Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy to Me

Yesterday was mine and my classmate’s birthday. We decided to keep up my annual tradition of going to the People’s Square and checking out the ice sculptures ( a weird practice for a girl who hates ice as much as I do). We had fun, but this year they had tape around the sculptures to keep us form climbing on them for pictures. We didn't last long outside this year because the thermometer read -17 degrees, so we snapped some pictures and headed to the restaurant to continue our celebrations.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Introducing Roommate #14

This week we got a new roommate, this one is much furrier than any others to date. Meet the cat with many names: Gush (uyghur for "meat"), Aslan (Uyghur for kitten) Bu Yao ( national language for "don't want" - I think the mom of the family we got him from wasn't too thrilled at the prospect of having a cat in their home) and Puss in boots ( sometimes he looks just like the cat from Shrek). We are officially just babysitting the cat for a few weeks while friends of our are back in the states. Roommate 13 has been bugging me to get a cat since she moved in, so she is overjoyed about the new addition to our home. She said it was the best Christmas present I could have given her.

On that note I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas. I sure did, although all the parties tired me out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Going out with a Bang

We are nearing the end of our semester and I was reminded of the struggles we went through to start the semester. The school is trying so hard to formalize it procedures and function more like a North American University, unfortunately with little luck.

This week has been exam week which was anything but normal. My first exam was actually just a reused one from my teacher's fourth year local student's class… all of the questions were written in the majority language, which I can read a little of, but not enough to understand when it says “conjugate these verbs in to the perfect past continuous forms”. Because our class used a different textbook this year, it wasn't really based on the information we had studied. I was also unable to translate whole sentences between these two foreign languages. In other words I bombed it.

In the afternoon on Monday we scheduled to take the exam for our oral Uyghur class, but because the teachers need to hand in hard copies of our exam, it would be a written test. When we showed up to take the exam, we were hustled off to another room, where a bunch of young Russian kids were writing their listening exam (this meant the teacher kept reading passages out loud to them) making the room anything but quiet. The proctor then gave us the wrong exam paper (we thought we were writing an exam based on our oral class and he gave us our grammar exam –which I thought I still had one more night to study for). The font that was used on our grammar exam was next to impossible to read (many of the letters were formed incorrectly because the computer it was printed off of did not have Uyghursoft) and took double the time to read. We tried to tell the proctor it was the wrong exam and that it was illegible, but he doesn’t speak or read Uyghur. He told us not to complain and just write. “Anyway” he said “it doesn’t really matter, these exams don’t count for anything”. IF THEY DON’T COUNT THEN WHY IN THE WORLD ARE WE TAKING THEM?????

When our teachers saw how poorly we as a whole class did on these exams they invited us over to their homes separately (secretly). If a teacher’s whole class does poorly it reflects on the teacher and they will loose face (shame is a very big part of this culture). At their homes we drank tea and corrected our exams together one by one… but we had to have different answers in some places so that it wasn’t so obvious that we had cheated. The whole thing was so frustrating. In the last two day I have written three exams of which I had to re-write two of them. I try not to use this blog as just a place to vent my cultural frustration… but today this is me venting.

Monday, December 22, 2008

No Harm Done

Recently I mentioned that a friend had given us all of her old packaged food goods from the states. I am pleased to let you know that at lunch we made the Mac and Cheese dated 2001 and ate it with no problems. Mind you we had spent a lot of time upfront sniffing, smelling and taste testing it with our figure before we decided to just go for it and give it a try. I was right those dates really don’t mean anything. Seven year old macaroni made my day.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Don’t Know How Santa Does It

Christmas is drawing near and this year a few of my close friends and I decided not to buy each other gifts… but instead to pool that money and make gift baskets. We were each allowed to choose two or three local friends or families whom we wanted to give a basket to. We spent Saturday afternoon baking, buying fruit and finishing up cross stitch decorations. Each parcel contained banana bread, cookies, crocheted snowflakes, cross stitched winter senses, oranges, pomegranates, and some hot chocolate. We had even practised singing a song in the national language (which could be understood by Uyghurs and everyone else) to greet people with when they came to their door.

We started the night by taking buses from one stop to another, but soon broke down and paid the little extra to go by taxi. We had a lot of stops to make, and our arms were loaded with yet undelivered baskets. We almost had to be rude at each home as we wanted to just sing them a song (which is a lot harder to do after climbing six flights of stairs), pass off the gift, take a picture (which you will notice are mainly from the waist up… as everyone was answering the door in their long underwear) and leave for the next delivery, this was hard with Uyghur friends continually inviting us in for tea (a two hour event).

It was a cold crazy night, the temperature seemed to be dropping between each stop. It dropped so low that the batteries in both our phones and cameras were dying and making it hard to contact those at our next location. But we did it. We made 11 stops in just over three hours, with only one family not home to get their gift. We were all wiped out and very glad to crash at the end of it all. One night around the city was more than enough for me, I don’t know how Santa does the whole world in a night.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Back

My annual winter cough is back with a vengeance. I am not really sick it is just the coal dust in the air that causes me to have problems breathing. It makes it hard to visit friends when every time I open my mouth to talk and cough and wheeze like a smoker.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice

Over the last week I have spent several days visiting for the holiday. It is amazing the number of neighbours I have met in these few days. Many of them recognize me from around campus- I guess there aren’t many young white women that have been living here for almost four years. Each time I met a new person they commented on how wonderful it was that I wasn’t on my crutches any longer and that my legs seemed to be doing so much better.

I even met up with my old crutch buddy. This woman is in her mid seventies and part of the majority people group (ie speaks the language I am not as good at). She was so impressed to see me up and walking on my own. She is still on her crutches moving slowly but greatly rejoiced with me in my restored health. I couldn't help but think what our good North American Medicine would be able to do for her, if only she had the access I had.

