At World Crossroads in Central Asia, Identity Is Submerged for Uighurs, Koreans, Kazaks, and Others, Ethnicity Comes Second to Making Ends Meet

Article excerpt

On a Saturday night on a collective farm in eastern Uzbekistan, the village disco booms the latest Western dance tracks into the still night air. Several streets away, a Uighur Muslim family and friends celebrate the ritual circumcision of three young boys.

Whether by force or volition, different peoples and cultures have been intermingling for centuries here at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

And at Kim Pen Hva, named for the ethnic Korean who ran this kolkhoz, or collective farm, during Communist times, decades of Soviet social engineering have produced a surprising cosmopolitanism for such a seeming backwater. The reality of life makes ethnic identity secondary to the main task of getting by. The average monthly wage on the cotton farm is less than $20, and many villagers look back wistfully to the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when founder Chairman Kim made the kolkhoz rich and famous, by Soviet standards. Yet despite the homogenization and relative racial harmony, Central Asia's ethnic groups still cling to their identities, however tenuously. Of the village's 9,000 inhabitants, only about 50 percent are ethnic Uzbeks, with Koreans, Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Russians making up the other half. They live side by side in low one-story houses hidden from the main road by high, overgrown fences. Korean teenagers, chatting in Russian, assemble outside the disco while, on the other side of the village, Uighurs and Uzbeks dance to traditional tunes. But there is no segregation here, and the village's ethnic groups mix easily. "We have never had any conflicts," says Ella Kim, a kindergarten teacher who during the summer sells vegetables at the sparse kolkhoz bazaar. "We all live peacefully together, work together, drink tea together," she says. An ethnic Korean, Ms. Kim married an Uzbek. "At first, my parents were against the marriage," she says. "But then they got used to him. They understood that the most important thing was not his nationality, but his personality." Surprisingly, Kim concedes that if her own two children had wanted to marry Uzbeks, she would have been opposed. Forced migration Ethnic Koreans are especially rootless here, speaking Russian as their first language and giving their children Russian names. Fearing that ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Far East would collaborate with the Japanese, Joseph Stalin had more than 70,000 moved to Central Asia in 1937. …