Sunday, December 30, 2007

I am Canadian

I remember back when I was in grade ten or eleven our school hosted citizenship court. I helped plan the ceremony and serve at the luncheon after. I remember it being the first day I really thought about how fortunate I was to be born in Canada. Our school gym was filled with people from nations all over the world who had left their home in search of something better, in search of a new life. They all clutched so tightly to their new Canadian citizenship paper as they took pictures with everyone and anyone (I remember a few people even asking me to be in the shot, and I was just serving punch that day). Their joy that day was contagious, and their love for my home land really made me stop and give thanks for my nation and nationality.

Today I was over visiting one of my old Uyghur friends. She had new pictures her daughter had just sent from Canada. Among them were shots of the whole family at citizenship court. The looks on their faces were no different than what I had seen that day at high school. Without thinking I blurted out “Oh look, your daughter is Canadian now!” I was sure this older woman must share in the relief and joy of knowing that her daughter and grandkids now have official citizenship in such a great country. But instead of seeming grateful she seemed upset. To her these pictures did not represent a day of celebration, but a day of doom. In her mind her daughter had turned her back on their culture, their nation, all the history she had tried to pass down. “Why did they do that?” she asked, “they didn’t need to be Canadian, they were already Uyghur.” For every person at court that day, there was a family back in the homeland worrying and wondering how this was pulling their family away from them.

My friend saw nationality as a major definition of who a person is. The more I thought about it the more I was glad that while yes I am Canadian, that is not my number one citizenship.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bling for my Birthday

For me dressing up means putting on my jean skirt instead of just my jeans, it means my black jacket, or maybe a nice sweater. I like to fool myself by calling it an ‘elegant, understated sort of style’, but to my Uyghur friends it is just plain, simple, and boring. Dressing up requires more, it needs sparkle and colour and zing. All of the Uyghur ladies I go out with will have on makeup and jewellery; their dresses are often caked and incrusted with sequence and glitter.

This semester I have had a real journey to try to add some bling to my outfits (I don’t want these ladies embarrassed when they introduce me to their friends). I don’t know how many times I went to the stores to look. I always wanted to get the smallest delicate necklace I could find in the shop, but the sales ladies would often pick up another one and tell me how much more beautiful it was. The war inside would begin: I knew I should get the one the local people like if I really wanted to fit in, but I just didn’t like it that much. Normally the frustration and tension inside would mount to the point that I would give up and leave the store empty handed.

The truth is that jewellery is more than just a status symbol with the Uyghurs, it is a way to care for your family. Every girl at a rather young age is given a pair of gold earrings by their family. The logic is that if the girl ever finds herself desperate for money, the family has provided something she can sell to survive. So the glitter also has a practical side.

The other day for my birthday my tutor (and Uyghur mother) gave me a pearl, jade and diamond necklace, which might sound like overkill but is actually really pretty. Now she doesn’t have to be as ashamed of my drab appearance in public. But really it is more than that, the pearls are all real, so now my Uyghur family has helped take care of me.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

McDonald's at Midnight

Last night my classmate came back from a more populated part of the country. The airport that she flew out of had a McDonalds. As a very thoughtful gesture she stopped and got McDonalds to go. It was than a five-six hour flight across the country. When she came back we ate our cold hamburgers. Even cold they are still an amazing taste of home.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

T’is the Season to be Jolly

This semester as I have been getting to know some of the older ladies on campus I was surprised to hear three or four of them tell me about the same Christmas party they had attended many years ago. I guess there had been some other foreign students who had thrown them a party. They had played silly games like the “I’ve never” game, or little Christmas presents in the middle. They had eaten Christmas cookies and listened to Christmas music. It sounded like fun, but nothing really special. The thing that amazed me though was that all four of these ladies still remembered the night in such detail almost nine years later. Some of them even claimed they had never had that much fun in their life.

After hearing all their stories I decided to throw a party of my own. The goal was not to out do the one from years before, but to add another good memory to the season. It was a small party, only three ladies. We eat cookies I had decorated, listened to music and played the game where you wrap a small gift in each layer of paper and then pass it like a hot potato, when the music stops the person holding the gift removes a layer and gets to keep that gift. You would have thought I had invented the light bulb with how much they gushed about what a great idea that was for a game, and how much fun they had. Before they left I gave them all scarves that I had hand knit for them.

I hope some of the real light of Christmas shone through the simple party we had.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Amazing Mind Boggling Abilities

I was invited to join my teacher at another Chai she was giving. However this time she had to go early, and I had a few earns to run first, so I promised to come on my own later. We were meeting at the same restaurant as last time (which is only three bus stops down from my school).

When I arrived one of the women was very surprised to see me. She had assumed since I didn’t come with my teacher I wasn’t coming at all. The whole idea that I a rather young (I think she thinks I am only 18 or 19) foreigner could find my way around town with out being guided by a local, seem totally impossible. She kept questioning me: “how did you get here?” “I took the bus” “What bus did you take?” “101” “How did you know to take that bus?” “Because we are only a few stops down from my school” “How did you know what stop to get off at?” “Because I have been here before, so I knew where the restaurant was” No matter how many questions I answered this woman still remained totally amazed at my ability to make my way down the street on my own. The fact that I had been there before, or that I have now lived in this city for over three years, the fact that I can speak some of both of the local languages, or that I ride that bus at least once every single day still left her flabbergasted.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

May I Have Your Autograph?

