Sunday, June 28, 2009

Climb Every Mountian

After last weeks run in with the the dance performance manager, my friends and I realized we had a few days free. We were scheduled to help him from Tuesday until Friday of last week. Since no one was expecting us we deiced to head to the mountains for a bit of a vacation.
The city I live in is surrounded on almost every side by mountains, which you can see on beautiful clear days from almost anywhere. It only costs about a dollar to hop on a bus and have them take you out to a point from which you can start hiking. Sadly these mountains are turning more and more into a tourist trap all the time. There are big hotels and restaurants, and even gate fees to pay to hike in certain parts.

We were able to talk with a Kazak family a little about their horses (Kazaks love horses, they are a vital part of the culture) and in the end the wife told us the round about path we could walk to avoid paying the entrance fee.
We hiked for about three hours before stopping for a picnic lunch ( huh, I might not be able to dance, but I can participate in some physical activities). As we hiked on we noticed that the rain was moving in and decided it was time that we find ourselves a place to sleep for the night. All through the mountains are Kazak yurts, where you can make a deal with the owner for dinner and a nights accommodation. But you have to be willing to bargain hard.
I don't speak Kazak ( it is linguistically close to Uyghur kind of like Spanish and Italian are fairly similar), I know a few simple rules of how the languages are different so we muddled our way through a conversation. I did pull out all the stops to try to get us a good price. I repeated the fact that I was a student over and over, I even showed off my skinny wrists to prove how little I eat. In the end I got the price down to $4CAD a night per person. I thought this included our dinner, but I was wrong, she ended up charging us an extra $5 for our food ( not to mention the $2 she charged us for coal to heat the fire and keep the yurt warm at night). I felt like we were getting riped off.

The outside of a Kazak yurt (traditional home)

The inside of the yurt (I am the one on the left with my head covered trying to get some sleep)

A cute little Kazak baby, dressed really warm against the summer chill ( except for its little bum sticking out of the split pants).

But since returning home my teacher asked how much we spent on our night in the mountains. I have learned over the years to turn the question back on them. If I answer first with how much I spent, my local friends will always tell me I paid way too much. But sometimes if I can get them to estimate the price first they will name something higher than I paid and I end up proving to them that foreigners can do alright at the bargaining game. My teacher thought a night in a yurt plus dinner for three people should run about 300-350 of the local currency. So you can imagine how surprised she was to learn that I had only paid 110 (for a grand total of $6CAD per person).

As you can see it was a beautiful and restful place to get away (and yes mom, these are all file photos from three years ago. We didn't have a camera on us to capture the beauty this time, but I have in the past.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Subject of Political Incorrectness

I always thought that this whole political correctness had gone a little far. I thought people should be able to say what they want without everyone taking offense. However, I guess I have grown accustom to a certain level or standard of politeness conversation. But this week I was the one who was on the down side of a tackless persons conversation.

I have told you about the famous foreigner phenomenon out here. People think if you can get a white face to participate that the whole things seems a lot cooler. So this week my friend was asked to find another foreigner to join her in a live on stage song and dance performance. Since a lot of the foreigners out here are sick of this sort of thing, it wasn't like there were that many people biting at the bit to participate.

We were running 5 minutes late on Tuesday morning when we were to meet the guy who was organizing our portion of the performance. He had been calling on and off for the last half an hour wanting to check and make sure we were coming ( we used a very local expression and told him we were coming on a horse, this can buy you up to almost an hour of waiting time in the local culture). When we arrived he didn't introduce himself, he didn't greet us, he didn't say anything, he just took one look at us, got in the car and we headed out.

We figured he was mad that we were running 5 minutes late, but considering it was 6 a.m. we weren't going to feel to bad about it. Twenty minutes into our car ride he turns to my friend and says "That was really irresponsible of you to not tell me the girl had bad legs. We can't have her in the performance".

