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.