Monday, August 29, 2011

You're Too Old to Not Be Married

I left the tour group I was translating for to play basketball and I slowly moved over to some steps that I could sit down on. I was stiff and tired after a long day of wandering around and bargaining, my weariness showed as I lowered myself onto the stair. Before finally dropping all my weight I did nod at the family who was already occupying the steps and quietly muttered a question asking to join them. They nodded their accent and I gladly took a break for a minute. I could overhear the family discussing me, but lacked the energy to engage them or even correct their preconceived notions.

"Do you think she is a foreigner?"

"She can't be, she asked in Uyghur if we would mind if she sat down."

"No. she didn't say anything when she sat down."

"Yes she did, she looked right t me and asked to sit down."

"Then she must be Uzbek because she doesn't look like she is from here."

After a few minutes one of them finally got brave enough to just ask me, at that point even my tiredness won't let me be rude enough to fake lack of understanding when asked a direct question. After setting them straight on where I was from, what I was doing here, and where I learned their language, the mother asked me the most surprising question.

"When are you due?"

I stared at her blankly not really understanding the question, at least not understanding how it related to me.

"You are expecting aren't you?" she asked again.... only this time she used a euphemism that literally means to have heavy feet. (which didn't seem to fit seeing as I barely weigh 95 pounds right now).

She tried one more time "aren't you pregnant?"

"No" I said with a bit of a nervous laugh, "I'm not even married".

"Not married?! How old are you?"


"We're the same age" announced the mother as her 13 year old son slid closer to hear my response. He wasn't the only one drawing closer, I noticed the crowd had grown from the original family to include may curious passerbyers.

I tried to defend myself a little. "Well in my culture a lot of people don't get married until they are 30-35. In fact my older brother just got married for the first time a couple of months ago. So I still have plenty of time."

Everyone in the crowd started shaking their heads at me, I am still not sure whether it was out of pity or shame. "Not here," said a voice from behind me. "girls get married when they are 17-19".

"I got married when I was 15" said the mom "I have a son older than this one."

"You'll be too old to have kids."

"There won't be any men left to marry."

"Don't your parents want grandchildren, I was a grandmother by the time I was 36".

The comments kept coming at me. I tried to laugh them off and enjoy the fact that a group of 30 some odd people where that anxious to offer an opinion on my life choices. I did notice a police or two eavesdropping at the back of the crowd, but they did nothing to break up the ever increasing amount of people who seemed to disapprove of my life.

"What are you waiting for?"

"Have you ever been married?"

"Do you at least have a boyfriend?" The calls were coming from further back, and I could only imagine the story that was being circulated through the mass of people for the benefit of those who came late. The next thing I saw was the throng of people dispersing very suddenly. I looked up and noticed that the riot police armed with their wooden bats had marched right up to the crowd and was attempting to force people to move along. I looked them in the eye and sincerely apologized. "I am sorry officer, we were all just chatting. They were asking me about my life in Canada". I could tell once the police had seen what was in the middle of the large group, they too were interested in stopping to ask questions, but their sense of duty prevailed and before you know it I was able to slip out of the park and head back to my hotel for a real rest. The group of tourist had mainly watched from the outside. They said they had been worried when they saw the riot police enter the park and march with purpose right over to where people had been mulling around me. Talk about things to be thankful for, I am so glad that I was not dragged down to the station for another long conversation about my marital status, insulted and told I look fat like a pregnant lady or even worse.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Are We Close?

Traveling in the southern part of our province is exciting for about the first hour or so and then it all becomes a repetition of much the same. Looking at the mountains on one side and the vast desert on the other. Every once in a while there will be small sprouts of green grass popping and slowly multiplying until there are bushes and trees until you realize you are in the midst of a lush oasis. Ten minutes of green beauty with a small village and farmer inhabitance is all you’re allotted until the same progress starts fading away in reverse. The trees disappear, the bushes shrink in size and suddenly you realize there aren’t even any slivers of grass to be seen poking up through the sand.

Recently a group and I were driving along this vast desert highway, almost bored by the hours of mountains, sand, and occasional grass. When we could tell that we were drawing close to yet another oasis town. One of the guys in the vehicle planned on meeting up with a friend in an upcoming oasis. We had no idea exactly how far we had traveled or how many small villages still lay between us and our final destination.

In a moment of inspiration he asked to use my phone to call his friend. The friend of course inquires about how close we were to his home town. My travel companion with total honesty responded “ Well looking out the window I see the desert, a few trees and a couple of donkey carts. So do you think we’re almost there?”

Monday, August 22, 2011


Speaking of spontaneous travel stories… here is one that my former language classmate from out here posted on his blog the other day.