It is wonderful to be part of the community here… not just to realize that all of the neighbours know me (and everything about me), but to have them greet me on the street. The vegetable man salutes me everyday as I pass by on my way to class… the sweet potato man waves from across the street, students run to catch up and walk together, my teacher calls me her oldest daughter and mocks me unmercilessly. I love the fact I get to live here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On the Bloody Morning After…

In my last post I mentioned that it was Korban Hayt. The holiday officially stretches over three days as family and friends go from house to house visiting. Yesterday I was able to make it to four different homes and was served four different plates of boiled mutton (mainly fat in some cases). It is a fun festival filled with food and visiting friends and family…

but the day after is DISGUSTING. I am very thankful that Asian people see it as rude to wear your shoes in the house, because on the day after Korban, I don’t even want to think about what is on the bottom of my shoes. You really have to watch where you walk outside, there is sheep poop, the sheep guts and intestines everywhere, blood and the contents of the sheep’s stomach get tracked up and down the streets. It really is gross here (This holiday moves about a week or so every year, but I am thankful that every year I have been here it has been winter and all this stuff freezes, as does the smell). If you keep your eyes open, you may even find a foot, head, horn or hoof that they forgot to clear away the day before.

All of the above pictures are taken just steps outside my front door. These same scenes are repeated in ever apartment complex courtyard around the city and throughout the province. It is a bloody, bloody day.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Happy Hate

Today was Korban Heyt (pronounced hate), the Muslim holiday made famous for its slaughtering of sheep. Early this morning my roommate and I made our way towards one of the largest Mosques in town. The Uyghur people treat this holiday the same way many North Americans treat Christmas… even if they don’t believe in God, they might be able to find to a Christmas service of some sort… in the same way Korban is the holiday on which even the most nominal of Islam followers will find the time to practice their religion. There were literally thousands of men lining the streets, blocking traffic and participating in prayer time. Even where we stood on the bridge above the street was getting crowded with men and women and their prayer rugs.

Off to the side of the street are the sheep for sale.

The first day of the holiday is often reserved for family. They gather at the oldest family members house and eat the meat of the sheep that was sacrificed on their behalf. Today instead of going to a bunch of my friends homes, and eating food till I burst, I went to the hospital. I remember as a kid when I was in hospital right up until the 24th of December, it wasn’t fun to feel like I was missing out on the celebration. My teacher’s sister-in-law is currently in the hospital struggling with cancer. My classmate and I spent the afternoon visiting her and some of the other patients in that ward. We had packed a dozen small bags filled with bread, dried fruit, nuts and other goodies, all things you would normally find on a Uyghur table during the holiday season.

Friday, December 05, 2008

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas

I got my sad little Charlie Brown Christmas tree put up this week, which really gives the whole apartment more of the feel of Christmas.
Also the huge amounts of snow that was dumped on the city this week went quite far to getting me in the spirit of things.

I was out walking on the first day it snowed (before the masses had gotten out to clean off the roads) and actually went for quite a tumble. I am alright… although I was pretty stiff there for a few days. The good news, if you can say that when you slip on the ice in the middle of the road, is that I sounded local while doing it. Out of all the sounds, noises, or colourful metaphors that could have come streaming out of my mouth in this moment of panic… I screamed “Woi Jan”. This Uyghur expression would most literally be translated “Oh dear”. The guy walking behind me a few feet thought it was hilarious to see a foreign girl scream out like an old Uyghur lady that he was still laughing to himself as he gave me a hand up.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sometimes Owning is Better than Eating

One of my friends and her husband are moving, which means they are in the midst of cleaning out their apartment and giving away a bunch of stuff. My roommate and I scored all of their old foreign food mixes.

All of our new treats

Packages from home filled with Mac and Cheese, soup mixes, coffee and hot chocolate are one of the most exciting things to get in the mail. It’s like sending all the joy of a North American grocery store in a box. My roommate has been known to say that a care package doesn’t really live up to its name unless it has food supplies.

My roommate and her sister sitting in the midst of all the goodies her sister brought with her

It is so fun to open the kitchen cupboard and see it full of all these goodies we just can’t buy here. As I look at each box I can clearly imagine what the dish tastes like, I start to salivate. Just standing looking at it brings so much joy.

Sometimes the joy of just owning the food is better than actually eating it. If you live overseas you know what I am talking about… the anticipation of what it will taste like, the dreams and images it conjures by merely feasting with the eyes go on and on… but once you have opened the box and consumed the food the dream is over. The box no longer joyfully greets you when you open the cupboard… the anticipation has been met… the longing fulfilled… and dead.

I know I am not alone in this feeling, in fact it would explain why all of the supplies my friend gave me the other day are past their best before date. (Do you think it is safe to eat Velveeta – still sealed- with an expiration date of 2004???). I tend to view these dates as mild suggestions printed to merely relieve the company of any legal obligation. Although I do remember this same friend once making a pie for thanksgiving using shortening that was years old, the end result was just gross. I think in that case she should have held on to it longer and enjoy the dream instead of the reality.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Not Fast Enough

The Uyghur people value the idea of marriage, or at least its statues. I have been told more than once by friends that it is better to have been married and gotten divorced, than to never have married at all. As girls get older they will feel enormous amounts of press to marry and ‘get it over with’.
Traditional Uyghur bride and groom

With this cultural understanding as a backdrop, you will understand why all my friends and teachers have started an outright campaign to get me married off. My roommate thinks she knows the prefect person for me… her ‘perfect person for me’ has a suggestion of his own on who would be a good match. My teachers spent half of our class period the other day discussing the matter. One teacher even offered me her younger brother… which is quite the allowance, considering what a devote Muslim she is (the whole idea of letting such an unclean, pork eater as myself into the family is unthinkable). Thankfully I stopped them before we got to my bride price.

