Minorities Abroad Project
Name: Phillip Dehoux
Destination: Baku, Azerbaijan
Time Abroad: Summer 2011
Ethnic Self-identification: Haitian-Cuban-American
Growing up in New York City I found that immersing myself in other cultures just came naturally. I have always enjoyed meeting new people, learning about different cultures, and enjoying new food. These were some of the central reasons why I chose to study in Azerbaijan.
I had not heard much about the country, and all I knew was that it was a secular Muslim state and a part of the former Soviet Union. I was excited to go somewhere not a lot of people had ever been or even knew existed.
I lived in very homogenous North Dakota when I was fortunate enough to have received a Critical Language Scholarship to study the Azerbaijani language the summer of 2011. After a marathon of flights my group touched down in Baku, the cosmopolitan capital of Azerbaijan. I would later find that people regarded Baku, the ancient city on the Caspian, as the new Dubai. The oil-rich nation showed off its wealth and opulence with the constant din of construction, sports cars everywhere you turn, and luxury goods stores like Chanel and Baby Dior down by the waterfront. Despite what I saw, most people were living their lives largely unchanged from the Soviet era. The locals I encountered eked out a living on meager wages, rode public transportation, and dressed modestly. The vast majority of citizens were also the nicest, most hospitable people I have encountered outside of North Dakota.
My first night in Azerbaijan involved a big welcoming banquet arranged by our Resident Director and some officials at the Azerbaijani University of Languages where we would spend the summer studying. We all helped ourselves to heaping spoonfuls of plov, a colorful rice dish with fruit and meat; tomato and cucumber salad; and the best bread you will ever taste. Afterward, some of the group decided to experience Baku nightlife. We hung out at a club popular with expats and danced to a cover band with a penchant for early 80s rock. On our walk back to our hotel we were stopped by a small group of police officers who obviously did some partying of their own. There were only two minorities in our group: me and a young Korean woman. The officers demanded our passports and wanted know what we were doing in Baku. All of us but one had our passports and hesitantly handed them over to the “cop” who did all the talking and was in plainclothes. He returned all the passports except mine because he claimed I ran away when they asked us to stop. Riiiiiight. I stayed in place with the group.
Being black automatically made me a criminal in their eyes. They demanded payment of fine, told me they were being more than gracious with me because I would have gotten shot in America. Apparently the guy in our group who had no identification whatsoever committed a minor infraction and was invited to party with them at a later date. I gave them $40 US just to get out of the situation which was handled beautifully by a Russian-speaker in our group. We hightailed it back to our hotel and immediately reported the incident.
The incident left me afraid to really venture out on my own at night for the remainder of the summer in Azerbaijan and definitely left me avoiding police at all times. My overall experience in Azerbaijan, however, was great. I made great friends and spent time in a beautiful, exotic country. Other than the police situation, everyone I met was friendly, curious, and eager to open dialog about our countries. People would stop me on the street or metro to ask me how I like their country. I took a kung-fu class in exchange for practicing English with the sifu’s son and friends. I felt like a minor celebrity when I appeared on Azeri television as part of a piece on an American-style barbecue, and when people in the outer regions would ask to get pictures taken with me. The food was the most delicious and fresh I have ever had. I learned the basics of an interesting language not widely-known here in the States. And I have a great story to tell about the time I spent in that ancient jewel on the Caspian.