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Communication isn't always about the language

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

I open every presentation here by sharing this snippet from a Telegram post (think Twitter for Uzbekistan) - which translates from Russian to say:

"please be aware that Allan Miller speaks perfect Russian. Your colleagues from Samarkand will be able to discuss everything with him freely without a translator."

This always draws a least a few laughs and smiles - as I explain that although my Russian is becoming better and better everyday, never in the past has anyone ever said it was perfect! In fact if I'm honest - my first presentation, which I gave to an auditorium full of 300+ teachers was anything but perfect.

Between being exhausted and jetlagged from 30 hours of travel the previous day, it had also been almost 18 years since I'd had anything more than a 15 minute conversation. Here suddenly I was going to explain - in my "perfect" Russian the basics of standards based learning and how that applies specifically to STEM instruction in the USA. My hosts politely complimented me when it was done - but the auditorium full of glazed eyes and nodding heads told me otherwise. In fact 2 weeks later we all laugh

at that first day and my not so proficient performance on that high-stakes formative assessment.

Fortunately since then things have been improving by leaps and bounds. Last Friday I woke up early at 5 AM to prep my lessons, and it was about 7 AM before I realized that for the past 2 hours I'd been thinking and mumbling to myself totally in Russian - guess that part of my brain finally decided to come back to life! Since then day by by it gets easier and easier, to the point that yesterday I even took on the challenge of bartering at the bazaar.

I was looking to build up a collection of Tubateyka's - the Uzbek national hat that comes in literally hundreds of colors / designs depending on the region and the country.

Looking back it was financially ridiculous - when I managed to talk Farfoza down from her original price of 12,000 som to 10,000 - which took almost 5 minutes of back / forth regarding fit, style, quality, etc -

I had managed to save myself 20 cents but was proud beyond belief at my success. I continued the game across the bazaar and as you can see it was a pretty successful day even if I did drop the huge sum of almost $15 for the set. Across the street is the Bibi-Kanym Mosque - which was build in 1399-1400 by Timur in celebration of one of his many successful war campaigns across central Asia.

It was severely damaged during WW1 - but during Soviet times much of it was restored to it's current condition. According to the guides it's not really a practicing mosque today, but does serve as an honored place for some of the community elders to come and pay their respects to its powerful history. That is how I met Asliyat sitting under the central mosque square. As we spoke and he discovered I was an American - he reached over and began pulling on my ears and

That evening, full of confidence in my Russian - I took off on a solo walking excursion to collect items I needed to build up my makerspace at the Institute and also in my apartment. The list was pretty extensive - masking tape, rulers and weights for a balance experiment, a ream of paper, a few hundred index cards, toilet cleaner, some snacks, etc. As you can see from my table picture - it was an amazingly successful walk.

Over the course of a couple hours I found my way to various tiny stores all my area - probably covering almost 5 km. As I was heading home - I spotted an Iphone store and decided to try my luck on finding a cheap smartphone since despite almost 2 weeks of effort by several teachers at the institute it had become clear that my phone was blocked for some reason and just wasn't going to work. I had a cheap burner flipphone - but since everyone here lives on this Telegram program I was really out of the loop and it was time to drop $50 or $60 to get myself a cheap old android phone. I walked and was met by a superfriendly salesman Zafar and he also agreed my best bet was a new phone. He pulled out an iphone6 which he said was only 520 - which translates in som to a mere $52. Awesome - it was an easy sale and Zafar was all smiles as he cleaned it and since it was so cheap I picked out a nice case as well as a glass cover which he gladly installed. He then said he was going to throw in his best charger and a new cord for no cost (guess they usually are not included) and we settled on a final price of 650.

As I reached into my wallet and pulled out a pile of 50,000 som notes his eyes got huge and he quickly explained that of course I understood that he was telling me a price in dollars - $650 - not the 650,000 som that I had understood. With an exchange rate of 10,000 som to 1 dollar - nearly every price for anything in the country is several thousand som and no one bothers to even say thousand, 10 simply means 10,000 som. My eyes got equally huge explaining that no had ever quoted me a price for anything in dollars so of course I assumed it was in the local currency. Having now told this story dozens of times - I've learned that when you buy an iphone or a car - all prices are quoted in dollars for some reason.

I was stunned for a moment - as Zafar had really done a lot of prep work on the phone, but he smiled, we both laughed and suddenly he asked to see my phone again. I handed it to him and his next question was "do you trust me?" Caught off guard I stammered a not so convincing "Da" and he said - "why don't you just leave me your phone for the next couple hours and I'll see what I can do." I asked him what he could do - and his reply was "don't worry about it - maybe I can do a few things to get it working for you. I'll call you in a couple

hours and get your phone back to you" So I gave him my card - and by the end of the block was laughing at myself both for the misunderstanding but also for my naivety thinking that a complete stranger was really going to meet me in a couple hours with my phone which I now realized was worth at least $700. But I had said I trusted him - and figured that if perhaps he really was an honest young man it was my job to stick to my word. So I trudged back to the apartment to unload my huge back of goods I had collected throughout the evening.

Two hours passed and no call - I walked back to the repair shop which is about 1 km from my apartment and found it dark and locked. Another 30 minutes passed and nothing - I made plans to head home and in my mind began planning the conversation I'd have with the salesman when he would - I assumed - say he'd never even met me and just smile treating me like the stupid American I obviously was. Suddenly my phone rang and it was Zafar, he asked where I lived and I did my best to explain. His Uzbek is much better than his Russian and I only know about three words so it quickly became apparent this wasn't going to work.

So I through out my favorite nearby hangout - the BBQ Burger that seems everyone in the country knows about. I had already saved me several times when I had been lost with everyone seemingly able to get me to there. That brought about the quick Da and and he said some thing in Uzbek which I assumed meant see you soon. Sure enough in the 5 minutes it takes for me to cross the Boulevard - there Zafar was waiting with that same smile and my phone - now completely running on the UZB system. He wouldn't even let me buy him a burger or milkshake - it was now 11:30 and after showing me a couple tricks to get the operating system back into English he was gone. So I sat down for my beloved cheeseburger, onion rings and lemon tea - realizing I was not

gaining a sense of the language, but perhaps learning that trust is still a currency worth trading in as well.

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