By Chris Aslan
Sometimes when you live in another culture, it’s hard to know who you are. There can be tension among the different aspects of your life. For me one of those aspects was money. As I once explained to my mentor: “Here in Central Asia, I feel really rich. I’m constantly feeling guilty about how much money I have, and when it comes to making purchases I never think ‘can I afford it?’ but rather ‘what will my local friends say if I buy it?’ Then, when I go back to the UK, my friends there all see me as a bit of a charity case and insist on paying for meals out or whatever and I realise that they see me as poor. So, what am I?”
My mentor was great and helped me see that poverty is not just about money but about choices. I might choose to live a very simple lifestyle but I’ll never be poor because I’ve chosen this way of life. If war breaks out, I have a passport to get me evacuated, and similarly if I get really ill, I have insurance. Poor people don’t. Conversely, friends of mine in London working crazy hours and self-medicating on wine and luxury brands weren’t rich despite their telephone number salaries because they were slaves to their jobs. Am I rich or am I poor? Well, both and neither.
Then there was the sense of cultural identity. “Hey, you’re more Uzbek than we are! You speak Uzbek better than I do,” was the kind of thing I often heard from people, particularly because I’d picked up a strong regional accent from living with a local family for seven years. It was flattery. I was clearly a foreigner and, although I tried to be respectful and contextual, I never tried to be Uzbek because, well, I’m not. I remembered a holiday in Scotland where beaming Texan tourists discovering their ancestral heritage explained with loud drawls that they were really Scottish. They really weren’t.
No, I was definitely ‘Chris from England’, and where I was from was one of the first questions asked regularly, along with how old I was, how much I earnt, whether I was circumcised, and why I wasn’t married. But then, these very un-British questions soon felt culturally acceptable because Uzbeks are curious, so I adapted. Then I’d go for a visit back to England and I’d be introduced as ‘Chris from Uzbekistan’. I still remember the look I got when I forgot myself and asked a friend who’d started a new job how much he earned. It only happened once. Visiting supporting churches, they loved seeing me dressed up in Uzbek traditional clothes I never usually wore, and I was happy to play along. I’d cook Uzbek plov for people and they’d find eating from a common dish a complete novelty. “Oh, Chris, you’re so third world!” trilled one of the guests as I ate rice with my fingers.” The more exotic I could be the better.
So, which Chris was I?
Well, both. Why couldn’t I have more than one identity? I’d heard from others that we’re often subtly different people when we speak a different language because language shapes who we are. I was probably a nicer version of myself in Uzbek, at least initially, because I was a little less confident, and always keen to please.
My churchmanship changed as well. I thought I was a fairly broad evangelical having worshipped in various denominations. Then I ended up in a context where there were no denominations and no church. I mourned the loss of big band praise services, but came to treasure times of honest worship with a small group of other believers and possibly a guitar. I unlearnt much of what I’d thought church was, and saw stripped down versions of ‘two or more gathered in his name’ fearful of persecution, faithful and failing, learning to trust others in a culture where trust rarely extends beyond family, if then. These expressions of church felt far closer to the kind of church Jesus seemed to be founding in the gospels than anything I’d experienced in the West.
What flavour Christian was I now? I’d come back to church in the UK and find myself longing for the simplicity and authenticity of church that was about open homes and shared lives, not programmes, rotas and services. Western Christians seemed to be really bad at choosing their battles. British Christians, furious that the word ‘Easter’ had not been included in the National Trust Egg Hunt, and American Christians outraged that Starbucks paper cups were just a generic Christmas red and didn’t mention Christmas, weren’t people I wanted to identify with.
When I finally moved back to the UK, and tried to rediscover myself, I seemed to be a man of two halves that didn’t make up a whole. I realised that I wasn’t willing to squeeze myself back into the pot I’d grown in before. My roots had spread. I wanted to integrate and blend the best aspects of my different identities. I thought of some of the values I’d learnt from living in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. So, for example, I’d been overwhelmed by hospitality and was now returning to a culture that was so bad at it that we even have the proverb, “An Englishman’s house is his castle.” Rather than judge others who didn’t know any better, I decided to regularly practise hospitality and model it to others.
I had to learn to be less spontaneous and more planned in my social life, because in London most social occasions are booked three weeks in advance. I realised that I could now definitively be described as poor, but that was only money and took no account of the rich life experiences I had. I saw how relationally impoverished British culture was and decided that creating community – particularly spaces where people who weren’t Christians could feel comfortable – would be one of my aims.
I got stuck into a new church but wasn’t afraid to give different perspectives or call out their cultural blind-spots. I realised that modelling a different way worked far better than mere criticism. The church was racially and culturally diverse so I felt at home.
I tried to give myself new vocabulary. I wasn’t coming ‘back’, I was moving forward. I tried to find ways of explaining my cultural self to others. Sometimes I used the expressions ‘cultural mongrel’ or ‘secret immigrant’. In the end I decided on the term ‘English+’. I wasn’t less a person than I used to be, and I still understood all the wonderful, awful, amusing and frustrating things about British culture, but at the same time, I was something more.
There have been times when I’ve felt a stranger in both cultures, but gradually I’ve learnt to feel at home in both. I’ve discovered that I’m a pretty good bridge that others can use to walk along to have their horizons broadened and to meet people they might not otherwise have met. I’m letting my character and values to be shaped by the best of both cultures. It’s not always as comfortable as being one thing or another, but embracing the concept of ‘both’ is really good, and that’s better than being comfortable.
Chris Aslan was born in Turkey and spent his childhood there and in Lebanon before returning to the UK for schooling. He then spent 15 years in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Now back in the UK, he still has itchy feet which are satisfied for now by offering regular tours of Central Asia and by writing books. A Carpet Ride to Khiva is his travelogue about life in Uzbekistan, and his first novel Alabaster is set in the Middle East. To find out more, visit www.chrisaslan.info