Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I have been feeling a cold coming on the last few days. All of my friends have been coughing, sneezing, wheezing and all the other gross stuff that comes with the territory. I have been trying to avoid it and stay as healthy as possible, but I am being to think it is inevitable.

I have been very fortunate while living here, only getting really sick a few times. Some foreigners find that they are always sick since their bodies are not use to the different set of germs that float through the air here. But this new bout of feeling under the weather has caused me to reflect on the first time I was sick out here.

I had spent the whole night feeling awful, I couldn’t breath lying down, I was to weak to sit up, I kept having to run to the bathroom… it was just awful. I decided to skip class the next morning, but forgot to call my classmates to let them know I was not coming. When I didn’t show up for class and I wasn’t answering my phone ( it was to far from the bed for me to make it in time)… both my classmate and my teacher came running over to my room to see what was wrong. The teacher went to get the school doctor, but my classmate started to make me chicken noodle soup( it was just a package of cup-of-soup), but it smelled so good and reminded me of home. I had just gotten propped up in bed ready to drink my soup when the school doctor and the teacher arrived. The doctor took one look to see what was in the cup and deemed it unsuitable to drink when I was sick. And then in a flash of a moment, before either my classmate or I could do anything to stop him, the doctor took the hot cup of soup out of my hand and tossed the contents out of my second story window. Trust me I had enough energy to scream out my protests… but the doctor insisted it was unsuitable… that I needed to be drinking flour water. Boiling hot water with two to three table spoons of flour in it. GROSS. Both my classmate and I were so mad, that soup had come in a care package from home… we have to use that stuff so sparingly, I mean even if I wasn’t allowed to drink it, my classmate could have.

This time I am going to stay away from any school doctors and just administer my own treatment of orange juice and chicken noodle soup in the quietness of my own room.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fast Money

In Uyghur Culture there is a simple way to get cash fast… throw a party. They call it a chai it is more like a money borrowing system with your neighbours and friends. A group of ten to fifteen people take turns throwing a chai every month. Today I had the honour of joining said party and learned a lot about the culture and how money and friendship interact here.

The party I went to today was made up of a group of fifteen ladies; they are all retired and from the same hometown. Some of them have been friends since middle school. These ladies know everything about each other, good and bad. Trust me when I say that don’t let anyone forget any of it. There was so much gossip spinning around me at such a fast pace I was actually glad I couldn’t understand it all.

We went to a very fancy restaurant where we were given our own private room off to the back. The room had one large table, a TV and DVD player and a small dance floor. The meal itself was very extravagant, taking us more than three hours to eat it all. In order to join the Chai each one of the ladies was expected to bring 150 kuai with them (about 20 dollars, which trust me is a lot considering I can normally go out and eat at a restaurant for only 1 dollar). You can do the math 15 ladies X 150 kuai = 2,250kuai (or about 280 dollars). As we were eating the ladies made sure to ask the hostess how much the meal cost, and then compared the price with how much they had spent the last time they hosted the chai. It seemed that on average the hostess spent about 400-500 kuai to throw a chai. This means they make at least 1,700 kuai. That is a lot of money here. But as I said early a chai is just a way to borrow money from your friends and neighbours, because next month they will be invited by someone else in the group and expected to pay 150 again to join the party. In one day they can make some fast money and then spend the next year paying the loan off to their neighbours. And trust me they keep track, if one person missed one chai, the hostess of that chai is not expected to pay the other person for attending theirs.

The Uyghur people have a saying that says “good friends keep count”. This is true at chai, or any other time you go out to eat. I remember in college when a group of people would go out to eat, the bill would come and we would spend twenty minutes trying to break it apart and figure out how much each person owes, we would add in the tax and count down to the penny. But Uyghurs hardly ever split the bill evenly. One person is always treating. Fights break out over who will give the money, but even as everyone is fighting they all know whose turn it is. Part of being good friends is remembering who paid last time and making sure to pay them back next time with an equally valuable meal. It gets complicated after a while if you have a lot of friends.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Thanks Blair !

I got a package today. This is always a highlight for all of us… not just the package recipient, but everyone close to them gets excited when fun things arrive from home. I think part of it is that we are just glad to have proof that people at home still remember us. I just want to say a big thank you to all my friends at Blair who put together and sent a great parcel. My classmates are already waiting for the hot chocolate to be opened and shared around, and they have all softened their hands with the hand cream. Thanks guys, not just for the fun stuff, but for your continued thoughts and encouragement.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Simple Mathematics

This morning while visiting one of my Uyghur friends I learned that some mathematical expressions are universal. For instance I purpose that if you go any where in the world you will find that:

1 room full of women + 1 baby = higher pitched voices, increased amounts of silly
talk, lots of cooing (not by the baby), funny
faces, kissy cheeks, Peek-a-boo, and laughter
whenever the child so much as moves a finger.

