My name is Kamilla Yunusova and I am a half Russian, half Uyghur, Philly girl from Uzbekistan. You might be wondering how I came to be a Pengyou. My journey began in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, continued to Philadelphia, USA, and today I am in Beijing, China. With every step I take, I’m finding the world to be a small place after all.
I grew up in Uzbekistan speaking Russian, a language that was well-spoken in the former Soviet republic. Having a Russian mother and Uyghur father had led me to live with two distinct and unique cultures. I never questioned this, it was a fact of my life. Living in Uzbekistan, going to outside markets, bazaars, was a typical shopping trip with my parents. My dad would usually haggle in Uzbek with the local merchants, and he had a system for picking out watermelons, the best snack for the dry summers in Uzbekistan. I never learned Uzbek, so I was used to hearing a tongue I didn’t understand. We often took the subway and trolley because they were a clean and practical way of getting around. I always admired the subway stations in Tashkent– they were all unique and lavishly decorated with chandeliers and beautiful patterns. Walking around the neighborhood in the afternoons was a favorite past time as well. In the summer, people would gather at town squares to enjoy company and fresh air before bed. I loved it.
My young, happy, familiar life turned upside down when we won the Green card lottery in 2003. My family uprooted our comfortable life in Tashkent to go to Philadelphia, a decision fueled by my parent’s hope of a promising future for us in a country far more developed than Uzbekistan.
A Whole New World – Philadelphia, PA
American culture was a culture that I did have questions about. My preconceptions of America were little to nonexistent at the age of 7, and I wondered what my new home would look like. I wondered if the people would look like aliens and if the grass was the same color.
Arriving in the U.S., I found that it looked like a very normal place: highways that looked familiar and green grass. Thankfully, the people did not look like aliens. Still my new home in Northeast Philadelphia was missing a buzzing element from home– with no haggling and traffic rules that were much more orderly. Average American suburbs. There were no subways in sight, and almost everybody owned a car. When people took shopping trips, they bought everything in bulk– a feat that could never be accomplished on public transportation or on foot. I saw my neighbors only when they walked their dogs. Nobody went for walks in the neighborhood; they drove to the park instead. Life in Philly was new, but eventually it became home.
When we immigrated to the US, I was old enough to understand why my parents bothered facing hardships they did to settle there, and I applied it as a form of motivation towards my education. Through hard work and dedication, my efforts in school brought me to the University of Pennsylvania. Success in college was my way of proving to my parents that their efforts and the sacrifices we made to move to America were not in vain. And through an extraordinary turn of events, Penn brought me to where I am now, Beijing, the present.
Expanding on a Global Perspective
At first, I was a lost freshman, wanting to remain diligent to furthering my education but not knowing what resources were available for students. During my search for a productive summer, I hit the jackpot when I heard about the International Internship Program. I picked Asia as my geographical preference primarily out of curiosity. My grandfather was born in China, and because of that I gravitated towards Asia, but it still felt like an adventure because I had no background in Chinese language or culture other than that tenuous connection. I have Chinese friends and love Chinese food, but had no idea what to expect. I was lucky to be connected with Golden Bridges, and with a purpose I was excited about– building international bridges. With some basic Chinese phrases I had learned on Youtube, an open mind, and overstuffed luggage, I finally made my way here. What I found was a pleasant surprise.
My first impression of Beijing was that it was a very normal city–just like Philadelphia, New York, or Tashkent. I found more familiar things here than I expected. There were things that made Beijing unique, of course– such as the distinct Chinese culture, language and food, but like many other cities, it has skyscrapers, abundant public transportation, and lots of people riding bikes. I especially appreciated the neat bike lanes separated from the rest of the traffic by a fence, something that is missing from the US cities.
Discovering Beijing and Making Connections
I discovered that Beijing bears a close resemblance to my hometown. I was thinking about this while sitting in a taxi driving on the Beijing expressway. We were at an intersection, and in a swift motion, the driver had cut off the perpendicular lane by turning sharply left. The driver drove boldly against the lines painted on the pavement and we could have easily been hit from the side if other cars hadn’t anticipated us. In that moment, I should have been grabbing on to the car for dear life. I felt a comforting sense of nostalgia instead.
The outside markets, loud with voices bargaining to get a deal. The squatting toilets. Unique Chinese street food. The sight of fancy cafes amidst very local, authentic shops and vendors was a familiar juxtaposition. I was comforted by the clean subways and mostly conservatively-dressed population– only the physical features and Mandarin conversation set this city apart from Tashkent. People around me were speaking a tongue I didn’t understand and it didn’t frustrate me because for half of my life, that was the norm. If I closed my eyes I could almost teleport back 12 years. When I saw how alive Beijing was on a warm summer night, I couldn’t help but muse and appreciate Chinese culture- especially the big, organized crowds of older people in public squares that dance and practice tai-chi to music on a regular basis.
In the short time I’ve been here to experience this big beautiful city, I’ve broken down mental barriers and understood a little better that all of humanity essentially wants the same things. It’s kind of funny how sometimes all you need to feel empathy is to experience the other side. I’ve lived in three astoundingly different cities– Tashkent, Philadelphia and Beijing– and have gotten to know a plethora of pengyous from different walks of life has allowed me to witness how unique identities, religious beliefs and perspectives can get along and work together despite cultural differences. Some would say that I’m out in the “real world” now– implying a universe full of scary monsters. If we work to promote empathy, respect and cooperation, then the world doesn’t have to be so scary. I know that the world is ours and that is why I’m a Pengyou.