We were shocked and surprised that he would be so blunt about it. In North America it would be the height of rudeness to so blatantly point out someones disability, or to use it as an excuse to exclude them from an activity. We have become so inclusive in our culture and so sensitive to political correctness, that this statement seemed like a slap in the face. We tried assuring him that I could Uyghur dance, and in fact that I did it all the time. But he considered the matter closed. I was not good enough for his show. He quickly called another white face that he knew, to see if she would sub in for me.

When we finally got out of the car and into the waiting area I ended up having to leave the room, I was more hurt by his senseless discrimination than I thought I would be. Once I was out of the room, he turned on my friend and yelled at her. Culturally here the whole idea of saving face is a big deal. He had been asked to find Westerners to perform and he was afraid that if he brought less than perfect white faces to the party he would lose face in front of his superiors. So he tried to pass the blame onto my friend.

Anyway she refused to take part if they were going to disqualify me without even letting me try. To top it off the replacement they found was also a friend of mine and refused to participate as well. In the end we all walked away, and last I heard they had to cancel our part of the performance because he couldn't find anyone else willing.

In North America we have really made advancements in how people with a wide variety of disabilities can participate in daily life. Unfortunately here, most of that is still hidden away in shame. The idea of celebrating a persons ability to overcome is unheard of. Instead they want to present a perfect facade and in turn sweep anyone with blemishes under the rug. I often forget how much my being here despite of my limp and other physical disabilities stands in stark contrast to cultural norms.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

40 Days and 40 Nights

No this post is not about Noah, but I am sure some mothers out here must begin to feel just about as stir crazy. A few months ago I commented on the fact that a Uyghur woman is expected to stay at home for 40 days after giving birth. One of my friends commented that she wasn't sure if this sort of confinement would be relaxing and healing or simply drive her crazy.

Last week some of my friends from the states gave birth to their third child. I thought her post on the forced home stay was rather funny and I thought you might enjoy her insights (Beth this is for you).

Our boy is just over a week old now, but according to local custom, we need to keep him inside- and I should for sure be inside with him, lying in bed- for one whole month after birth. I know this and I really do want to honor the local culture as much as possible, but this is really tricky! We don't have family here to take over caring for me, the baby, the house and the big kids, and I admit, I am very Americanly productivity minded. Matt has been a Super Dad (absolutely extraordinary!) but still, he can only do so much.

So, I confess, I have ventured out already. Several times actually. Matt took me out for breakfast to a cute coffee shop nearby for my birthday. It was just me and my men (Isaiah was still a bit ill so he didn't go to school, but Marian did.) I tried to find an exit out of our building where I wouldn't have to pass by the usual line up of people-watchers or hear too many comments before hopping in the back seat of our electric bike. But the plan failed.

I ran into an unexpected crowd of very concerned neighbors. What was I doing out already!? And WHAT was I doing wearing no socks, even daring to expose virtually my whole calf (calves) so soon after giving birth? (It was about 80 F.) How old is that baby?... Basically they were all of one mind and voice: "go upstairs this instant and don't come out again for three more weeks!"

Then I met two more ladies, one about 50 and the other about 70 years old. The younger asked me "do you know that we have a custom..." and she went on to explain the "Man Yue" custom of spending the first month lying down.

"Yes, I know."

"But you don't follow it?"

"I know there is lots of value in that custom. I think it is very nice and helpful, but it's not what I'm used to and I also have two big kids I need to care for so I can't really practice Man Yue like you do."

Then the younger woman, who apparently was already familiar with foreigners ways, explained the whole thing to the older woman. "These foreigners don't rest for a month. She walks around with no socks on. She probably even drinks cold water- really cold."

The elder was flabbergasted. Certainly not cold water! (It would make my stomach upset and my milk undrinkable for our little one.)

Then the younger continued..."She probably brushed her teeth the first day after she gave birth."

The elder promptly replied: "That's impossible. If you brush your teeth that soon, all your teeth will fall out."

Lots to keep in mind!

And, it's not just a few people who have shared thoughts like this with us. These views honestly seem to be held by at least 9 out of 10 people we meet.... and people do share their opinions very (very) willingly. There's basically no holding back when it comes to people declaring what they think of you!