Have you had one of those moments recently when something so outrageous happens all you can do is laugh? I did. And now I'll tell you about it.

It was a short trip east and a bit south of here. By short trip, I mean 30 hours by train. Meeting up with a friend, we headed to the bus station. We had a few small cities we planned to visit and bus seemed the best option. It's cheap and reliable, though I've yet to see a bus here with anything close to resembling what I like to call 'leg room'.

For whatever reason, we were told that foreigners could not take the bus we wanted to take. Not completely understanding we quickly resorted to Plan B. The infamous yet wonderful Santana, or long distance taxi. Santanas derive their name from the Volkswagen Santana, the model of choice for the majority of these taxis. After a quick phone call which involved haggling over a price we waited for our driver who never showed. We finally resorted to flagging down a random Santana which immediately agreed to the price we were told was fair. Great! We jumped in. AND. This driver didn't cram a fourth person in the back. I'm a large man. 4 people in the back of a mid-sized sedan just doesn't work for me.

My rejoicing was short-lived. About an hour into the trip, the driver suddenly pulled over and in hopped a ragged looking migrant worker. Now I was sqished up against the front seat, my friend laughing at me one side and a farmer rattling off about Obama in a local dialect I could barely understand on the other. Off we went again. This time we only got another twenty minutes down the road. After answering a few phone calls (in a dialect, of course, I could not understand) the driver suddenly pulled over. No explanation other than, "Wait a little." Soon, another car full of men in white skull caps pulled up. The hood of our car was opened and all ten or so men hunched over inspecting the underworkings of our vehicle. "Is the car broken?", I asked my new Obama-loving friend. No clear answer was given. Silly me. Thinking the car was broken. Pfff.

Meanwhile cars and bikes are slowing down for a better look at the two whities. One got the feeling they didn't get a lot of foreigners in those parts. Finally, while chatting about what might become of us, the driver turned toward us. Admittedly what came out of his mouth was actually nothing I could have ever expected. "I just sold my car. Now you will take the public bus." So many thoughts passed through my mind. "You ARE selling it? You WILL sell it?" My language skills aren’tt great, but I was sure he just said 'sold'... as in the past tense of 'sell'.

Next my thought was to reason with him. Surely he understood that we had an unspoken agreement; he was under a certain obligation to drive me to my destination, right? SURELY you can't sell your car out from under your passengers?! Silly me. In the next minute our driver flagged down a public bus heading to our destination, he paid our fare, and we were bustled on. Since we were late comers, the only seats available were little plastic stools in the aisle. Strangely, our fellow Santana passengers seemed unphased as they climbed on the bus, like it was normal for their taxi to be sold mid-way through a trip.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Travelling locally takes my personal flexibility and need for spontaneity to a whole new level. A few weeks ago I took a small group travelling down south, as the only one who spoke Uyghur I was responsible for planning out route and buying our bus tickets.

I went to the bus station the day before we hoped to leave, but was told I couldn’t buy tickets this early. I had to get them within twenty four hours of the bus’ departure time. Sadly when I went back the next day our original destination was sold out, and we ended up heading to a completely different city, leaving three hours earlier than planned.

A few days later we were leaving one city to head further south. I sent the girls I was travelling with to the local English training school to teach an English corner while I went to buy our tickets. I wanted to be leaving in about two hours, I figured that gave them an hour to teach class and another to make it to the bus station and buy snacks for the road. But once again I was told I was too early to buy those tickets. They filled up one bus, as soon as it left the station they would start to sell tickets for the next one.

My favourite one from the trip was when we bought tickets first thing in the morning and according to the time printed on them we still had an hour and a half or so before we were suppose to leave. I was just about to suggest we go shopping at the bazaar around the corner from the bus station, when someone yelled out the name of the city we were heading to. Only to learn they had sold out all the seats and were ready to go… the time printed was nothing but a mere suggestion, an approximation of when they might leave.

Locals are much better at this ‘travel whenever’ mentality than I am. They are ready to go on a moment’s notice. Like the woman that had, by our definition, essentially been hitchhiking and waiting for a bus that had room to pick them up. It was 1:30 in the morning when they climbed on our bus from some desert village in the middle of nowhere to spend the night sleeping on the floor between the bunks. They didn’t seem fazed at all by the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements or the odd hour at which their travels began.

When the driver says ‘Go’ you better be ready.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

That's Not Very Old Lady Like Behaviour

After walking around a new town with no real place to rest or even put our bags down, we found a nan seller that had a raised platform out front his shop. We asked if we could sit down to enjoy our snack. Uyghurs being the hospitable people that they are, quickly brought us tea to drink as we sat and rested.

