Choice as an Agent of Freedom
One Turkmen’s account of the choice to immigrate
When you are born into a reality where choice is restricted and choicelessness is conditioned into the tapestry of its culture, you are faced with a choice:
Do you stay and accept the conditions that limit personal agency, sovereignty and freedom, or do you leave and find your own way? Such was my experience being born in the 80’s into a Turkmen family in Soviet Turkmenistan. Lucky for me — because of those that came before me, and the geopolitical shifts in Central Asia at the time of my birth — this was a choice that I could make, and make I did. This is the story behind my choice to leave and experience life as a Turkmen immigrant.
There are many elements that contributed to my childhood experiences of choicelessness. For one, Turkmenistan was still, at the time, part of the Soviet Union. In their attempt to create an idyll for all, the communists standardized the choice out of many of life’s decision points. I could write pages on what this homogenization felt like for me as a little child, but for now, I will leave you with this (hopefully) illuminating image: I have memories of standing in long blistering lines outside the state-run grocery center to receive the staples my family was allotted for the week. There were no options or choices to be had, just a monotonous sea of grey. Most buildings in Ashgabat were rectangular, grey or beige, with no architectural embellishment or artistic consideration. Neighborhoods didn’t have names but rather identifiers with letters and numbers. Schools also were identified numerically. Things were standardized, simplified, quite utilitarian. It is in huge contrast to what friends my age experienced growing up in the U.S.
To add to that, Turkmen culture is deeply rooted in old traditions with rigidly established roles for each member. There are many cultural expectations and hierarchies that are adhered to and practiced culturally. There is a strong expectation of respecting the elders. And of deferring to them for your own life choices. The gender disparity is huge, with men and their word often deemed more valuable and respected. Whereas men are encouraged to pursue education and sports and recreational activities, women are geared towards learning to take care of house and home, the children, and all the men. From a young age, Turkmen girls are typically groomed to make good housewives and our “goodness” is determined by our level of house-husbandry. As a child, it often felt like my future was pre-determined by my culture and traditions and the expectations of my family and elders. That to do anything outside of that, I would likely be destined to live outside of it. So in many ways, my choice to leave my home came from my desire for more choices. To have options outside of the buffet of life in front of me.
Note: While these cultural norms have shifted in some ways since my childhood, there is still a collective acceptance and perpetuation of these gender roles, particularly in more remote parts of the country. I also have to add that I have not been in Turkmenistan for 11 years and counting, so I cannot provide a personal account of the present-day state of our customs and traditions, which undoubtedly have evolved during this time. Our traditions are strong, and there is much beauty that comes from living within them, as they are exemplary in their depiction of the magic of tribal collectivist living.
My family system and the generational trauma we carry didn’t help me in the choice department either. My father was a firm believer that he was king of the castle, and that his word carried the only weight in our home, and that he was final decision maker on all things. Of course, he carries his own trauma and is the way he is because of all he has experienced. I’m not interested in vilifying or judging his authoritarian ways. I am aware that his actions mimicked the collective energies we found ourselves in. He too is a product of the reality he was born into. My father, and the rest of my family, through the familial dance of mirroring we all seem to do, highlighted for me the despair in choicelessness. There was a lot of deference to the men, whether it was my father or my brothers or uncles, etc. There were a lot of set-in-stone rules and restrictions that weren’t just and infringed on my agency. I tried to fight the unfair structures, and got in trouble many times for doing so.
So clearly, while my choice to move to the U.S. has various facets to it, the desire for choice itself was a major factor. From a nervous system perspective, having experienced the restrictive reality of my childhood, I was driven by the need for more spaciousness, for more choice, for more freedom. And so I left, unplugged from one world and landed into another.
If you’ve read my earlier piece, you already know that when I first arrived in the U.S., in the year 2000, I got very sick. Officially, it was deemed that I was reacting to something in the environment, which was causing me to break out in hives. I now understand that it was my system being overwhelmed by the huge difference in my experience of choice. Suddenly, I had available to me a smorgasbord of options that I previously did not have. My system literally did not know what to do with so much choice.
I went from one extreme to another, or so it felt. It’s taken me years to adjust, to feel more comfortable in my bones with authentically expressing my needs and choices. To know and embody that I have choice today, that I get to choose what I engage in, and when, and how.
Over the last two decades of living in the U.S., where I have made more choices than I first knew what to do with, I have come to realize that my relationship with choice is as much of an inside job as it is an out-there-in-the-world one. I found that the cages that existed in my past were no more than mental prisons in my present, alive only because I continued to project and impose them onto my experiences. I realized that the fear of being choice-less often kept me small and limited. In the end, or rather the current juncture of this exploration, I came to understand that a sense of sovereignty carries within it an understanding that we are inherently choice-full. That choicelessness is an illusion we can choose to subscribe to, or not.
As with all things, the microcosm mimics the macrocosm. My personal work around healing my sense of choicelessness is also playing out on the global stage as we all look at the same questions: Am I a sovereign being? Do I have agency? Do I truly have a choice? For me, these questions feel all too familiar and bring up strong childhood memories of a sense of choicelessness. And I am transported back in time to the many choices I made as a Turkmen immigrant, all choices in the name of choice, and agency, and freedom. And I remind myself that I chose this country for a reason. I made America my home because this is, after all, the land of the free. This is the land of choice and individuality. A place where I can be me.
One of my favorite teachers, Caroline Myss, says something along the lines of: If your family loved you in the way that you need, you would’ve never gone on the journey. And from that lens, I am so grateful to my roots, to the land, the place, the people, the ideology, the culture. If you loved me perfectly, I would’ve never left. And if I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be who I am today. And that, would be a travesty, my friends.
Note: I want to take a moment to say here that I do not write this piece through the lens of politics, or human rights, or social and cultural issues. I am sharing my personal story, my unique perspective, of who I am, where I come from, and what my experience has been as a Turkmen woman in the 21st century. A lot of the work I do in the world today involves trauma awareness and mindfulness. If anything, I write this piece from that lens. To be quite frank, I am writing for me, because this is what my heart is called to do at this time in my life. If aspects of my piece are triggering, and bring up emotion in you, I invite you to be with it. To allow yourself to feel what comes up, and to sit with it, to understand it. I welcome your thoughts and reflections, particularly as they pertain to what this piece brought up for you. Thank you for reading, for sharing, and for supporting me in this work.
P.S. Turkmenistan just celebrated 30 years of independence! We are still young as a nation, but ancient as a people. I am proud to be a Turkmen.