The other day my teacher and I went book store hopping after class. We were in search of a dictionary of Uyghur idioms (which we never found by the way), but we did find a number of other interesting books. It seemed that every book shop we went into my teacher would pull a different book off the shelf, look at it and laugh, then open the front cover and show me that she was the author of the book. Some of them were books that she had worked on almost twenty years ago, and she was surprised you could even still buy.

The area of uyghur scholarship and the printed word is just starting to explode, but for years the number of books was very minimal. I guess that is how I can know so many famous authors. In fact all of my textbooks from the last three years have been autographed by the author. I wonder what sort of a price a signed copy of “Essentials of Uyghur Grammar 2” will fetch someday on e-bay?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Contestant Number 6

Yesterday I took part in my school’s Uyghur speech contest. When I was in elementary school and high school I was big into the speech scene. So in many ways yesterday was kind of a flash back for me. The only difference was that this time my speech was suppose to be in another language.

My teacher had forgotten to mention the contest to me earlier so I had exactly four hours to prepare (all of my fellow contestants had been busy memorizing for three weeks). All of the other contestants were students from the majority people. It ended up being a very uneventful night. I sat there for two and a half hours listening to speeches I couldn’t understand well, either because their pronunciation was so poor, I couldn’t make out what they were saying, or they copied the text from such a high level book, that it was still way above my head.

When I arrived I was quickly ushered to a seat up front and given a cup of tea. I told the student severing me, that I was also a contestant in the competition, and therefore shouldn’t be being given tea. I ended up sitting right next to the judges and teachers, and was introduced along with them as “our foreign guest for the evening”.

My speech itself was a mess. I was planning on just reading the text I had found and written out (my teacher had said that would be okay since I had just heard about the competition that day). It was the story of a father who had two sons. The youngest takes his inheritance and foolishly spends it. But in the end it is a wonderful picture of forgiveness and acceptance. Thankfully I knew the story well, because I couldn’t read my own hand writing, and I had to tell it from memory. The grammar was all wrong, but the judges seemed pleased to be listening to something other than another over acclimating piece about ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘world peace’.

After I was done sharing, one of the senior students got up and gave the others a lecture (in the national language) encouraging them all to study as hard as I do. So that one day all the students in the room could speak as well as our ‘foreign guest’. Talk about wanting to eat your face off.
I guess I don’t have to tell you that I came in first place. I think the minute I walked into that room with my ‘blond hair’ and foreign passport the whole thing was rigged. This means I have to go back tomorrow for round two and sit through another couple hours of speeches.

This picture was taken three years ago at the last school speech contest I attended. That time they ended the evening by having a special photo shoot for all of the "foreign guests" and judges.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What’s Hot and What’s Not

As I mentioned in my last post I have been coughing a lot from the coal dust. My constant hacking however does inspire the concern of a number of older Uyghur ladies. All of them are full of ideas and suggestions to help me feel better. They keep underlining how important it is for me to eat hot food. Some sicknesses need hot food to help with recovery and others need cold food. The problem is that I still don’t really understand what is hot and what is not.

In our western way of thinking a food is hot, if the temperature is hot. We talk about warming up with a hot bowl of soup, hugging a mug of coffee, eating stick to your ribs steaming porridge, or settling down with a cup of hot chocolate. We believe all of these will warm a person up from the inside out, because they are foods that are served hot.

Eastern thought doesn’t care about the temperature of the dish, they care about the food itself. The Uyghurs believe that some foods warm up your blood and some cool you down. I still have not learned how to tell hot food from a cold food, I am just slowly starting to learn what category the foods I like fall into. For instance, mutton and horse are considered warm meats, where as chicken and beef are cold. Even veggies can be separated into these two categories, apples and cucumbers are warm, and mushrooms are cold.

Therefore you can have cold dishes that are hot, or hot dishes that are cold. After walking out in the snow, I often am tempted to stop for a hot bowl of beef noodle soup, however, according to my friends this will only make me colder, since beef is a cold meat.

It is all way to confusing for me, I just know that if I don’t want to have older Uyghur ladies lecturing me for an hour on how I am not taking good care of my cough, I need to watch what I am eating in their presence.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Black Lungs and Tight Abs

Winter is here. The coal dust is thick in the air and thick in my lungs. But you know what they say: every cloud has a silver lining. It has taken me three years to find the silver lining to my annual winter hacking cough that develops as a result to the bad air condition, but I have finally found it; tight abs. Yes all the coughing and sputtering is better than any crunches, sit-ups or gym membership. The bright side of coal dust is keeping in shape.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Season has Started

Yesterday may have only been December 1st, but the Christmas celebration has officially begun. My classmate and I held a decorate my apartment party for some of our friends. We started the night by watching the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special. The girls helped us make popcorn strings, and paper chains with words related to Christmas like love, light, hope, peace and such written over them in three different languages. They enjoyed hanging the shiny decorations, and tying bows, and some of the girls even cried at the official lighting of the tree (we did it up right, turned off the lights, counted down and plugged in the tree).

Okay confession time: the girls worked hard to decorate the tree last night; I left it for all of 10 hours before I ripped it apart and started over. As much as it was fun to have them around and to share the experience; there are certain ways to decorate a tree and also ways to not decorate a tree (like three gold balls all hanging from the same branch, while there is a huge bald spot right beside it). If I am going to look at the tree for the next month, I needed it to look reasonable. Just in case the girls come back over, I did leave the big love sign on the top (mainly because I don’t have a star or an angel).