The gate guard at the kids school is another friend of ours. He's always careful to look out for and care for our family. He told me, scoldingly (which means he cares a great deal for us) that he doesn't care if it's not what we're used to... and then he laid on us the equivalent of "when in Rome, do as the Romans."

Yes... Somehow...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time is Money

I took my roommate up to the airport yesterday morning for her early morning flight. After she was all checked in and through security , I looked at my watch and decided to take the bus home since it was only 6 a.m. and I still had a few hours before I was to meet someone. The two hour trip home gave me a good opportunity to consider how the values of time and money are vastly different between the east and the west.

In the west we are all about saving ourselves time. We will willingly pay a little extra money to have food delivered to our house... we like our one hour photo finishing. We are all about pre- packaged food and minimum prep time. Even the fact that every house hold has a car, a washer & dyer, microwave, and dishwasher are examples of how we spend money to save time. To us it would be totally reasonable to pay someone to do a task for us, or pay the premium if it will save us an hour of our time. We value time over money.

It is the opposite here, and I proved it with my bus ride home. It would have cost me less than $8 to take a taxi right from the airport to my front door. The whole trip would have taken no more than 30 minutes. But instead the local mindset has started to sink in. I figured why pay eight dollars, when I could walk 15 minutes, sit/stand on a crowded bus for an 1 1/2 hours, and then walk another 15 minutes back to my place for the low, low price of only 30 cents.

People here will often walk for 20-30minutes to go to the store that is selling vegetables pennies cheaper, they will stand in long lines and spend long periods of time haggling over the smallest price variations. Almost all meals are still prepared from scratch and while you can find microwaves for sale, they are not that common in homes. Here people are willing to spend as much time as it takes to save a buck.

Time is money or money is time, I guess it all depends on what you value.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Heavy Load

Thanks to a new ruling by local officials, all foreign students need to move on campus. Officially this is said to be for our safety and protection (which is just funny).

The other day I helped friends of mine make the move. Moving here is actually one of the tasks that is surprisingly simple. I called the moving company the day before and told them about what time we wanted them to come. As long as you don't have a piano, a safe or an aquarium that need to be moved, the cost is only about $12 for the truck and another buck fifty for each floor. So for instance my friends were moving from a first floor apartment to a fourth floor one... five floors in total cost them about $7.50. Which means in theory one can move for less than $20 (Sadly my friends were deemed to have too much stuff to fit in one truck, so the guys had to make it two trips and it cost them double).

For that low price two or three guys will come with a truck and move everything you have with lightening speed. My job was to sit out with the truck and make sure everything made it in, and nothing was ripped off by passer-byers (it is a hard job sitting in the sunshine watching other people engage in heavy labour). It always amazes me that the guys they send seem to be the scrawniest, little movers you have ever met. Yet despite there size they can make a pack mule look lazy as they stack up their load for each trip and start climbing up to the fourth floor (remember no elevators).
My friend's new apartment building

The movers hard at work

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Modeling, Mocking, and Moving

A few months ago I posted pictures of my friend and I in our matching local dresses. While we love the clothes, we saw the whole twin thing as a bit of a joke.

When spring came my Uyghur roommate suggested that we all get matching dresses to celebrate the season, and our friendship. She was so excited about the prospect, that my American roommate and I couldn't help but agree.

So we had our fabric made up into different pieces, but with the same matching theme. Unfortunately it wasn't enough just to own the clothing, our roommate told us we had to go around campus and take model shot photos of all of us together. The two of us from the west wanted to roll our eyes or gag a little at the cheesiness of it all. Can you imagine doing this in North America, the mocking from friends would be eternal.

We not only took photos but we also shot a short video clip of us walking around and holding hands so that she could look back with found memories of our time together as roommates. She found this whole twin and togetherness time very moving. She has already printed up pictures as well as sent them to all her friends and family.

