My Experience Being African-American in Uzbekistan

Asia

This post was contributed by Stephan Brown.

Eight months ago, I decided to plan a trip to Uzbekistan. It’s a country in Central Asia that not too many people know about… including myself. When I told my parents, they looked at me with a confused and concerned look on their faces. My mom automatically freaked out and mentioned how I should be concerned with going to any country with a “stan” at the end of it, and my dad calmly told me that he’ll throw my farewell party since I won’t return home after my trip. Dramatic much? Yep!

When I told my friends, most of them had no clue what Uzbekistan was, and the ones who did know only heard negative things. Although I do take safety into consideration, I never let that stop me from going anywhere… especially when someone’s fear comes from the unknown. If you never go, then you’ll never know.

During all my conversations with family and friends, one of the main questions that got brought up the most was, “Are you concerned about going to a country where there are no African-Americans?”

The answer was “no.”

When I booked my flight to go to Uzbekistan, being black was the last thing that was on my mind. I was more excited about experiencing a new culture, getting into crazy situations, making new friends and finally exploring a place that’s not on my Instagram feed 80 times a day (cough cough Bali cough cough).

If you never go, then you’ll never know

My crazy story began when I landed for my layover in Russia with only 30 minutes to hop on my connecting flight.  

The line was going by fast, and my expectations to make my flight were high. Then it was my turn to face customs, and things took a turn. My passport got reviewed by three different people, I was asked over and over again what my reason was for visiting Uzbekistan, and I was even pulled to the side for a quick chit-chat.

After an hour of waiting, I was cleared to go with no explanation of why it took so long (although I had a general idea why) and had to wait for 24hrs until the next flight. Luckily, Sheremetyevo International Airport gave me a free hotel room with food and drink vouchers! It’s safe to say my night consisted of eating a ton of food and drinking with random people I met at the airport bar. That’s the best!

After four layovers, two flights and an overnight stay in Russia (PHEW), I finally arrived in Uzbekistan where I reunited with my old friend Abdu who offered to be my local guide for two weeks. He didn’t know what he signed up for, and I surely didn’t know what I signed up for, but my mini-fame began the moment I landed.

The moment I stepped off the plane, a family immediately asked if they could take pictures of me holding their kids. Now look, I hadn’t changed clothes in two days, and I looked like death, but I was so happy that we finally got to our first destination that I was making the most of this mini family photo shoot. I was happy that I finally arrived, and they were happy that they met their first black man… it was a win/win situation for both of us. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of what I was about to experience as an African-American in Uzbekistan.

For two weeks, I traveled to four cities and brought smiles to so many people. I took this opportunity to teach a whole country about my African-American heritage and shut down the racial barrier that I put up every day while living in The United States. This was big deal for me because this was the first country that I visited where most people only knew about black people through the media.

I have so many stories that I could share with you, but one in particular that I’ll always remember is my time in Bukhara. Out of all the places I visited in Uzbekistan, this one was my favorite. When I first arrived, my friend and I took a stroll through the town and were stopped by two tourism majors, Beka and Sabik, who asked us questions about our hotel. When they were talking to me, I could tell they were nervous to speak because English wasn’t their first language, but that didn’t stop me from carrying on the conversation.

After sharing my experiences living in LA, bonding over who our favorite rappers were and learning about their lives in Bukhara, Beka and Sabik decided to put their tourism skills to the test; they showed me all there is to see in their beautiful town. Thanks to Abdu, Beka, and Sabik, I got to check out ancient madrasas (Islamic colleges) that only the locals got access to. I got some good discounts on souvenirs (Yasss to no overcharging), I got to eat at all the cool spots that locals go to, and they showed me all the best places to do it for the gram.

Of course, at every place we went, we were greeted by so many people that wanted to talk to me. Literally every time I went to take a picture for myself, I was greeted by a line of people that wanted to take photos with me. From children to adults, it made my heart so happy to see their excitement for me to be in their town. I was even told by some people that my presence made their year. For people of color who don’t travel often, this could be overwhelming, but I embraced it to the fullest.

There was even a moment during my tour where Beka and Sabik took a break and left Abdu and me to explore. Within a matter of minutes of exploring on our own, a massive group of about 50+ people surrounded us at the center of the ancient Arc of Bukhara and just like that, I was hosting an unplanned, 1hr long Q&A meetup where everyone took turns to ask me questions. This was the first time I ever experienced anything like this and although I was flustered, I ended up having the time of my life.


The Q&A started with everyone introducing themselves… literally everyone! Followed by me going one-by-one pronouncing everyone’s names. Uzbeks have some of the coolest, most complicated names I ever had to pronounce, so you know I was struggling to say most of them. Luckily, everyone found it funny that I even tried and cheered me on as I messed up everyone’s name. After that, I was asked questions from what I like to do for fun to if I was single (I now know how celebrities feel when they get asked this every day lol). They even taught me some Russian/Uzbek words.

