30 July 2004

Green or Black?

“Do you want green tea or black tea?”

In Uzbekistan, tea is the drink of hospitality. Community is all about hanging out in the choyhona (teahouse), talking and drinking tea while sitting on topchan, a kind of raised platform bed with a pad to sit on and a small table in the middle. (Thus, choyhona is also the name of a popular Internet chat network.)

Tea?So which tea do you choose?1 The question seems simple, but the answer is fraught with political significance, identifying you as sympathetic to either ethnic Russians or ethnic Uzbeks.

One of the legacies of the Soviet occupation in Central Asia is a population of ethnic Russians living there. Born in Central Asia and raised under Soviet culture, when the USSR fell and the borders rolled back, these ethnic Russians remained. This piece in Slate describes the predicament.

“Clara was a Soviet. Today, she must search for a new vocabulary to define her identity. She has no ties to the land of her ancestors and is neither Kazakh nor Russian.

This search for identity is mirrored in millions of ex-Soviet people of all ethnic groups. One of the more interesting cultural shifts in post-Soviet Central Asia is the status and identity of ethnic Russians. During Soviet rule, the Russians comprised more than half of the population in Kazakhstan, exiled by Stalin during the 1950s and ’60s mass migration under the ‘Virgin Lands’ campaign, when Russians were encouraged to cultivate northern Kazakhstan’s pastures.

So where does this leave ethnic Russians with no ties to the new but living in the place of their birth? Rootless.”

Ethnic Russians used to be identified with the power elite, but are no longer. Since Central Asian independence they are in some ways second-class citizens. Political leaders now promote a form of nationalism using ideas of ethnic authenticity — for instance, promoting local languages and literature supressed under Communism, or in the most extreme example, the President of Turkmenistan has banned all “non-Turkmen” cultural institutions.

In this climate, signs that might otherwise seem insignificant become significant cultural markers.

In Uzbekistan, conventional wisdom holds that Russians drink black tea and Uzbeks drink green tea. When with one group or another, drinking the appropriate tea identifies one as part of the “in group.” The sign, though, can be waved by anyone — an ethnic Russian among Uzbeks may choose green tea to signify that he or she is down with the group.

Ironically, the political leaders pushing the nationalism are often themselves the products of Soviet education and the Soviet system. They speak fluent Russian... and though they’d never admit it, might even prefer black tea.

1 Choosing neither will win you a stern lecture on the important health benefits of tea.