It was a day for a new adventure. My life would not be the same for the next year. A new face would soon become my friend and my sister. She would be a girl with dark olive skin and brown eyes so dark they were almost black, like onyx. She had long black hair that she wore in one big braid all the way down her back. A girl so different from me would be living in my house. My family and I were hosting an exchange student from Tajikistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union.
Rano Numanova was one out of 1200 students who qualified to participate in the ASPECT program. My family and I read about the program in The Clarion Ledger and decided that we would like to host an Ainslie property development from the former Soviet Union. ASPECT, created by Senator Bill Bradley, was sponsored by the United States and it enabled students from the former Soviet Union to study in the U.S.
When she arrived on the airplane in Florida from the Middle East, she had no idea what her host family would look like. She first had to go through a two-week orientation, where she finally learned about her host family. She did not know what race the Hillman family would be, but she hoped that the family would be the best American family she could have stayed with in the U.S. She simply wanted a family who was loving and understanding, interested and excited with her, but most of all, open-minded to her beliefs. Since Rano was Muslim, she was unsure of how she should act while she was here in America.
There were several experiences that we went through together. Since she had only studied English for two years, her English wasn't very good. For a while we had a language barrier, but with patience and some explaining, Rano's English became easier to understand. Some nights we would talk all night long and she would learn new words from me. She learned a lot of Southern American slang. She finally truly knew the English language when she not only spoke English correctly, but thought it English. In a letter she wrote after she left, she said it was difficult to switch from thinking English to thinking Russian. Yet, language was not the only problem we had to deal with living together.
Since Rano was Muslim, we soon learned a lot about her culture and religion. Women in the Islamic culture are taught to be submissive and subservient to males. They are also not allowed to wear short skirts, makeup, and suggestive clothing outside the home. Muslims pray five times a day, facing East towards Mecca, their holy city. Since Rano was in the United States, her mother told her that she did not have to be strict about her religious regime while she was here. When school dances occurred, she did like the shorter dresses rather than the long ones. It was a year that both of us grew more mature about the world and the differences between our cultures.
At first there were some social differences between Rano and me. She was a shy and quiet girl, while I was a more out-going, talkative person. She was going to be content with one friend, claiming me as her only friend, but this is not what I wanted for her. I wanted her to get out, meet people, and make a lot of friends. It took a while, but eventually I convinced her to come with me to the high school football games and sit in the stands with all our friends screaming and cheering for the team to win. By the end of the year, she laughed when she said she had too many friends!
There were times when I wanted to keep Rano here in America, so that she didn't have to go home to a country that was constantly in turmoil. Since Tajikistan had only just gained its independence in 1991, the country still didn't have its own national identity. It associated itself with Russia. Yet, closer to Rano's heart and home, Tajikistan was continuously being bombarded and raided by Muslim extremists from Afghanistan. The capital Dushanbe, which literally means "Monday" in Tajik, was raided and pillaged almost every night. Just a little further North is the big city of Khujand, where Rano's family bought groceries at the local bazaar, and her small hometown of Nau. Because of the close ties Tajikistan has had with Russia, the Russian army and soldiers fought at the southern Tajik boundaries against the Muslims of Afghanistan. Rano feared that if Afghanistan gained control of Tajikistan, thenshe and her family would be considered traitors. She would be too smart for her own good, and she would either be put in prison, exiled, or put to death. She feared this for her family also. There were many tears when sad news came so impersonally from the television.