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It’s Okay Not To Know Your –Stans


I’ve been to Kyrzbekistan. Or, well, I’ve been as close as anybody can get. That’s a country New York Times writer John Branch recently made up. Telling the story of rock climbers who had were kidnapped by Islamic militants in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, he got confused and identified the country as “Kyrzbekistan.” The paper corrected the error, but not quickly enough. Social media had a field day, creating a hashtag and Twitter account for the new country, and electing John Branch president.

That was the fun part. Next came the scolding. At Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidsky indignantly insisted that “Kyrzbekistan Isn’t Funny,” unleashing an angry polemic on how embarrassing it is that Westerners don’t know anything about obscure non-Western countries. He didn’t quite get to the point of calling this a Western form of bigotry, but clearly he was thinking along those lines.

How Many Countries Are There, Again?

Now, let’s get something straight. Newspapers should not make up countries. Both Branch and the Times deserved to be mocked for this silliness. But if you’re a regular person (so, not a journalist, diplomat, or professor of Russian Studies), it’s okay if you get your -stans mixed up. It’s actually pretty normal.

As much as I love Uzbekistan, it’s a pretty random place to have lived, right?

I’ve been to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and I spent two years in Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer. A few years later my little sister did her Peace Corps stint in Azerbaijan, and then my older brother did some development work in Tajikistan. So, does my family have ancestral ties to Central Asia, or some connection that makes us so interested? Nope, nothing like that. We’re just the kind of weirdos who like visiting odd, unheralded corners of the planet.

By Bershidsky’s standards then, my whole family is pretty well clear of this America-centric global apathy charge. I’m all primed to get on my high horse and lecture my compatriots on their selfishness and America-centrism, and how they should get out of their bubbles and give a dang about somebody else. Be a global citizen. All that jazz.

I won’t do that though, because as much as I love Uzbekistan, it’s a pretty random place to have lived, right? Getting mad at people for not knowing about it would be sort of like a birder freaking out when other people can’t tell wrens from chickadees. If birds are your thing, good for you. But life is busy and nobody has the time to learn everything. Unless you’re, say, the secretary of State (in which case you really might want to drill those country flash cards), the chances are excellent that you can get through life just fine without knowing the capital of Tajikistan (Dushanbe).

The truth is, I’ve visited 20-some countries and lived in four, and I’ve yet to find a place where ordinary people know a lot (or much of anything) about every other part of the world. It’s true that most foreigners know more about our country than we do about theirs. That’s because we’re a global superpower. But do people in Uzbekistan know much about, say, Lesotho? Can your average Tongan tell you anything at all about Lichtenstein? In my experience, no. Home-centrism is not a uniquely American malady. Nobody has time to learn about every other place on earth.

Some Places Are Nicer To Visit, Too

Western liberals like to yell at Americans for their foreign policy ignorance, because it annoys them to recognize how reasonable it is for the world to be more interested in America than vice-versa. To his credit, Bershidsky admits that people in other places (Russia, for instance) are also geography-ignorant. But he still seems most upset at the world’s wealthy, making the rather bizarre suggestion that they should spend their tourist dollars visiting “exotic and remote locations” where they can gather interesting cultural knowledge about other places, “the ones we do not call home.”

People don’t vacation as a matter of civic responsibility. They do it to relax and enjoy themselves.

Does he mean other places like… Central Asia? Surely someone as internationally savvy as Bershidsky realizes that planning a visit to Turkmenistan is considerably more difficult than booking an everything-included trip to a resort in the Aegean. Many of these countries are quite peevish (to put it mildly) about issuing visas to tourists, and for people who lack the relevant languages and travel know-how, visiting them is likely to be stressful and quite possibly unsafe. The risk of being kidnapped by Islamic militants is probably minimal, but less-experienced travelers will still want to avoid other small hazards. I’ll always remember with amusement the evening my parents emerged from the airport in Tashkent (which, for all you geography ignoramuses, is the capital of Uzbekistan) to see me surrounded by swarthy men in the middle of what appeared to be a shouting match. Everything was fine. The men were cab drivers, and aggressive fare-negotiation is pretty normal and expected there. But you can’t blame my parents for wondering for a moment whether their daughter was about to incite an international incident.

Little stressers like this are rampant in non-Western countries that don’t have a significant tourist industry. They don’t seem like a big deal if you know what you’re doing, but why would you if you’ve never been there before? With a proper guide, some of them are still interesting to visit. Uzbekistan, for example, is worth seeing. You can tour the old cities of the old Silk Road, and get a whiff of that exotic Persian air. Kyrgyzstan has less-interesting historical sites, but the mountains are quite lovely, and I have a treasured memory of climbing up into them and watching as Krygyz cowboys constructed their summer yurts. The giant statue of Lenin in Osh is also rather amusing, although probably not worth flying all across the world to see.

The brutal truth is, some countries are more interesting to visit than others, and “memorable cultural experiences” aren’t everybody’s vacation priority. If I were wealthy, my travel list probably would meet with Bershidsky’s approval, but let’s be honest. People don’t vacation as a matter of civic responsibility. They do it to relax and enjoy themselves. Central Asia is not, in general, the most promising place for that.

A Compromise: What If We Taught Kids Geography?

Bershidsky’s vacation advice is mostly silly, but as a semi-seasoned traveler, I do actually sympathize just a bit with his rage. Here’s the problem. When you travel the world, you start to realize how much small, impoverished countries are affected by the policies of Western countries where people have never even heard of them. “What do Americans think of our Uzbekistan?” people used to ask me, anxiously. It was hard to find a way to tell them, “They don’t.”

I’m guessing you’re more likely to click on a story about Sierra Leone or Guanxi if you have at least one or two lingering childhood memories of finding them on maps and maybe memorizing a few basic stats.

I understand the reasons. Still, there is something slightly tragic about it. Foreign policy is almost never a major voting issue, unless there’s a war in the offing, in which case our major concern is just our own safety. While that’s all perfectly rational, you can’t meet the other half (or actually, far more than half) of the globe without feeling a little for their situation. Then you start to think: maybe we could at least trouble ourselves to learn their countries’ names? Read a piece on an election every now and then, or give a few dollars to a relief fund for war-torn, natural-disaster-devastated regions?

I therefore propose a compromise. Instead of yelling at people for not vacationing in Burundi, let’s try teaching kids more geography during their school days. This would be a great idea anyway, because boys especially love maps, atlases, and country statistics. Childhood is a wonderful time for getting a basic grasp of the dimensions of the globe. And if you’re worried about the way boys are falling behind in school nowadays, you should be demanding that teachers start covering their walls with interesting maps, post haste. This is also a great way to help all those suffering “visual learners” who need something educational on which to fix their eyes.

If we taught our children geography, grown-ups might at least know the names of each -stan. Probably they wouldn’t keep up with the news to the point where they could, for example, name all the presidents. (Although, one nice thing about these post-Soviet Republics: they’re not constantly changing presidents like in Western countries. Who’s the president of Uzbekistan? Islam Karimov! Just like in 1992! It’s a geography student’s dream!) But actually, a general knowledge of geography might help even with this. I’m guessing you’re more likely to click on a story about Sierra Leone (country in West Africa) or Guanxi (region of China) if you have at least one or two lingering childhood memories of finding them on maps and maybe memorizing a few basic stats. This is the obvious way to have a more globally-focused populace.

Call the Kyrzbekistan tourist board and set up your trip today. Or, barring that, buy your kid an atlas. That’s something normal people can do to make the world a better place.