Friday, August 29, 2008

Get Your Fight Face On

Some days it feels like everything out here takes work, that a person has to fight with everyone for anything. We often call it getting your fight face on. When you have to bargain hard, or push your way through. It takes fight. My friends and I have always valued running interference for each other. That means when approaching a task that we know is going to take a lot of fight we always try to go in groups of two. Even if the second person doesn’t have much language skills yet, they can stand behind you shaking their head and scowling with the fight face in place. It seems that is the only way to be successful. This week I had a cultural eureka moment. It was like a light bulb went on in my head. A girl was telling me the majority people group out here values strength and determination. When you are ready to put up a fight for your rights you are demonstrating both of these characteristics and therefore are more likely to be successful at your task.
Even though I have had to put on my fight face hundreds of times since living out here I am still not very good at it. I feel bad being so mean. In fact this week I even went back and apologized to a woman for my behaviour ( this was before my cultural discovery, and is completely unheard of in this culture, but I wanted to maintain a good relationship with her office) after which the woman saw me as weak and tried to bulldoze over me the rest of the week. I need to toughen up to live in a culture where meanness is applauded. In Canada we are known for being polite people who say sorry all the time, but that sort of attitude doesn’t always cut it out here.

The struggle comes in being culturally appropriate and standing firm, while trying to show love and kindness to my neighbours. To me wearing my fight face is not a good way to make friends.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Marvellously Made up Mug Shot

For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, you will know that just a few months ago I was vigorously complaining about the horrible passport photos I had taken. If I could have, I should have waited until I got back here… here mug shots are doctored at the photo place.

Yesterday I accompanied one of my friends to the police station to act as her translator. After waiting 20 minutes our number was called and we hurried to the desk. We had double and tripled checked that she had all the paperwork she needed to apply for her new visa, but the police officer took one glance at the application and announced that we had the wrong type of picture. Attached to her application was the standard identification picture with its bright red backdrop. Apparently now you need a picture with a white background and a thin black line framing the picture. I had to work to fight down the aggravation that was rising in me. It is such dumb rule… but it is their country and we are the foreigners asking for the right to live here, so we have to follow their rules, and break though their red tape. Meekly I asked where we could get the right pictures taken, and we left the office.

Once on the street we found the picture place and my friend poised for her mug shot. The woman then loaded the picture into photo shop and started to work her magic. First she tamed down the hair, by getting rid of all the fly away pieces, then she erased all facial blemishes or marks until my freckled friend had a perfectly clear complexion. Next she eliminated the shine on her skin created by the flash. They even lightened the colouring. Her picture went from a mug shot to a beauty pageant photo in five minutes.

Thankfully, while this new shot looked less like my friend than the first one, it had the right back ground allowed us to submit her application with no further problems.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


As I was growing up my parents always told me that what they wanted for Christmas, their birthday, or whatever occasion was my love and continued hard work in school. They looked at my dedication to my studies as a gift to them. It was a little hard since I couldn’t put a bow on it, but that is what they wanted. They valued my studying and made it a family priority.

I have been seeing how much more that is true out here. The Uyghur people, at least here in the city, value learning English and studying hard. This priority trumps a lot of things in their daily hierarchy.

Two of my teachers have been over in the last few days and serve as perfect examples. One lady is seven and a half months pregnant with their first child. They have been planning for this baby for a long time. Most Uyghur families have their first child within their first year and a half of marriage, this couple though has been married for almost six years and is only now expecting. Both are thrilled at the prospect of having a baby ( not to mentioned the excitement of their extended family, who were beginning to doubt it would ever happen). Her husband, however, has just been offered to go to Australia and study for at least six months. Granted it is a great privilege, and a wonderful opportunity for his language skills, so much so that they have decided he should go. So their first child will be born, and then a month later he will leave. I have an America friend who is engaged and when she heard about this set up she said “I would knock Jonny’s head off if he ever even suggested leaving me alone with our first child”. She might value study, but not at the expense of family.

My other teacher stopped by to see my new place. When she saw I had an empty spare room, she asked if she could move in with me. The question was half in jest half sincere. She even went as far as so ask what I would charge her for rent. This woman is married, with a teenage son, but living and learning from me took higher priority.

I think both of these visits really weirded me out since Uyghurs normally seem to put such a high value on family.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Honk if you Love Driving

The other day I heard my friend’s insightful take on the ‘rules of the road’ out here. After six months of observation he could sum it all up pretty simply. “If you honk your horn loud enough and long enough you can do anything, and go anywhere you want to.” Who needs drivers-ed, or a drivers handbook for that matter, just practice laying your hand down hard on the horn. If you want to drive backwards down the street, just honk. If you want to pass full speed in the on coming traffic lane, just honk. If you want to cut off three cars and a bus, just honk. If you are trying to make a left hand turn on a red light, just honk. The best part is that this rule also applies to cars on the sidewalk.

