From Kyrgyzstan to Scottsdale, teen bridges culture gap

Asan Anarkulov not only traveled from the other side of the world to a high school in Scottsdale, he also traversed a cultural chasm that sometimes seemed impossibly wide.

While in his early teens, Anarkulov witnessed revolution in the streets of Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, where he lived with his mother. As anti-government protesters clashed with police in the spring of 2010, he was surrounded by upheaval and violence.

“They attacked the government, destroyed the capital and took over the city I lived in. And I could see and hear it all under my window,” he said.

“That violence kept us from progressing. We wanted a better life, and I knew it was my chance to become someone I wanted to become.”

He got that chance when his mother, who speaks English and has a master’s degree, started looking at doctorate programs in the United States and was accepted into a doctorate program at Arizona State University. She secured a student visa, and in July 2010, when Anarkulov was 14, they fled to the Arizona desert.

When Anarkulov started at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, he was befuddled by teenagers who hugged each other and made direct eye contact — both unheard of in Kyrgyzstan. Students had piercings on their faces and wore strange hats. They fooled around in class. And he didn’t understand the language they were speaking.

It took monumental effort, but Anarkulov, now in his senior year, excelled academically and was named the English Language Learner Success Story of the Year by the state Department of Education.

He also reached a pinnacle of cultural achievement among teenagers when he was crowned homecoming king last fall.

It was a long way from the embattled streets of Bishkek.

Because Anarkulov didn’t speak English when he started at Coronado, he took English-language learner classes with teacher Gary Garcia, who struggled to find Kyrgyzstan on a map.

When he took Garcia’s class, he was the only student who didn’t speak Spanish. Anarkulov’s native language is Kyrgyz, and he also speaks Russian.

Anarkulov was isolated those first few months and rarely spoke to anyone, even though other students tried to be friendly.

“I didn’t understand the little nuances that people would do, and I was really afraid to make mistakes related to culture or to offend someone, so most of the time I did not speak,” he said.

Several months into his freshman year, Anarkulov was still isolated, speaking only to his teachers. They knew he played classical guitar, so they coaxed him into performing in Coronado’s talent show.

On the stage, he played “Yesterday” and “And I Love Her” by the Beatles, his favorite group. When he was done, the students erupted into applause.

“It was a very happy moment for me, and I finally felt connected to my school,” he said.

Anarkulov will graduate seventh in his class of more than 300 students in a few weeks. His future is unclear as his immigration status prevents him from working and qualifying for financial aid, but he may start by taking some classes at Scottsdale Community College while he figures things out.

However, Anarkulov knows he want to help his home country, where he witnessed two revolutions.

“There are a lot of bright kids in Kyrgyzstan, like my friends, but this system of violence has become a mentality of the people. It’s become the normal thing.”

He would like to return someday and share what he’s learned here.

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