This post originally was published on the Berkley Center website as a part of their Junior Year Abroad Network, which can be found here.
Once the value of a dollar is learned, it cannot be unlearned. Instead, it becomes a point of reference for every economic encounter, even when overseas, creating a foreign mindset behind each transaction that further distances one from the locals: a phenomenon that becomes especially apparent when one travels to a country where the dollar stands strong.
In Tajikistan, even as we grow more acclimated to thinking in somoni, all “excessively” priced purchases are justified through the mere mental conversion of the price back into our mother currency. An expensive café or restaurant is then described as having “American prices” or something that we can easily afford because we are from the Western world and we used to pay these prices everyday. Furthermore, since we clearly save so much money on the days we do pretend to understand the value of a somoni, we deserve to treat ourselves from time to time.
On the weekdays, my classmates and I live in much closer solidarity with our host community. We go to the nearby Russian café, where a person can dine on rice and beans for two somoni. Even if one were to add the more expensive items on the menu, such as borscht or chicken, a person can feast for less than ten. By Tajik standards, where a loaf of the traditional bread is roughly one somoni and a ride in a masrukat is one to three, this is a bargain.
But on the weekends, we escape from where we are to the pockets of the Western world, hidden within the everyday walls of a courtyard exterior. One of these pockets is a neighborhood dubbed “Little America” that is just north of my host family’s home. The money saved through our parsimonious habits becomes the monopoly paper that we spend to support our weekend entertainment.
Between dinners and brunches, poker and other weekend adventures, a person can easily spend 300 somoni in a weekend, or roughly 60 dollars. Though 60 dollars is not cheap, paying that much for all of the above in America is unbelievable; thus it becomes extremely easy to justify spending that much, especially for those being paid an American salary. But here, where most of the students in my program are living with families that could identify as the one percent (excluding government officials), 300 somoni is not cheap: it’s more than they receive each month for hosting a student.
Thus, a weird discrepancy is created. This community of expats becomes, in a sense, a new one percent. Because the cost of living is much cheaper than we are used to, we can live like royalty.
Our high class living fails to blend into the local life, and like oil, we float to the top, scattered across the surface. Our cravings for Western things create a demand for a market that without us would not thrive. Throughout the town there are stores, cafés, and restaurants that cater to our Western world cravings: freshly ground coffee, natural peanut butter, tastes of things we consider home.
To this phenomenon, what label should we affix? Globalization? Cosmopolitization? Westernization? Does it show the success of two different cultures living within each other or a failure to live together? Does it show the preservation of two distinct cultures or the failure of one to adapt?
Although there are many reasons people travel and come to a foreign country, such as business and scholarship, another reason arises: escapism. There is something magical about being able to leave one’s society and its expectations: something that can more easily be achieved when one has the funds. One on which certain savvy businessmen have capitalized, allowing us to leave the Western world while keeping its conveniences.
Whatever the reason is we came, though we may have left our homes, I cannot always say that we are presently here in Tajikistan. And to that end, I wonder if we have really even traveled, the day worth of flights nothing more than an illusion, as our demand for Western items has allowed us to create a microcosm of our world in a foreign land.