I can pretty much avoid most of the offers with a quick etymological look at the Uyghur word for husband ‘yoldash’. Yoldash literally means ones road mate. It implies that two people have chosen to walk together through life on the same path. When I point out that most Uyghur man walk on the Islamic road, and I am personally on another road, they see that it would be quite impossible for us to truly be road mates.

A few weeks ago after giving this little speech, in attempts to put an end to my teachers match-making meddling, one of my favourite staff members from the school’s Foreign Affairs office walked in. She is a single Uyghur woman about my age. The teachers quickly switched the focus of their inquires to her. “You’re still single, aren’t you?” they asked. “You don’t have a boy friend?” “Do you want to get married?” And off they were again… throwing out names and suggestions of men that might be a suitable suitor for her. I was glad to be out of the lime light on this discussion. But yesterday this same girl invited me to her wedding in January. The matching making, the set-up, the dating, the proposal, and the setting of the date were all done, now all she needs to do is show up. My teachers kept looking at me like it was my fault I didn’t act fast enough, as if to say, “It could have been you, we tried our best.”

Modern bride and groom dancing in a common reception hall

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thankful to be Included

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving, and well it is true that as a Canadian I officially celebrate over a month ago, when the northern climate ushered in the harvest, it was a pleasure to be asked to join others in yesterdays celebrations. Since many of the expates in my community are from the United States, the holiday was actually pretty important out here.

One family that I am friends with was hosting a traditional thanksgiving dinner for ten of their closest Uyghur friends and their own family of four… when they heard my roommate and I didn’t have plans they graciously extended an invitation (because when you are already planning to cook for 15, what is two more).

Before dinner we went around the room asking everyone to express one thing they are thankful for. As normally happens when we try this out here, the responses were much the same. “I am thankful that you invited us to join you for dinner”, “I am thankful for my foreign friends” or “I am thankful for everything God has given me”. They might sound like trite answers, but they are offered from the heart.

I myself reflected on how thankful I am for my new knees. Since I came back in July I have repeatedly been amazed how much easier it is to live out here when I am not in constant pain. I can now make it to my fifth floor classroom with out hassle. I can climb on and off the bus, with out holding up the whole line.

I was also thankful for the real turkey that we were eating. We normally can’t find a whole bird out here, and well out hosts did admit to me later that they likely spent double on it than they would have if in America… it was worth the price to watch friends join in the tradition for the very first time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

False Advertising

Advertisements rely on the power of suggestion. Knowing that a picture of a large cheesy piece of gooey pizza will make you want some. That is why restaurants often decorate their walls or menus with big colourful photos of their products.

So naturally after moving here I expected that the food in the bright colour ads on the wall was food that they sold at that particular restaurant. WRONG. One of my old favourite Muslim Restaurants (pork free) had a large poster of a breakfast table complete with bacon and eggs. A friend of mine was joking with the staff and asked them to bring out a plate of what was in the picture… he got the eggs, but the bacon was sadly no where to be found.

I have since learned not to trust these attractive ads… and sometimes actually have to look away so that the power of suggestion does not make me long for the juicy, mouth-watering hamburger, that the hack saw chicken restaurants has plastered all over its walls. I wonder if I can sue for false advertising out here???

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Baby with All the Hair

My mother has always told me that I was the ugliest baby she ever saw. In fact in her telling of the story even the nurses at the hospital where I was born couldn’t find a single complementary thing to say about me. They never said “Oh she is so cute” or “what a beautiful baby you have.” Instead the nicest thing they could think of was “Oh so you're the mother of the baby with all the hair.”
Me when I was a baby

I found myself using the exact same line the other day in reference to my friend’s baby. Not because she wasn’t an adorable child, but because I was trying to honour my friend, her baby, and their culture. For the Uyghur people, it is very rude to gush over a child and claim how beautiful the baby is. They have a great fear of demons and the evil eye. The belief is that if you compliment a person too much the evil spirits will notice and perhaps attack the person. I wanted to thank my friend for sending me pictures of their child (they had to send the photo over email because a Uyghur woman and her baby are not allowed out of the house for 40 days after the birth). But I didn’t want to scare them into thinking I was casting a curse on their baby… so I settled for the good old comment that had often been made about me "Oh, look at the baby with all the hair."

My friend's child

To us this sounds like a very strange belief… but it is very real in Uyghur culture. My roommate went to visit her friends in the countryside a few months ago. Most of the neighbours had never seen an American and everyone who met her commented on how beautiful she was. The neighbours made such a big fuss about her big blue eyes and her gold hair, that when she got sick the next day they were sure that all the attention had attracted the evil eye. The grandmother of the home then performed a bread ceremony over her to try to rid her of the demons. No one ever seemed to realize that drinking the water straight from their tap might have negative effects on her stomach.

In class the other day my teacher was saying they often lie and call a child ugly just to keep the evil far away. Maybe that is what my mom was doing all along. I wasn’t REALLY ugly; she just said it for my own sake. (haha)

Monday, November 17, 2008

When You Read You Begin With FXBETKEOJGLHT

I remember when I was in college and studying Greek, the first time that I learned that they had both a middle and a final character to represent the s sound I was thrown for a loop. I thought it was crazy that a language would have two ways to write the same thing. Later when I got into reading old documents in English I was floored to find out we use to have the same thing. At the time it seemed so confusing. But now I find myself longing for those simpler days.

