Discover more from Britain By Thumb
Chapter 50: USA Part V
To New York
…continued from last week.
“You want some bread?” Joxorginr waved a shiny brown wheel in front of me. It looked a bit like a huge shirt button.
The Uzbeks aren’t known for their cuisine but Uzbek bread is good. Joxorginr broke off a hunk and gave it to me. Then he extended a Tupperware and raised his eyebrows. It was full of round disks of brown meat.
“Err… sounds lovely… thank you!” I replied politely and sheepishly made myself a horse sandwich. When in Rome I thought, although looking around the New Jersey service station no one else seemed to be eating horse.
Kazy is what the homemade sausage is called. It’s rich, a little spiced and smokey. Venison is the nearest thing I’d say. It’s hard to come by in the States so the men had taken a few leftover boxes home after the Tennessee wedding. It’s a delicacy usually eaten with the national dish, plov, inherited from the days of the Turkic nomads. Maybe Genghis Khan tried it when he swept through. I’m sure his grandson Tamerlane did from his capital Samarkand. There was something fitting about eating the nomad delicacy on the road.
It’s illegal to eat horse in most US states, New Jersey and New York included. Khalil had a wry grin when he told me they’d been fined the other day for doing so. It’s a big part of Uzbek culture though so people generally risk it.
“We had a friend who came to the US. He was a butcher and wanted some horse,” Dilshod said as we got in the car and began the second half of the journey to New York. The other two nodded and smiled, remembering the man. “He was very clever so he went to a state where it’s illegal to eat horse. He bought a very old horse, one that was very close to dying. No one knew why he wanted to buy it, they thought it was very strange. Guess how much it cost?”
“20! 20 bucks!”
“Wow, must have been old.”
“Yes it was very, very old. He took it across the border to a state where it was legal to eat horse, killed it and made sausages! He made lots of money and everyone was very happy!”
I wondered if such an elaborate trick was used for the horse we’d just eaten.
Joxorginr had taken over the driving. I immediately felt unsafe the moment we got on the interstate. The speedo ticked upwards and the engine whined louder. 93, 94, 95. Joxorginr barely noticed the speed. Despite having had three hours in the passenger seat, he thought now was the time to answer his messages, FaceTime his friends and scroll through Facebook, flicking back and forth to instagram when he felt like it. At one point he decided to clean the dashboard. Every now and then he’d jerk the car back into lane and there’d be a loud rumble as we’d hit the lines.
Dilshod seemed unperturbed and Khalil had folded himself up and drifted off. I tried to take my mind off the road so asked Dilshod what it was like moving here, how he had found the culture.
It had been strange at first. Dilshod had grown up under a Soviet system. “Back then, everyone, your father, brothers, neighbours, all wore exactly the same shirt.” They all came from a state-owned company called druzhba, he told me. It means friendship in Russian. “Yes, back then it was very different. You couldn’t even leave the country. Say I wanted to go to London, I would ask the government and they would say why? We have a lake in Tajikistan, go there!”
His first job here was driving a taxi. He’d enjoyed meeting people - it’s like hitchhiking, I suppose - and it was a good way to learn the language. It was a good way to learn the culture too.
“One time, a man got into my taxi,” Dilshod recalled slowly. His observations were made in the form of long, winding stories. “When I told him I was Uzbek, he got out his wallet and gave me $100. He owned two blocks of apartments in New York; ninety per cent of his residents were Uzbek and he liked them because we always paid rent on time.” Dilshod was proud of that.
“So he tells me to drive him to a strip club. It is nighttime and he has his young girlfriend with him. He asks me to come inside and be his bodyguard and tells me, ‘you take me home when I have spent too much money!’ So we go in. It was, how do I say it, very strange…”
Dilshod told a vivid account of his night in the strip club. He forgot no details, the faces of the bodyguards, the girls, the shining red leather sofas and the banging, persistent music. Strip clubs had been a totally alien concept to Dilshod. In Uzbekistan, he assured me, there was nothing remotely similar.
The old man walked in, gave all the security guards $100 and then bought one bottle of Champagne and one bottle of vodka. It cost $3500. Then he changed a thousand bucks into one dollar bills and bought Dilshod a lap dance.
“I didn’t enjoy it.” Dilshod said plainly, “But since I was there I decide to try to learn something. I was interested. The girl is dancing and asking me all these questions like Ohhh do you like that mister? And I see they ask everyone the same question. It is fake! Everything is… a facade, surface level. They asked me if I think they are attractive and I say, ‘Of course, you are very beautiful! But it is not real. I am not enjoying this dance.’ They could not understand why I did not enjoy.”