When I first went to my friends house she was sitting in the kitchen with three of her granddaughters. We all sat around for over an hour chatting and such, when suddenly a cry came forth from the back bedroom. All regular conversation stopped, and the next hour of my visit contained nothing but the results of the above math equation. I know I contributed to the silliness this morning. It was actually a very good language lesson on how to talk baby talk. I tried to study what sounds they changed, and what sort of ‘cute endings’ they added to words. In all the differences in culture and language that I face everyday, it is nice to know that some things are as predicable as math.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eating Humble Pie and Everything Else

This week marked the end of the Islamic fast. After a month of only eating when the sun is set, the Uyghur people break the fast in style by feasting and eating. If you have been keeping up with this blog since last year, you may remember all my rules for eating (or should I say not eating over the holiday).

Over the first two days of the holiday this year I visited seven different homes, and thanks to my trusty rules of eating I was able to get away with only minimal snacking: several pieces of cake, a few pieces of fruit, and a handful or two of candy, two bowls of soup and two steamed stuffed buns. I walked away from my two days of holiday visiting without that constant uncomfortable stuffed feeling. I was so proud of the fact my pants still fit I started boasting to all my uncomfortably over stuffed foreign friends about how well I had learned to survive the onslaught of food, and how comfortable I still felt.

But you know what they say about the prideful having to eat humble pie… on the very last day of holiday visiting I only had one home to go to, and it was one of my friends who is a college student. Her parents live in another town hours away, but they do keep a small apartment here in the city, which is where she had invited us. Both of her parents happened to be there and thought it was a big deal that their daughter’s ‘American’ friends could join them.

We sat down to a table covered with nuts, fruit, and candy. After ten minutes of munching out came the spicy jelly noodles with chick peas. Next, it was followed by a large plate of mutton stew. Our host kept putting more pieces on our plate, she wanted to make sure we got all the big chunks of meat. To help sop up the extra gravy the mother had made a pile of handmade noodles. By this time, I was starting to feel the discomfort coming one. Once the stew was cleared away we were given melon (normally the fruit coming out again is a good sign that the meal has come to a close) but yesterday it only indicated intermission. We still had a large plate of pollo (the rice, carrot, and mutton dish that is very famous with the Uyghur people) and big bowls of soup. Once all of the above had been consumed, the fruit was brought back out, only this time the father insisted that we all try a fresh big pomegranate from their home town. The whole meal of course was washed down by cup after cup of tea. Okay, so maybe during the 3 and half hour ordeal humble pie wasn’t on the menu, but I am pretty sure every other food known to man was.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Gloves are Coming Off

For the last two weeks I have been wearing gloves to bed. I know it is only the beginning of October, but in many ways this feels like the coldest time of year here. The temperature has been dropping down to negative 2 at night. In and of itself this is not cold (considering the -35 winters we face here), but during the first week of October there is no place for a person to get warm. A few days ago I got out my heavy jacket and bought a pair of gloves. The sad thing is that I needed them more when I was in my house than when I was outside. I have two extra blankets on my bed and have the sweatshirt and wool socks always close at hand. The last two weeks have been spent either huddled around an electric space heater, or snuggled under quilts.

Heat inside buildings and apartments is regulated by the officials. The average temperatures are fingered out for each city and a magical date on which to give the people heat is determined. In the city where I live we wait patiently for October 15th. One of my friends said recently that every day between October 1st and October 15th feels like a year.

Today however we were all shown grace. The heat has come on two days early. I am sitting here beside my radiator, shedding the gloves as we speak. No more icicles for me, I am warm.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Time’s Time and Half a Time

Daily life out here is quirky for a variety of reasons. One of the most notable is that no matter where you may be throughout the province, you're functioning within two time zones simultaneously.

Technically the whole country is supposed to set their clock to one uniform time. That choice is of course based on where the sun is relative to the capital--a city far from where I live. The use of one time zone throughout country is akin to the Canadian government declaring that all people will run there life by Eastern Time (as found in Ottawa). This would mean that 8 in the morning was the same time in Newfoundland, BC and everywhere in between.

The sun may be at its highest point when striking noon in this countries capital but it takes two or more hours to make it to that same place here, and still another hour to reach its zenith above the farthest western reaching parts of this country. The Uyghurs, along with other indigenous minority people groups, tend to ignore the concept of this “One for all” time zone imposed from several thousand miles away. They simply use their own unofficial local time. This presumes the entire province to be two hours behind everywhere else in the country.