Uyghur is not a language for the faint of heart. In fact it has three distinct alphabets, some of them have two and three different forms… not to mention that most letters in those alphabets have both a beginning, middle and final form.

For years the Uyghur language was written with an Arabic script, but in the 1960’s the government introduced a new Latin based writing system. This quickly became known as the ‘new script’. But in the 1980’s the Uyghur people longed to get back closer to their Muslim roots and started once again using the Arabic script (in many ways it was similar to the original, but a few alterations were made to the vowel system). This is the writing that we find in our textbooks and all around town. Unfortunately this new Arabic script is so closely linked to the former one, which they choose to call the “old script”. This means the old script is the current one that people use, and the new script is now passé (or old). However since we can’t really use the Arabic when typing on cell phones and other modern devices, they also have standardized transliteration to Latin script (which not surprisingly is different than what was used in the 60’s and 70’s). Finally on the other side of the border they traditionally use a Cyrillic script to express this language. I told you it would make your head spin.

I have spent most of my time focusing on learning the Arabic script that is currently being used on this side of the border. In fact I have been using this language so much that my Uyghur typing speed is almost as fast as my English speed. But in the last few weeks I have been helping a friend transliterate a document into Latin script. Which means I am looking at the Uyghur I am use to reading, but trying to type it with an English like script. I have to read it all over so slowly because sometimes when I am typing Uyghur a F is an A, or sometimes an A is an A, and other times an A is a H... that is of course when the H is not a X and the X is not a SH. I am now so glad that my high school typing teacher taught me to type without looking at the keys, because at this point they would only confuse the situation even more.

Here is a small sample:

سىز مېنىڭ دوستۇم Arabic

Latin transliteration: Siz me:ning dostum

English Translation: You are my friend

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cookies for Class

This week one of our study mates has been away... that means our young Uyghur tutor guy has been left alone with my roommate and I. We have taken learning to a whole new level. In the last little while I have played Settles of Cantan, Jenga and the Ungame all in Uyghur. Today we put the boy to work in the kitchen. He loves eating chocolate chip cookies, so we explained how to make them in Uyghur and made him follow the instructions (which is a little more work here since you can't just buy chocolate chips at the store... we have to buy chocolate bars and take the time to cut them into pieces).
I think he was actually enjoying himself until two Uyghur guys came to fix our water pressure. He was so embarrassed to be caught in the kitchen having two girls telling him what to do that he stopped talking altogether. His hair and eyes are light enough coloured that if he doesn't say anything people sometimes take him as a foreigner as well. There was a minute there I didn't know quite want the repair guys wanted... and I was hoping my tutor would jump in and help, but he just stood there looking dumbfounded stirring the cookie batter. Thankfully both the cookies turned out well , and we now have enough water pressure to have a shower again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


This morning before 7 a.m. my cell phone started to ring. It seemed like a weird time to get a call and I was a little worried about what might be wrong… but when I checked whose number it was I discovered it was one of the many English leeches that had somehow gotten a hold of my phone number. Anytime I have spoken to this girl, all she does is laugh and try practicing a new sentence she learned in class. She likes to prove to her family and classmates that she knows a foreigner. Since I was in the middle of my quiet time I decided to ignore the phone… but she kept calling more than six times in 10minutes. When I finally did decide to answer, she asked me how to pronounce a word. It wasn’t anything important or earth shaking, it was a class question from a near stranger, but she felt free to call me repeatedly before seven in the morning.

Another day I was walking down the street and I had the creepy feeling that someone was following me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a man walking very close behind; even in the midst of a busy crowd you can tell when someone is intentionally trailing you. I thought he was after my purse, so I ducked into the closest shoe store and appeared incredibly interested in a pair of red high heels. After a few minutes I left the store, only to find that the guy was a few feet ahead, standing off to the side pretending to talk on his cell phone. The second I walked by he fell back in step behind me. I tried turning quickly down another street, but he was still tracking me. I finally came across the entrance to a much larger store, as I started on the stairs I could tell he was planning on following me in. As I crossed the threshold I heard “you speak English? Be my friend” This man had been stalking me down the street for over twenty minutes, just trying to get up the nerve to speak with me. This is common that a total stranger tries to practice their English skills with me wherever I am. I have had some students recite whole dialogues from their textbook as I walk by.

Once I had a knock on my front door and it was a Uyghur boy insisting that I HAD to teach him English. When I said “no, I didn’t have time”, He stayed planted in my doorway insisting that he wouldn’t take “no for an answer”.

It is like I am a movie star with the press herding behind me. People who I have never met and don’t even recognize know my name and where I live. I was at a dumpling restaurant across from my old school. The place was crowed and I sat down at a table with a couple of strangers. I made small talk with my seat mates, asking them if they were students at the school and what major they were studying. When I mentioned that I use to attend the same school they said they remembered. They were able to tell me that I had been there three years ago; they knew my name and even where I had lived on campus. I had never met these young ladies, but they seemed to know all about me.

Most days that I live here I long for obscurity; I want to be able to just blend in with the crowd, instead of being pointed and stared at, to be left alone instead of people assuming that my white skin is an invitation to intrude on my solitude.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Snowball Fight

Well winter really is here now. Today the snow not only fell, it stuck and actually accumulated a few centimetres. It is funny because in class this past week our teacher had been explaining the Uyghur tradition of throwing snow balls. These are not the wet cold ones that we envision picking up from the ground… they can be paper, or even phone call snow balls. On the first REAL snow fall it is tradition to challenge your friends. When you “throw the snow ball” you are literally asking them to give you something. It’s like saying “I threw the first snow ball so now you have to bring me candy…or give me chocolate”. I can’t say I totally understand the connection, but they all seem to love the game.