Overall, I learned a lot in such a spontaneous moment and thanks to Abdu, I was able to communicate with people in over three languages (Abdu speaks Uzbek, Russian and English!). If any of you from that meetup is reading this, I love you all and thanks for putting a smile on my face. Beka and Sabik were definitely taken by surprise from all of this, but they still were ready to show me more.

Next up on their agenda, they wanted me to meet all of their friends, so they planned a nice dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. What was so wonderful about this dinner was that we had the restaurant to ourselves, we jammed out to all the Latin hits of today (Surprisingly, they listen to a lot of Spanish songs), and I got to learn some traditional Uzbek dances. Although me and my two left feet can’t keep a beat, I was living my best life trying to keep up with their moves. There is actual footage of me trying to dance but will save that for a #tbt in the future ;).

Once night came, Beka and Sabik had one more thing that they wanted to take me to – the Bukhara carnival. Typically, tourists don’t go there at all, so I was in for a ride… literally. As I was walking through the large crowds of people, I was welcomed with happy stares, confused stares, and lots of smiles.

My new friends taught me how to say hi (assalamualaikum) and after I started greeting people, everyone got super comfortable in seconds. Every ride I went on, crowds formed and flashes started, so I tried to look cool just in case I became a meme in Uzbekistan (LOL. YA NEVER KNOW)! After hours of receiving so much attention, my friends and I lived it up and enjoyed my new found mini fam.

The next morning, Abdu and I were planning to go to the next city, but we ended up meeting a guy named Umid who insisted that we’d change our plans and visit his hometown, Vobkent. I’m not one to endorse going anywhere with strangers but saying yes to Umid was one of the best decisions I made on this trip. Umid spoke very little English, but we communicated through Abdu, lots of body language and adventure.

Umid ended up taking me to a part of town that not many tourists get to experience, and he made sure that I had the best time no matter what. For our first stop, he took us to his favorite restaurant where he ordered all of the food that he wanted me to try and even got us a private room with air-conditioning, so I could feel at home. He drove us to where his childhood village was, and he even managed to get the key to open up a closed landmark just so I can see a 360 view of Vobkent. If that ain’t some good hospitality, then I don’t know what is!

For our final stop, Umid took us to the Vobkent carnival where I got to compete against him in his favorite game called Meltdown (That’s the name in the U.S.). Basically, you have to jump over a spinning pole while trying not to get knocked down. We were both doing well, and a crowd formed around us, but the most embarrassing thing happened to me. Two minutes into the game, I got knocked off the pole and my pants tore in front of everyone. Everyone was chanting for me to get up, but I realized my pants tore right in the crouch area.

The only one that could understand me was Abdu and what started out as a harmless game, turned into a mission to get me out the carnival and back to my hotel without anyone noticing. While Abdu and I were laughing about the situation, Umid felt so bad and even offered to give me a pair of his pants to go back home. It was in that moment that I knew I met a good human being. Umid was more concerned about this moment ruining my time in his hometown than how funny the situation actually was.

As the night came to an end, we had to drive about 45 minutes back to our hotel. Umid called us a taxi, rode with us all the way back and made sure I got home safe and not embarrassed about my ripped pants. One of Umid’s dreams was to meet an African-American (wow to the power of the media, for better or worse), and I’m glad that I could be the first one he met. Umid showed me just how important cultural connections are and just how amazing Uzbek hospitality can be. Umid is the definition of a global citizen and I hope to meet more people like him in the future.

Overall, my trip to Uzbekistan changed my life for the better. In a country where there are, essentially, no black people, I was constantly reminded just how important African-Americans are to the world.

I had Uzbeks reference African-American films and historical figures to me, I learned how much African-American music shaped some of their lives, and I even had Uzbeks, as young as 17, talk to me about race relations in America. Our culture and media ring throughout the world baby, they ring!

This experience far exceeded my expectations and reassured me that no matter how different we may all seem, we are all basically the same. To everyone I met in Uzbekistan, I wish you an amazing life. To everyone that wants to go to Uzbekistan, I recommend booking a ticket right now.

P.S. Always remember to shut up and go because the world is not going to explore itself!


Meet Stephan: My name is Stephan Brown and I’m a social media manager. I’m from Philly, but I currently live in LA. I traveled to 20+ countries across Europe, Africa, and Asia. I love going to the countries less explored. Sloths are my life, and Philadelphia cheesesteaks are what I live off. I live life day by day, and I’m king at going with the flow. I consider myself a global citizen, but I’m working on becoming a global leader. If you want to see my adventure in full, please check out my Uzbekistan Left Me Speechless travel video and follow my adventures on Instagram!

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