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Fifteen Minutes

In the past few weeks I have been in three TV commercials/news blurbs, it is not quite the Uyghur movie star exposure that I am aiming for, but it is a start at fame. Actually since living out here I have had more than my fair share of camera time. Counting these three new commercials I have taped seven things ( a two part English interview, two childrens programs and now these commercials). The commercials were all for a foreign run restaurant. The owner wanted as many westerners present when he filmed it as possible, so that it would look like an exciting happening place. The TV spokesperson then wanted to speak to as many people from as many different countries as they could… I became the token Canadian.

My TV performances have even gotten me recognition once in the past, when a lady at a bus stop in another town said she had watched the English interview I had done. Watch out Central Asian Red Carpet, I am riding my fifteen minutes of fame as far as they will take me.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Let’s Start At the Very Beginning

Some friends and I have decided to study Uyghur over our summer vacation. This couple has studied a related language in the past so they are pretty familiar with the sounds and grammar, but it is still a whole different language. I have studied for two years, but after being home for a few months, I feel like there is so much that I am forgetting, or just missing all together. There are so many words that are practical to daily life, that never get covered in your average textbook. Our school books teach us words that are in the daily reading or dialogue, they may not be words that are useful to day to day life. And so we decided to start at the very beginning, to help fill in the gaps.

We are having their house helper/ cleaning lady work as our language nurturer ( we are using the Greg Thompson language accusation material, that is his terminology not mine). The thought was that this woman has not been scared or tainted by traditional eastern teaching methodology. She is open and we can use her to help craft our world of ‘here and now’ understandable language. Sadly though, she does not read either English or the national language, so she can not read the nurtures handbook to know how to teach the class. We have had to explain it all to her in Uyghur.

On day one I told her, in Uyghur, that the point or phase one was to just listen to the teacher and her pronunciation. That we were not going to say anything for the first 100 hours of class. We were going to show her pictures or items and wanted her to tell us the name or action in one word. We wanted to listen to her say that word and we wanted to play games where she asked us to point to different items or pictures to make sure we were understanding. I asked her if she had any questions, and then we showed her the first picture. The picture was a man pointing at himself. The elicited word should be “I” or “me” or some type of first person reference. But because I had given such a detailed explanation of the whole language learning process in Uyghur, the teacher figured I must already know those words and went off in a totally different direction. In the end we had to subtlety suggest that maybe this picture best represented the word “مەن” . The founder of the program would not approve of our coaching the nurturer on what word to teach us. Oh well, that is summer school for you. But we are finally off and running. So here is your own little Uyghur lesson. Good luck!

Friday, August 08, 2008

Trading Spaces

As many of you may have heard, while I was home in Canada I met a Uyghur man who had a three bedroom apartment for rent right on my university campus. Talk about ‘coincidental’ I took one look at the place and decided to move out of my small 7 ½ foot, by 7 ½ foot dorm room into a nice new place. The apartment is in the prefect location, near the centre of campus and on the first floor.

Just take a look!

Outside my front window

My Living room

My Dining Room

The Kitchen ( the sink and the stove are both out on the balcony)

My bedroom ( there is a spare bedroom too, but it is still a mess from moving)

And my favourite room: the office with floor to ceiling built in bookshelves on both sides of the window.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Flash back to 1984

Over the last few days Canada has felt like it is a part of another universe, one that is far far away. I am reminded again how special a person’s rights to privacy or freedom to come and go as they please are. We tend to take these things for granted in the west. Since my return is still relatively recent I still figure I am due these privileges. But this past week has reminded me that they are just that, privileges. A different culture or a different country can not guarantee the same freedoms or way of life.

I have had to pull out my passport more in the last few days than ever in my life. Twice yesterday just to come on to my university campus, I was stopped at the front gate, by a man with a red arm band asking me to prove that I am a student of the school, or that I have a reason to be on campus. This has never happened in the four years I have lived here. But the man was serious, unless I could prove that I attended the school they were not going to allow me to return to my home.

Also the city has hired a whole new workforce to man the buses. Previously each bus just had a driver, now a second person has been hired to sit in the front seat and check everyone's bags as they get on the bus. We are all expected to stop at the top of the stairs and open up our purses, backpacks or shopping bags so that the man with the arm band can glance at what you are bringing on the bus. It is actually kind of funny since so many people use the bus system, the single person assigned the task of looking in bags on each bus doesn’t really have time to do a through search of everyone’s belongings. So they give a casual nod in your direction after you have undone the zipper or snaps. To top it off there are also desks set up at every bus stop with another attendant whose job it is to monitor who is getting on and off the bus.

Everywhere I go someone is watching.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Big Bottoms

We made a rather odd discovery about sheep on our trip last week. Sheep here have externally large bums. When six people have nothing to do for hours on the train, it is surprising how much conversation can be filled by speculating on sheep butts. Why are they bigger in this part of the world than anywhere else? How did they get to be that size? Is it genetic? Are they engendered that way? Is it natural selection or breeding? Is it their diet? Do they all naturally waddle when they walk, or is that a learned skill? The questions just go on and on. Well we reached no definite conclusions, I think it is wise to warn you if you ever come out for a visit to steer clear of the back ends of sheep.

I will say this for big sheep bums, they taste great Barbecued and served as kabobs.