Mirmukhsin, Uzbekistan

“Let’s take the picture in the library. There are a lot of math books there,” Mirmukhsin says. While talking we walk through long corridors to the other side of the Snellius building of the university. “Allright, smile!” I say. “No, I’d rather not,” he answers to my surprise.

“In Uzbekistan we have another tradition than you have here in the Netherlands. Especially for boys it is appreciated if you are serious. Therefore, parents teach their sons not to be too cheerful. If you are with friends, then of course you can laugh. But with strangers a smile is out of place. This also applies to children. People take it as if there is something wrong with them. It makes them feel insecure.”

“Here in the Netherlands, it is different. I noticed it immediately when I arrived. When you are with people and you look at someone. And that person also looks at you and smiles. It makes me happy inside. I like it.” Now he smiles, and I quickly take a picture.

“I finished my bachelor and master in Tashkent, the capital of my country. After that I studied for a year in Italy and now I’m doing a PhD here. I am from the Kushkupir district in the Khorezm region. It covers thousands of square kilometers of desert land through which a very wide river flows. Around the river people live from agriculture, especially from cotton. That is only possible because we have built many wide canals that irrigate the surrounding land.”

“Just like you, we are good at managing water supplies. My region is also flat so we use the bike as the go-to mode of transport in the countryside. In that sense, I do feel at home in the Netherlands. There is one other not-so-flat country that we have something special in common with: the mountainous country of Liechtenstein. You will never guess what it is. Uzbekistan does not have its own coast. It is ‘landlocked’, as we call it – meaning it is only surrounded by land. What makes our two countries unique is that the countries that surround us are landlocked too. This means we are ‘double landlocked’. That has a major effect on the economy, because importing products is expensive.”

“In Uzbekistan you can still find a lot of the old Soviet Union. The system is socialist and everything depends on one single person: the president. But we live in peace and people don’t talk about politics. Maybe there is not much freedom, but there isn't much inequality either. In that sense, Europe is a completely new experience for me.”