Today when my friend was over she must have had five different people call her to ‘throw snowballs” and celebrate the start of the winter season. She thought it was so much fun that she suggested I try calling my friends. I did call the teacher that mentioned it in class the other day…I will have to wait until I see her on Wednesday to know if she will actually bring the chocolate I asked for.

While phone calls and slips of paper were passed with furry I did notice a few young kids out side enjoy a traditional revel in the winter wonderland. I even took a walk in the winter whiteness and had a little fun along the way.

Friday, November 07, 2008

….. is the Mother of Invention

Sometimes I think living overseas must be similar to being pregnant. I have often heard of expectant mothers being hit by food cravings. Once the thought gets in you head it is hard to forget. Living here is the same way. Sometimes the memory of a well loved dish from home enters my thoughts and I can't function well until I have had some. The only trouble is not everything is available out here for real western cooking.

One of my latest longings is for cheesecake. This is not a new thing for me, and over my years here I have discovered how to make cheesecake in a land where cream cheese is foreign.

When I first started to describe cream cheese to my local friends two years ago, they seemed to think I was crazy… in fact they wondered if butter would do the trick (also a hard to find item, but somewhat more well known). Some suggested a Kazak cheese product that might work… but in truth it is way to hard and sour to make a good cheesecake (trust me we tried once).

However, I have learned from my Kazak neighbours that they make their cheese by cooking milk and yogurt together and then hang it up in a bag for a week or so. Based on this simple practice I had heard that you could make creamcheese simply by straining yoghurt through a cheese cloth.

The first time my classmate and I tried this method we had quite the contraption hooked up to our clothes line. There was a bag of yogurt hanging three feet in the air (It might be more accurately described as a large blob of yogurt wrapped up in cheesecloth, bound together with safety pins, string and clothespins). Every so often a drop of water would drip into the metal bowl we had sitting beneath it. The sound was madding and actually drove us from the apartment. The other problem was that we had to leave it out for several hours and feared that our yogurt would go bad as it sat out for a full day in the heat of the summer. This method did work, and while it was cumbersome to hang the bag of yogurt and the constant dripping did get annoying, the cheesecake was sweet, and almost perfect.

It was my current roommate that moved us one step closer in reinventing the wheel of cream cheese production. The smarty that she is, thought to put the cheese cloth inside the strainer and set the strainer in a deep bowl. The whole thing can slide nicely into the fridge were it can sit for the required length of time, still cool and clean (the door even insulates the noisy drips).

The ladies at our local store now think that all North Americans do is eat yogurt. We buy large amounts to strain down to various consistences to make cream cheese, or a sour cream based veggie dip and so many other things.

And so food cravings, the real mother of invention, has found a way to bring cream cheese to a land that doesn’t know cheese from butter. And the black bottom cup cakes my roommate made this week have gone a long way to meeting my dessert needs.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Nobody Calls Me Aunt

The other day I was standing in line at a shop… if you could really call it a line. The whole concept of lining up has not fully been grasped by the general population out here. It is much more of a first come first served, push your way to the front, no one else matters sort of line. You have to find your place, hold your territory and push as hard as the guy behind you or you will be run over.

As I was saying, I was in line the other day, only to realize that the two different masses of people were trying to push to the same cashier after the second one closed. No one wanted to lose their hard fought for spot, myself included. In the midst of the of the crush one college girl grabbed my arm and said “here aunt stand with us”. I thanked her for the spot, but it took a moment for her word to really sink in .

AUNT- is a term they use out here as a sign of respect to the former generation. Normally it is applied to someone who is several years your senior. At home we might say miss, or madam, but the subtle under tone is the same it means you're old. I am use to being greeted by toddlers on the street who smile and wave and call me their aunt. But college students… how old did these girls think I am??? I am still often taken as a college student myself, there is no way that I look old enough to deserve that title. Grrshk.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Personal Accomplishment

I just finished knitting this blanket as a wedding gift for my friends (who got married back in April). It has taken me over two years to make the silly thing. In fact, I started it before this couple were even dating, and decided to give it to them much later. I hope they appreciate it, all the work it took to knit each square with a different pattern. Since they won't be back in this country for another month or so, I am currently using it to keep myself warm.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Police in the Wrong Place

Thursday night was interesting for both my roommate and I. I was home alone getting caught up on some emailing and stuff when someone knocked on my door. As I went to answer it I noticed police lights flashing out front our window. With this is mind I opened the door cautiously. Sure enough it was a policeman. He riped the door out of my hand and marched into the house shutting the door behind him. Now you have to remember, that I live in a Muslim community and this sort of behaviour is inappropriate. A man should never enter a single woman's house without another person present. He started by asking questions about how many of us lived in the house... and where my roommate was. When I mentioned she was out watching Uyghur dancing, he then proceeded to invite me to go dancing... or out for lunch or whatever. This is the same policeman who jokingly told me a few months ago he likes Canadian girls. I evaded all of his invitations and very politely shooed him out the door. But my heart was still pounding. The police car, the lights, his feeling entitled to just walk into my house, all of it was intimidating.

Meanwhile my roommate and her sister (who was here visiting last week) were walking home from the restaurant after watching the dance performance. Her sister had her camera in her hand and was taking shots of the city. As is common around here a thief saw the camera as an opportunity and boldly grabbed it right out of her hand. My roommate tried hitting the guy and yelling for help in Uyghur, but the thief and his buddy took off down a dark ally.

