More than anything, it was my interactions with the watermelon sellers that taught me about myself. Every day, I would hear them come around our neighborhood and yell at the top of their lungs that the watermelons were fresh, that they were the best, and that they only cost four somoni (about 50 cents). I was often tempted to buy one for my host parents, but I never did. Every once in awhile, we would pass each other on the street, and as any proper Tajik girl should, I looked down. But they still asked my 12-year-old host cousin for my number. My host sister told me to never give it to them.
Tajikistan was, and is, a country unlike most other Westerners will ever visit. It’s a place where the women wear colorful dresses and fastidiously dye their eyebrows. It’s a place where the gaudy is “in.” It’s a place where the mountains are everywhere, especially on the printed t-shirts in the one trendy store downtown. It’s a place that never fully left the Soviet Union. It’s also a place I came to call home.
My two months in Tajikistan this past summer taught me a tremendous amount about the world that we, as Westerners, rarely ever see. Every year, thousands of American college students go abroad, whether for a summer, semester, or full academic year. They inevitably return claiming that the experience was life-changing, and that they now have a better understanding of foreign lands, as well as of themselves.
In the 2014-2015 school year, about 55 percent of all study abroad students studied somewhere in Europe, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Almost 40 percent of students go to the UK, Italy, Spain, and France. Over half of all American students who study abroad do so in Europe, but according to Worldometers, only 9.9 percent of the global population lives there. This makes sense: Europe is culturally far closer to the United States than, say, Africa or Asia. Most European languages, especially those spoken in the UK, Italy, France, and Spain, are far easier for native English speakers to learn than languages like Japanese, Zulu, or Hindi. Further, the educational standard in most European countries is comparable to the American one, making studying there a reasonable decision.
Studying in Western Europe, however, is unlikely to give students a true perspective on the remaining 90.1 percent of the world’s population or teach them about intercultural affairs. Western Europe, particularly the UK, is not very different from the United States in the grand scheme of things. Sure, you might need to learn a Romance or Germanic language and grasp a few cultural nuances, but you won’t need to learn how to get your homework done when the electricity goes out, understand a different male-female dynamic, or try to fit in, in a country where you don’t look like the people around you.
That’s not to say that studying in Western Europe isn’t worthwhile. It has a tremendous amount of benefits ranging from general educational quality to ease of integration — that is to say that it’s just easier to “fit in” in a place where you look and dress like the people around you, to a greater or lesser degree. But, for almost the same reasons, the experience is unlikely to teach American students a lot about the world at large, specifically the non-Western world. I can say this after also having studied in France and Israel, two countries which I greatly enjoyed but which ultimately taught me little about the non-Western world.
I miss my interactions with the watermelon sellers. You don’t hear people yell about watermelon prices in the United States, much less in most other Western countries. It’s from them that I learned how men and women interact in Central Asia; it’s from them that I learned how and why the prices of food products there are so cheap. And maybe students studying in Western Europe have such interactions with the greengrocers and the fishmongers, professions we have back in the States — but where in Western Europe would you ever meet a watermelon seller?
Leora Eisenberg is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.