The family in charge of the bread shop continued to work away at baking up a fresh batch and allowed us our peace and quiet for our little tea party. Sitting just outside of the shops front door was the family grandmother. She looked very old, like most days all she did was occupy this perch out front and people watch, as those from town wondered by on their various tasks. She sat with a fan in hand alliteratively using it as either a fly swatter, or moving just enough to create a small breeze to cool herself from the oppressive afternoon heat.

One of our group was really getting annoyed by the bugs that kept buzzing around her head. The old grandmother saw her flailing her arms around in an effort to ward off the unwanted guests. The old woman made a grunting sound to get our attention and thrust the fan towards us. My friend thanked her for offering to share, but turned her back to let the women keep up her daily routine.

The woman would not be easily dismissed and tried again to get my friend's attention to offer her fan. This time she was more persistent, she picked up a rock and threw it at my friend's back. Talk about unlady-like behavior. We all saw her do it, and still couldn’t believe that such a sweet woman was a stone thrower.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Medicine Coffee- Coming to a Coffee Shop Near You

Uyghurs have a unique tea flavor that they call medicine tea. It is a black tea with cinnamon, cardamom and other spices ( I haven’t asked what those other spices are, because I am very scared they will tell me it is dried snake).

We climbed off the sleeper bus at a small stop along the way. I grabbed a pack of instant coffee to help keep me going. I figured I could just get some boiling water and enjoy a break. I asked around, but all the tea pots were filled with medicine tea.

How bad can it be? I’ve heard of cinnamon coffee… and cardamom is good. I had high hopes that it would taste so good that Starbucks would be knocking down my door for the recipe. Boy was I wrong.

Coffee- good.

Medicine tea – good

Mix the two together = waste of a perfectly good coffee package and an overall bad start to a long day.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Have You Ever Seen A Shopping Centre?

An American girl was recently visiting on one of her first trips to Central Asia. While she was here she made friends with one of the waitresses at my favorite restaurants.

The three of us made plans to hang out on her day off. We meet up at the front of the international bazaar, a place filled with unique sights and sounds around every corner. The bazaar is filled with dried fruit, bedazzled clothing, musical instruments and other Uyghur trappings.

My Uyghur friend excitedly asked my American what she would like to do, since we had a little time before dinner. Without really even giving her time to respond, she asked us if we had ever been to Carrefour, a French version of Wal-Mart. She grabbed our arms and proudly marched us passed all the colourful hats and other expressions of a foreign culture, right to the front door of the cheep take off of an everyday standard retail store.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Hello "Big Plate of Chicken"

I was walking down the street the other day when I heard a familiar greeting tentatively whispered by my side. "Yakshmusiz Da pan Ji". I looked around expecting to see a small child behind me (after I appeared on a Uyghur game show over a year ago many of the neighborhood children gave me the nickname of my favorite food. 'big plate of chicken'). Only this time there was no little ones to be seen. Instead I realized I had just passed a traditional, fully veiled, Muslim woman. Her eyes sparkled with mischief as she gazed out at me from the small slit in her head covering. She might have forgotten my name, but I was glad she was brave enough to find some way to greet me.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Business and Boyfriends

I have a policy some days about not answering telephones numbers that I don't know. I have done this too many times in the past and ended up in an awkward conversation with a student wanting to practice their English by reading their textbook aloud to me over the phone.

I was distracted the other day and answered the phone without checking the number. I was really glad I did when I realized it was someone from a government office inquiring about how our business was developing. I proudly announced that all of our paperwork was finished and that we were ready to get down to work. I quickly jumped into my long sob story about going home for just a few weeks to attend my brother's wedding, but having to stay sooooo much longer after I got sick and needed surgery. He seemed to feel sufficiently bad for me to not be to concerned as to why we still hadn't done much business. The conversation turned to lighter matters and he told me I needed a boyfriend to help when I am sick. I tried to laugh off the comment as I began to feel ill at ease about the direction the conversation was going. His follow up question was of course "do you have a boyfriend?" I once again chuckled and mentioned that my business partner would be back soon so we could take care of each other and continue to develop our company.

After successfully ending his chitchat, I sat in the living room recounting the odd discussion with my friends. Before I had even reached the tail end of our bizarre conversation my phone rang a second time.

"Hi" said the voice on the other end. "My name is ____________, I work for the same department of the government as the gentlemen who just gave you a call."

"Hello," I said as I quickly reviewed relevant business words in my head, expecting him to have more specific questions about the speed at which we were developing.

"My co-worker just mentioned to me that you don't have a boyfriend. What about me?"

The total lack of professionalism and inappropriateness of the conversation struck an angry cord in me. "No, I don't have one, and I don't need one either," I said curtly. "I have guests over right now and must go. Bye". I hung up the phone with force and quickly marked his number in my phonebook as 'Do not answer'.