They needed a police officer to help catch the thief, but instead I was the one having to deal with an officer in my house. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Saying "I Do" is Cool

Last weekend I was invited to one of my friend's weddings. This in and of itself is not an unusual thing, but I was rather surprised by the time on the invitation. Normally local weddings start in the morning, and there are events at both the bride's and the groom's mosques, and a whole day long celebration. This friend however invited me to come to a hotel at 5 p.m.

Once I got there, I found out that earlier in the day they had done the traditional ceremonial wedding stuff, and that I had been invited to the party for their friends and co workers. Now you have to understand that the girl who was getting married is very trendy... she has learned English and thinks anything western is cool. It was obvious by her sleeveless, strapless, white wedding dress that she showed up in. Something tells me that was not what she was wearing to the mosque earlier in the day.
She and her husband followed two little kids (the ring bearer and flower girl) as they walked into the room to our ever so traditional tune 'here comes the bride'. Their friend who was acting as the receptions MC then asked them... in a some what mocking voice if they promised to "love, honor, and cherish each other in sickness and in health as long as they both shall live" they both said "I Do". Following which the ring bearer presented them with rings to exchange. The next thing I knew the MC was doing karaoke and cracking jokes.

It was a weird night to see such a scared ceremony being taken as a cool, trendy, cultural symbol.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Not Yet!

Today we had our first snow of the year. It seems so early considering it is not even November yet. I really hate snow and ice, thankfully todays snow melted as soon as it hit the ground, but the temperature did drop considerably. The good news is that last week, on October 15th, the heat finally came on. So at least it is nice and warm inside.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I’ve got gas

Right after coming back from our trip my roommate and I set to working on cooking Western food. After a week of Uyghur noodles it is nice to make something from home. We turned on our stove, only to have it beep at us. Since this having my own apartment out here is all new to me, I guessed we must be out of gas. I hunted for the card that the landlord had given me when I signed the contract, and took it next door to ask my neighbour where I could add money. My closest neighbours are from the majority people group, and my skills in that language are not that good. However, I did understand that she thought this was the old gas system, and that we should pay to have someone come in and update to what she uses. That was more info than I needed.

The next day I asked my teacher where I could add money to my gas card. She told me I had to take the gas card over to the bank by the Russian market. I walked into one bank and was informed I was in the wrong place, the second bank was no better, the third place I tried was a hotel… and then finally I found it. I next had to find out how much money I should be paying. Here you put an amount of money on your card ahead of time instead of paying a bill afterwards. I asked the people in line ahead of me, how much they were adding, and on average how long would that amount of money last.

I went home feeling pretty good about a job well done. I stuck the card into the gas meter and then tested out the stove… NO GAS.

The next day back in class I asked my teacher what I did wrong, why we still didn’t have any gas? She asked me what kind of noise the meter made… was it a beep, beep beep or more of a beeeeeep beeeeep? Sadly I couldn’t really remember. She suggested that maybe it was the batteries. But when I went home I couldn’t find the slot for the life of me. This time however I decided to go to a Uyghur neighbour's house to inquire about the batteries. My Uyghur grandmother told me her son always changes them for her, but she thought the slot was somewhere on the top.

It took a lot of climbing and searching, but I finally found it on the top, near the back. I changed the batteries and tried the stove again…. still NO GAS.

This time I called a friend on my phone, she suggested that I re-insert the newly paid up card. It worked… I’ve got GAS ( I bet you have never heard anyone say that with quite as much excitement as I just did).

This whole exercise did teach me the importance of turning to my local friends for help. So many times we come into this culture with our western ways and western solutions, trying to help the local people. But it is equally important (if not more so) to come into those relationships with humility seeking help, and letting them lead in even the simplest daily tasks, like getting gas.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Foreign Front and Back

Last week when we were on our trip we did all we could to fit in with the local culture. We wore the long skirts and long sleeves; we put on head scarves, even my figure nails were dyed red with henna, yet despite all our attempts people could still pick us out from a distance. It struck me most when the people behind us started talking about the foreigners. They hadn’t even got a glimpse at our faces, how could they tell we weren’t from around here.

My friend and I started to speculate:

1) Our shoes – no matter how long I live here I will still prefer runners to stiletto pumps. Why any woman would try to painfully squish her foot into a high heeled pointy toed shoe is beyond me, yet here everyone does it.

2) Our walk – Westerners are known for walking fast. When we are going somewhere we move with purpose. My teachers are always telling me to slow down when I walk, that we are not in a race ( I think they are scared I will loosen my new knees) Our fast walk not only involves our feet but our hands, we also tend to walk with our heads held high.

3) Our clothing – well yes, it was decent by local standards, it still wasn’t local. My skirt came from Old Navy and was sadly lacking in sparkles and glitter.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ode to the Sleeper Bus Reprise

One of the first blog posts I ever wrote was an ode to the sleeper bus, and after our trip last week in which we spent more than 50 hours over six days not sleeping on the sleeper bus, it felt only fitting to reprise the Ode. Every trip on the bus seems to add to the story.
They do show movies on the bus, and as you can see this time I got one of the four coveted TV beds. The upper bed took up most of the space above my head making it hard to sit up in my bed. The screen was only inches from my face, in fact I think the imagine of Keanuo Reeves, and Sandra Bullock racing through town will forever remain burned into my retina (Yes, for all of you who are concerned with what has been translated into the Uyghur language, you can rest assured that the movie Speed is availed).

