Changing notions of identity and place in Central Asia
From left to right: UCLA Professor of History Nile Green, Naomi Caffee, Bonnie Richard and Rick Miller. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Changing notions of identity and place in Central Asia

A May 2013 graduate research panel organized by the Asia Institute's Program on Central Asia explored the changing dynamics of identity and place in the region. The interdisciplinary session saw presentations by a linguist, an anthropologist and a geographer, respectively.

International Institute, March 16, 2013 — Not only are individual and national identities being transformed in Central Asia, even geographic notions of the region are being re-imagined by its residents. That was the message of a UCLA graduate student research panel organized by the Asia Institute’s Program on Central Asia last week as part of its Central Asia Workshop seminar.

Ali Hamdan, a doctoral student in geography at UCLA, introduced the panel, arguing that the straightforward connections between identity, place and politics once taken for granted by scholars should be interrogated, not corroborated, by research. The Central Asia Workshop, he explained, decided in spring quarter 2013 to investigate how such boundaries come into being, choosing to look at Central Asia as a moving target.

Hamdan noted that this choice echoed the work of geographer Martin Jones, who advocated focusing on how places are practiced and narrated through relations with the outside world. It is within this framework that students of linguistics, anthropology and geography presented recent research on the region.

Naomi Caffee, who recently completed her Ph.D. at the UCLA Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, spoke about the transnational identities being forged by Central Asian poets who write in Russian (i.e., Russophone writers) and publish largely on the Internet.

Citing Paul Jay’s “The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies,” Caffee pointed out that previous paradigms of literary analysis that contrasted the center and periphery no longer hold for Russophone poets from Central Asia. Rather, the Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and Fergana (Tajikistan) schools of Russophone poetry have created what she called a “virtual periphery” on the Internet.

These “digital surrogate homelands” are maintained by poets who reside in Central Asia, as well as (in the case of the Tashkent school) those that have emigrated to live in European Russia, but still write about their countries — now defined in terms of absence.

Not only is the position of a Russophone global poet more alienated than that of the traditional exile, observed Caffee, their identities as poets are inextricably linked to the technology of the Internet. As a result, she said, many writers in the region have a deep ambiguity toward this technology as it informs their identity as poets. Pavel Bannikov, for example, publishes poems on the Internet that assert that the technology alienates him from his authentic lyric voice.

Another look at Central Asia was provided by Bonnie Richard, a Ph.D. student in anthropology, whose research explores how pre-teens in Ladakh, India — a remote region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that has historically had close links with Central Asia — are negotiating new ideas of identity in an era that stresses the supreme importance of education.

Previous generations of Ladakhi, noted Richard, went to school, but often dropped out after a few years. Since the 1970s, however, Ladakh has been the target of both international and national development projects. Today, education is seen as necessity in order to reap the benefits of modernization and escape the hard work of farming.

At school, noted Richard, children develop an individualized sense of themselves and personal goals — a “privileged” identity in comparison to previous generations. At home, however, they are socialized into group roles and responsibilities as part of a clan. Although most pre-teens interviewed by Richard aspire to attend university in a big city in India, most feel lucky to be Ladakhi and wish to return home after attaining a higher education.

Richard’s research revealed a complicated picture in which young Ladakhis lament the loss of traditional dress and village life, but don’t want to wear such dress and hope to live in towns! At the same time, clan and familial obligations appear to continue to be valued higher than individual educational aspirations. She noted that these children’s sense of identity would change yet again if they do attend university in India, as they would experience being an ethnic minority for the first time.

Urbanization and its impact on rural migrants in Mongolia was the subject of research presented by Rick Miller, a Ph.D. student in geography. In a land historically known for its pastoral nomads, the idea of the countryside is now an urban concept imagined by those who live in cities. The latter, he noted, experience city life as both degraded and degrading; even the word currently used for trade has associations with cheating and stealing. As a result, Miller contended that rural life is becoming the repository of the Mongolian ideal.

Extreme weather conditions in the years 1999–2003 caused an enormous loss of livestock and sparked a huge migration of rural residents to Ulaan Baator, the capital of Mongolia. Roughly half the population of the country now lives in the capital. The outlying ger districts (‘ger’ being the Mongolian term for the round felt tent often referred to in the west as a ‘yurt’) inhabited by former pastoralists now represents between one-half to one-third of the city’s population. 

These districts, where one can see traditional ger tents alongside more modern housing construction, fill the flatlands around the capital and climb steep hillsides to the city’s east, west and north. They are not usually considered slums by the people who live in them, said Miller, noting that this word was used by outsiders.

Miller described the ger neighborhoods as the last stand of the dispossessed in Mongolia. Although residents can technically access city services, he noted that in reality, they were excluded from both rural and urban networks. Only a small number of ger residents understand recent land laws and have been able to thrive within, or in spite of, them.  Nevertheless, Miller held out hope that these districts could incubate new forms of economic activity and be transformed into desirable places to live, work and thrive.

In final remarks, UCLA historian Nile Green, Director of the Program on Central Asia, found the tangible and intangible notions of space and identity in Central Asia being explored by UCLA students reflective of their generation’s experience of communications technology and its attendant de-spacialization of lived experience. Even the “where” of Central Asia is in flux today, he remarked., He noted that their research expands upon new directions charted in recent UCLA faculty workshops and publications that have come out of the Program on Central Asia, sounding a common theme of the intersection between space and place that occupies a large place in the historiography of China, France, Europe and the Middle East.

The Central Asia Workshop is an interdisciplinary discussion group sponsored by the UCLA Program on Central Asia. The goal of the workshop is to encourage research on Central Asia by creating a space where students and interested faculty can discuss research, theory and ideas with others who have experience or interest in the region. The workshop is a forum for exploring recent research and classical and contemporary theoretical perspectives that inform work on Central Asia. Weekly discussions are led by members on a rotating basis and topics are determined by group interests. Participants may receive credit for the workshop by enrolling in a new course, Central Asian Studies (History M287/Anthropology M287), established in Spring 2013. Click here for more information.