The old man was enjoying himself. He got drunker and was spending more and more money. Dilshod tried to stop him but was batted off. The girlfriend seemed unfazed. She waited patiently with Dilshod, ignored by the dancers.
Dilshod continued to be inquisitive.
“I was talking to this Czech woman and she had very big… how do you call it?” He held both hands over his chest, “Breasts, let's say. I ask why she has such big breasts and she tells me they are fake. My thought was not sexual you understand, it was practical. So I ask, ‘how do you breastfeed with all that silicon?’ And she says she didn’t know.” Dilshod looked at me proudly through the mirror. “She says, ‘No one has ever asked me that before…!’”
The old man told the proprietor to bring him only blondes. The blondes in there, Dilshod explained, were all Russian and Eastern European.
“The woman… the manager… she was horrible. She says to me, ‘Do you speak Russian?’ I lied, I said no.” Most people in Uzbekistan speak Russian. A hangover from the Soviet empire. “So she speaks to them in Russian and says, ‘Hey bitches! That man is drunk. Get everything you can out of him.’ I found this very very strange. She was so rude!”
The old man spent four hours in there and they got over $9000 out of him.
“At the end of the night I says to this woman, ‘You know I understood every word you say. I know everything you do is fake! Why do you do this?’ She replies, ‘Look sir, this is just our jobs. This is how these women get paid. Of course, we don’t love these men. But they are rich and they pay us a lot of money.’”
We remarked on how sexualised America is. Sex sells after all. Khalil, who’d been woken up by Joxorginr’s driving, said that his friends in Uzbekistan always ask if he is having lots of sex. “They think that in America you just walk down the street and you can have sex with someone!” He laughed. “They see it in the movies and think that’s how it is.” He assured me it wasn’t.
We talked about Uzbekistan and the cities of the Silk Road. Khiva, with its muscular medieval walls; Bukhara, two and a half thousand years old, hooded with caravanserais, and the mighty Samarkand, capital of Tamerlane’s empire, and home to the madrasahs of the Registan. There are few places as beautiful. Sparkling blue and gold. They stood for the all the Silk Road did - the human urge to connect.
Dilshod had a friend who lived right by it and it reminded him of another cultural comparison. This friend had recently got to know an American called John who was visiting the city for a few months. “Many many times she invited John to her house,” he recounted, “They ate together. Her whole family looked after him with everything, you understand. He was a guest in their home.”
Some years later the friend came to the US. “Of course she wanted to see John but John was busy. There was no food, no hospitality, not even a cup of tea. They saw each other for less than 15 minutes! Where’s the respect? For nearly two months she had looked after John and he returned nothing. My friend was nearly crying!”
I said in the West we have different ideals of hospitality. Few would dream of hosting a stranger from a far away land. Of course, there are many who would, who understand the give and take, but it’s not an established part of the culture. Dilshod understood this but thought it a shame. Though he liked much of American culture, some parts still baffled him.
‘I was listening to late-night radio recently,” he said, beginning another poignant observation, “A woman called in and asked to play a song. I don’t remember the song, but it was very sad. She said she had just become homeless and that she was about to have a baby.” He was looking at the road questioningly, “I could not believe this! In Uzbekistan, this would never happen. If you said this to an Uzbek lady she would laugh!”
I asked what he meant.
“Because this would not happen there,” he repeated, “A pregnant woman would not become homeless. Someone would look after her. Not here. No one was looking after her. All she could do was call the late-night radio and ask for a song.”
By now we were crossing from Staten Island into Brooklyn, across the metal bridge. Manhattan glowed in the distance, bristling with prowess. It looked awe-inspiring.
“The American dream…” Khalil murmured.
We slid off the bridge and slowed into Brooklyn traffic. They dropped me by the subway station. We said goodbye, hugged, took pictures and promised to stay in touch. They got back in the car and were gone. The train rattled overhead and the market stretched beneath. New York enveloped like a sandstorm, people and colour and noise, signs in foreign symbols, shouts in foreign tongues. It was like the Silk Road cities of old, cultures colliding, trading, connecting, as they always have and as they always will.
Thanks for sticking with me for 50 chapters and I hope you enjoyed the brief foray in the USA. Back again next week from the Fens.
Please like, subscribe and share with your friends!
If you made it this far down, here’s a slightly embarrassing 50th-chapter special. Dilshod’s behind the camera.