On one of our over night trips last week, the driver seemed intent on speed through the desert all night. The consistent swaying of the bus, and jerking stops ( for who knows what reason), kept me awake most of the time. Other times when I have travelled when the bus trip was less than a full night, the driver would pull into the arrival station and let us all stay sleeping on the bus until 7 a.m. I figured this guy must be rushing so that he could get some sleep too. Only when we pulled into our destination the driver flipped on the lights and started yelling at all of us to grab our stuff and get off. It was still dark outside, and I looked at my watch, only to discover it wasn’t even 5 a.m. yet. Everything was closed, even the bus station itself. There wasn’t enough taxis available for all of the weary travellers that stood staring blurred eyed at each other in the parking lot. It was too late into the night to make it worth paying for a hotel, but to early in the day to do anything.

Oh sleeper bus, the good thing is every trip seems to provide its own interesting story.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Come In, Come In (NOT)

One of the down falls to travelling this year over the vacation was not getting to go visiting like I normally do. It is tradition over the Heyt season to spend the day going from house to house catching up with friends and family and eating more food than you can imagine.
This year we really didn’t have any friends in the city where we were staying, but that didn’t stop us from getting invitations to come in. We met these ladies sitting out on the side walk and actually joined them for a while, after twenty minutes of chatting they invited us over to their home. We sat for a little while drinking tea and eating from their full table before politely leaving. However they followed us out of the house and down the street, all the time insisting that we go to the second woman's house. Later that day a woman was walking down the road beside us, guiding her elderly mother. We nodded politely as we passed and said hello. Immediately there was an invitation to join them in their home. They weren't even at home yet, and seemed to be going the opposite direction from where their home was, but they invited us in none the less.

This is pretty normal. My teacher and I will often walk home from class together, as we are walking she will expand on how busy she is and how she is headed straight to the store. Yet when we pass in front of her building she feels obliged to invite me in. The funniest is when she extends the invitation as she continues to walk right by her house on the way to the market. Uyghur culture demands that they invite others in, but a lot of the time they don't really mean it. The other day some of my expat friends and I were sitting around sharing some of the insights we've gleaned over the years as to when it is a really an invite and when it is just lip service.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Time to Dance

Uyghurs have an intriguing dance called the Sama. It’s a dance for men only, and it’s danced only during special occasions, like a wedding or a holiday.

The Muslim month of fasting called Ramadan ended last week with a holiday called Roza Heyt. After the usual morning prayers were finished, everyone eats a big breakfast. If they’ve been fasting, this is the first breakfast after sunrise that they’ve had in a month. Following breakfast, a large crowd gathered in front of the countries largest mosque for music and dancing. The musicians sat on the roof of the mosque as their instruments played out a lively tune. At first everyone just gathered in a circle waiting anxiously for the dance to begin. The young boys called out “Sama, Sama” and occasionally one or two men would start to dance in the center. Before we knew it a kind of free-for-all Sama started taking shape, with men swirling around in a circle, some intent on dancing, others just passing the time of day, all surrounded by a huge crowd of Uyghurs, and interested on lookers. This year I was one of the many watching this fascinating scene.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Where’s Waldo

Can you find the foreigner in this picture of the crowd at the bus station the day we were finally able to buy our tickets to head south. The push of the people was unbelievable. I stood in line for over two hours being knocked, pushed, bumped, hit, squished, crushed, crowded, and shoved. In North America the concept of lining up has so firmly been embedded in us since we were children. I remember being in elementary school and yelling when some one “cut” in front. But here the name of the game is cut off as many people as you can and get to the front of the line as fast as possible.

Half way through the wait, while I was in the thick of the crowd I started to have an emotional break down. My feet and back were aching from the number of times I had been crushed and jostled by the hoard of people. The closer I got to the front of the line the more I felt like cattle being herded. Whenever the lines were no longer visible the security guard would push his way though with a stick that let off shocks to those who got in his way. It was an inhuman experience. I seemed to be the only person out of several hundred of us cramped in this small area that realized how wrong the whole process was. Oh there I am, looking hot, tried, and completely worn.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

You’re Only a Day Away

My roommate and I are headed south over our week off from school. We have decided to take the sleeper bus because it is cheaper, and she has never had the privilege of such a ride.

Our original plan was to leave tonight, but since I am able to write this post, it is obvious I am not riding through the middle of the desert on a 24 hour excursion. I knew that train tickets go on sale ten days in advance, but I wasn’t sure about when I could start buying bus ones. I knew it was the holiday week and a lot of students would be traveling back to their home towns, so I figured it would be wise to try to buy our bunks early, before they were all sold out.

I mentioned to my tutor on Wednesday that I was heading over there after class, but he suggested waiting until tomorrow. The next morning I got up and headed to the bus station first thing in the morning, only to have the lady at the counter tell me “come back tomorrow”

Friday morning after class, I toted my heavy book bag, once again down to the station and stood in line. While you wait in line at these places, there are always guys with private cars trying to broker some sort of back door deal. I normally try to pretend I don’t speak any local language until I get to the counter. However, even after waiting 25minutes the response from the sales lady was “tomorrow”

Since I had learned that buses leave for our destination ever forty minutes, we decided that today we would just head over in the evening, about the time we wanted to leave, with our bags packed and ready to go. The crowds were crazy outside, and inside we learned that they were already sold out for the day. The lady said we could always try again tomorrow.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, goes by a dismal pace”

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What are You Afraid of???

I was over at one of my Uyghur friend’s homes tonight. This girl has just recently moved into an apartment on her own. When I heard she was living by herself my natural first question was “Are you scared?” I have lived in several places on my own out here, and each time my local friends learn that I am alone, they always ask if I am scared.

I normally answer the question with the amusing antidote of how my old shower use to sound just like a cell phone when it got hot, and how my first night I was sure there was a stranger in my house. I didn’t sleep well that night, as I listened to every bump in the night and tried to convince myself it wasn't an intruder.

