hate, then the haters have won the war.

I stopped typing, discouraged, unsure of what to do. In America we take pride in the freedom we’ve fought for, the freedom to believe what we want to believe, the freedom of speech, the freedom to be the people we want to be. This includes the freedom to be haters. 

What I want is for the confederate flag to be illegal.

What I want is for people like that to be publicly shamed. 

What I want is rip that flag down.

What I wanted was to scream and just cry and cry.

What I want is for the black families walking on that street to never have to see that flag again. 

What I want so deeply is for love to abound, for hate to be illegal. For my black brothers and sisters to be able to celebrate their freedom in a nation that views them as equally important and beautiful members of society.

It’s hard to know if laws like making the confederate flag illegal would make any change in people’s hearts. My guess is not. My guess is that the haters will still hate unless something else more radical occurs. 

I don’t want to let their hatred take a hold of my heart. If I allow that to happen, I’m not any better than they are. It’s good to be angry and saddened by their actions. I will never condone it, I will never think it’s okay. I will always think it’s despicable. But I will not hate that girl driving that car, flying that flag. I will not hate her, even though she deliberately set out to hurt thousands of people that day. But I will speak up against her actions, and challenge them.

Her heart and mind will never be changed by hatred. But they might change through love. I’m not sure what that looks like quite yet, but I’m praying next time I’m given words of love that change and correct. 

That is, until hopefully, someday, the need to change and correct will be no more.

Considerable thanks to my friend Katrina Frye who has talked through this with me, challenged me, and given me hope that "once we see the humanity in each other will we be able to understand both the girl flying her flag and the family crossing the street." Because both are looking to belong. Grateful for your friendship as we do life and faith together over California burritos (with no meat.)