Setting local clocks to the capital's time doesn't make much sense. People around the world prefer not to function when it's dark outside. So the government offices, banks, and other institutions that are obliged to follow official “one for all time zone” policy a way to circumvent this problem by shifting business hours to later than they would be held in the eastern cities. Doors at such places tend to open at 10:00, rather than 8:00, to simultaneously address the directive of the central government and serve the local population.

While just using local time would seem a more logical way of operating, the existence of Capital’s clock confounds everything. Posted operating hours on businesses are often qualified with the notion “official time”, aka that of the capital. Arranging to meet with anybody will almost always end with the question "Capital time or local time?" It's a general rule of thumb that the majority people keep their watches set to the official time, and the ethnic minorities' run two hours behind. However, no matter how carefully appointments are scheduled, everybody is at some point bound to either stand a friend up, or arrive somewhere two hours earlier than they needed to. ( Trust me, it still occasionally happens even after living here for three years, which has inspired this somewhat long and biter diatribe against time zones)

It may seem trivial, but the choice of which time zone one uses out here is to some degree loaded. Operating on the same time as the bulk of the country’s population doesn't offer much convenience, but does signify volumes as to the “oneness” the government is trying to establish here. And while it's not much of a rebellion against capital, it is significant that the locals choose to ignore what is perceived as a silly mandate from the central government.

The actuality of which time people really function at seems to fall somewhere in between. My perception is that those who run their lives by official time tend to stay out late. Those who go by local time turn in early. For what it's worth, I keep my clocks set to local time. I've always been an early riser, so I think it marginally moves my schedule closer to normal. I would be so tired if I thought I was going to bed every night at 1 am, but 11 pm feels reasonable. I would also think I was being very sluggish if I didn’t start my days activities until 9:30, but being up for classes at 7:30 am feels just about right. Two times at the same time, it is almost apocalyptic (or science fiction, since I can time travel ahead two hours, by just walking next door).

Monday, October 08, 2007

If it Looks like Ham and it Tastes like Ham, it just might be….

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving. Today didn’t seem like it was going to be much of a holiday with six hours of class scheduled. But one of my American friends offered me the use of her house and help to host a thanksgiving dinner for other Canadians living out here (talk about diplomatic relations between our two countries).

You can’t buy a butterball turkey out here, and for obvious reasons ham is a no no. But there is a compromise. One grocery store sells smoked turkey legs, once they are cut off the bone they look just like slices of ham, and the smoked flavoured makes them even taste like ham, but they are totally halal.

So this year I am thankful for:
1) Meat that looks and tastes like what it is not.
2) Friends who help host holidays that are not their own
3) My family, and the fact that we can still stay in touch so well
4) The internet and how it spans the world
5) The chance to live here and learn Uyghur
6) My summer at home and my opportunity to see all of my friends
7) Most importantly My Rock, My Foundation, My Rest

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Fabric of Our Lives

Third year university students around the country are required to participate in the picking of cotton. It is meant to be an equalizer of sorts, a way to get the educated class involved in the hands, daily struggle of the common man. Picking cotton is a common experience that is woven into the lives of almost all the citizens.

Each year I have seen my friends come back from their two weeks of required labour with rough worked hands and sore muscles. They talked about the large daily quotas that each student was expected to pick, the blazing hot sun, or the bone piercing cold wind. I had yet to find a student who enjoyed their break from the books and a chance to work the land.

Yesterday my friend and I wanted to get out of the city for the day. We took the bus to a near by town that neither of us had ever visited. As we were riding along we saw cotton fields everywhere. They were filled with students and labourers who were bringing in the yield. My friend and I both agreed that it looked like fun. We imagined the students singing songs and having competitions for who could fill their bag of cotton first. In fact we so romanticized by the notion of ‘cotton picking’ by quoting lines from Gone with the Wind, that we actually wanted to join them.

So now I have knit myself into the very fabric of this place. I have a shared experience with almost everyone of the local people. I have picked cotton. I am a cotton pick’n kid. Okay so my experience is not totally the same as everyone else’s. After arriving in town and taking a city bus to the outskirts of the village, my friend and I reported for duty at about 11:15 in the morning. After talking with the ladies in the first field we came across, and getting a lesson on how to properly pick cotton. I worked for about half an hour (of which part of that time was spent taking pictures, and answering the ladies question about where we were from… and why did we want to do this again?) After half an hour I started to get frustrated, picking cotton is not easy on crutches, they kept getting caught in the bushes. Also my friend was wearing our backpack full of goods for the trip. We knew we wanted to see more in town and so we thanked the ladies for the experience and left. I guess half an hour, and being able to quit whenever I wanted, doesn’t really make me like the locals, who have to do it for two weeks straight despite their screaming muscles after all the bending down (which I also have, but I can nap today to help with recovery).