My friend tonight admitted to being afraid too, but not of someone breaking in. She is scared of evil spirits or ghosts. She started to tell me of all the things she does, or has heard of to do to protect yourself from evil spirits. She places a Koran at the entry way of her bedroom, she has a knife under her bed. She said that one of her friends suggested that she spit in all of the corners of her house. She went on to share several other seemingly useless sounding rituals for protection. It surprised me because this girl is very educated (she is looking into doing her Phd in America) she is also very modern and trendy, and yet she believes these tales, and has actually tried a number of them.

She wisely summed up our fears by saying “I was afraid of things I could see, and she was scared of what she could not see”. This of course led to a very interesting discussion. So what about you? What are you afraid of?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Depth of Human Pain

Today on my walk around town I couldn’t help but take notice of all the beggars. I know that this is not a situation unique to this city, or even to Central Asia in general but I was struck afresh with how they go about it.

First you have your beggars who sit on the street corners or stairs with their faces covered; you can’t really tell why they are there until you see their hand come out as you walk by. Many people ( even locals) are skeptical of these type of beggars, often questioning the persons laziness at resorting to looking for handouts on the street. Second are the ones who are trying to give back as they beg, many of these folks have brought along an old instrument of some sort and are playing music hoping that people will toss them some small change for their trouble.

Finally there are those who feel the need to explain why they are begging. These people will often have a typed out copy of the tragedy that has befallen their family. They sit beside the message board ( in both languages) and let people read it and accept money out of sympathy for their situation. Today on my way I took the time to read some of these stories. They really are heart breaking. Some people are trying to raise money so that their children can have an operation they desperately need, others have been burned or deformed in an accident that prevents the father from making money to feed his family of five. Often people have pictures to accompany their stories, pictures of infectious skin disorders, or physical deformities, one guy had his lung x-ray out on the street for all to see, one family even had a collection of doctor's notes and official hospital documentation (all stamped with a red stamp, of course) stating what was wrong.

I have learned over the years that I have been here to keep my small change. Anything that is less than one local dollar gets shoved into the front pocket of my purse. This gives me easy access to reach for a few coins whenever I pass one of these sick souls lying on the side of the street. But these few coins seem so little compared to the depth of human pain.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Successful 24 Hours

To fully understand and appreciate all that I am about to tell you, you would have to live here, but since most of you don’t let me just remind you that sometimes the simplest task can take forever. Anything official here requires a red stamp of approval., and some times not just one, but one from every office along the way. A lot of time can be spent in offices waiting or proving that you should get a document stamped.

Yet despite how slow things can go, my new roommate and I have had a successful 24 hours. We were able to check her out of dorm and get a full refund of her deposit ( this took going to four different offices, one of which we have secretly nick named the evil office). We also got registered at our new apartment. I had gone to the police station to register myself weeks ago, but when I brought in a roommate, they made us both do it all again. I have lived here for almost four years, but have never had an official blue card with a red stamp, since I have always lived in dorm I was saved some of the headache of registering. Thankfully the guys in the office we have to deal with all are Uyghur. They thought it was CUTE that we could speak their language, one of them is even good friends with my landlord. Like in most parts of the world it is all about who you know, and it never hurts to name drop. The only frustrating part of the police station was the fat,balding, leader guy who made a point of telling me how much he likes Canadian girls… YUCK.

We also found a fax machine that would send internationally so that my roommate could send her sister the paperwork she needs to come and visit. This took us walking up and down our street for over an hour asking at ever second shop and being directed around in circles.

Finally, and best of all, we got our hot water tank installed. Ever since I moved into my new place, I have been showering in cold water. Now we have a nice large hot water tank, and the workers even hooked it up to our bathroom sink, now I can wash my hands in warm water. It took two guys over three and a half hours to install the thing, and I learned along the way that I really need to brush up on my repair/ maintenance vocabulary in the national language. I was really struggling to understand words like pipe and tape. But who cares I have hot water.

It is rare to get that much official stuff done in a week, much less in 24 hours.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Roommate #13

After living alone for almost four years my solitude has been broken, my space has been entered and I have taken in unlucky roommate number 13. I know that living by myself has made me more selfish about both my time and space, so hopefully she will be able to stand me. After 12 other roommates in the past I know it will take work, but I am kind of excited to have someone around the house again.

Amanda had been living in the same dorm building I use to live in here on campus. But after just six months she had had enough. It is one thing that they have been renovating non stop for almost three months, which fills the air with noise and dust, but then last week they came to her dorm and held out a key telling her she had to move right then to a new room. I guess they were ready to start demolishing her room. What they fail to understand is that to us, that is not just a dorm room, it is a home. Amanda had a fridge and oven; she couldn’t just pick up and be out of the space in half an hour. The boss of the building has been pulling more and more tricks of late between over charging me when I moved out, not letting our friends in to visit, and now making her move on a moments notice. So I convinced her to get out of there and join me in my nice new place.

Goodbye to our old dorm building, trust me we will not miss it.

I have so many dorm stories since living there. My favourite was when I still lived at my old school. One day the building manager knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to be locked in or locked out. When I asked for how long, they said “12 hours”. I guess they weren’t planning on paying someone to sit at the desk during the summer so they needed to lock the front door. At the time I only had a key to my room, not to the whole building , so when they were gone I had my choice of being locked in the building alone with no way out for 12 hours, or locked out and unable to return to my house for 12 hours. Once again they didn’t understand that it was my home. I paid the rent and wanted the freedom to come and go as I pleased. Sometimes dorm life out here has made me want to cry, or scream, or sometimes both at the same time.

Oh well, now both Amanda and I are out of that situation, and I have promised as her new landlord not pull any of the stunts that are so common out here.

The two of us enjoying our new place together