I was originally going to mock myself in this post, and claim how silly the whole thing was. But instead I will let my roommate set the tone. Isn't it wonderful to think we will always have these pictures and these clothes to remember this time.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

You Can't Get There From Here

The road by the front gate of my school is currently under construction. This means that my normally very convenient place to live has become a VERY inconvenient place.

When my family was here to visit four years ago, my brother averaged it out and said that a new bus arrived at the bus stop every 35 seconds. I have been spoiled with the ease of it all. Now the bus stop is an extra ten minute walk away. Added to the extended walk to get to the bus, is the extended length of time spent on the bus. There are so many buses being redirected that traffic jams are now prevalent on the smallest little lanes. Sometimes they are trying to go down roads that you don't even think could fit a bus, much less one going each direction.

Traffic laws here run under the assumption that the first person to get their nose into a small spot gets to have it. So three lanes of traffic will often compete to meld into the same narrow space. Here is a file photo of a relatively calm intersection, where you can see a traffic jam in the making.
All of this has resulted in a lot more walking for me. I have realized that any location within a half hour walking radius is likely easier and quicker to get to on foot than it would be by bus. So I guess that means I will be walking for a while ( they estimate finishing the construction in Oct)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A "Snow" Cone

The day we have all been waiting for with baited breath and great anticipation has finally arrived. The Ice Mountain Creamery has finally opened it doors. This is a fully foreign run and operated ice cream shop here in town. It is sooooo good.

Ice cream has never really been anything to write home about, until now that is. Here in town we really only had two options; bad local ice cream that is a lot more ice and a lot less cream, and Uzbek ice cream which is wonderfully creamy and rich and sweet, but the only problem is it only comes in one flavour. Now I grew up use to the idea of a ice cream shop offering 31 flavours... and I have to admit that after five years, this one sort of caramel, sort of vanilla, sort of like those flavours you just can't seem to put your finger on what it really is, has gotten a little monotonous.

We did have one other option, a small container of Hogindos, which cost a small fortune ( since the price was high, they weren't selling, and you just knew they were sitting in the stores collecting freezer burn) and no one ever bought.

Until today. When I went by the Ice Mountain Creamery they had five flavours for sale (strawberry, banana, Walnut crunch, Cream, and Winter Snow). I bought a waffle cone of Winter Snow. The name itself is ingenious. It is a traditional cookies and cream, with oreo's crumbled up in the ice cream. But the combination of the dark on the white, made the owners think of the coal dust that covers the snow in the winter here. It is a joke that any ex-pat would think was hilarious. I normally can't find much to laugh about in the dark, bleak winter, but give me a nice summer day and a scoop of ice cream and the whole thing seems like a big joke.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Appealing to Local Logic

I have mentioned several times how the older ladies in my neighborhood are always after me for not wearing weather appropriate clothing. I have grown accustom to just smiling and letting the comments roll off me, but for my friends with children it is even worse.

Every time they go out they are accosted by neighbours who comment on how little the child is wearing, and how they are going to get sick. The kid could be wearing a wool sweater in the middle of the summer and some caring neighbour would feel obliged to tell them the child will get a cold. It really is all said out of love, but it really does get annoying after a while.

An American couple brought their two kids to this baby party the other day. The child being honoured was dressed in thick corduroy overalls, and a flannel shirt (under which I am sure he was wearing a layer of long johns). The western family had taken advantage of the bright sunny summerish day and dressed their baby in a cute flowery summer suit (sleeveless with matching shorts). You could almost hear the mutual shocked intake of breath from around the room as they entered.

But the father was prepared. He used their own local logic to explain how he was best caring for his child. He said "You know American babies are different. If they wear too many clothes they sweat a lot. If they are then out in the breeze that sweat and wetness can lead to a cold. So if I keep her in such a way as to prevent sweating she will actually stay healthier." The poor old lady who had instigated the conversation had no idea how to answer this... you could tell she had paused to consider it. And it even seemed to make some sense to her. But in the end she retorted with the good old tried and true come back "Our babies aren't like that, and you need to put more clothes on your baby, or she will get sick".

Oh well, nice try. At least the kids I'm playing with don't seem that cold in their summer outfits.