Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hospitality is Selfishness

Hospitality as selfishness may seem a contradiction to many people’s views on manors and propriety, but there are some days I can’t help but think it is the reason why people really open their home and invite others to join them. Sure there are several stresses that go into the role of hostess, from planning a meal to making sure the house is clean. But these tasks can all be done from the quietness of home with soft relaxing music playing in the background enhancing the pleasure of the task.

The guest, however, must brave the outside world in order to fight their way to the predetermined location. At times these travels can seem arduous for all involved. You must find the right bus stop, stand and wait, run with the crowd to board the proper bus, push your way aboard, stand packed like sardines for more stops than you can count, listening to the garbled sound of the intercom system announcing each stop at a decibel that breaks the acceptable noise levels of public places, guard your belonging from pick-pockets and the like, walk in extreme temperatures from the place where the bus stops to where your friend actually lives, buy fruit or some sort of appropriate hostess gift by haggling over the price, toting said purchase of several kilos up numerous flights of stairs, all the while trying to look pleasant and put together in order to smile your greeting to the host.

The longer the visit lasts the more one’s mind becomes distracted with thoughts of returning home. Will the buses still be running? Will I be able to get a taxi? How many blocks will I have to walk before some form of transportation will become availed? This nervous preoccupation with the return journey can often start to sour the end of the evening.

The host merely puts on music, whips down the table, washes a few dishes and heads to bed, selfishly enjoying the fact that they never had to leave the comforts of their own home.

Okay, so today was the first snowfall of the year and I might be a little bitter at having had to go outside and face the snow and ice covered streets.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wedding Crashers

Today was one of my old classmate’s birthday…his one wish was for a crazy dance party with all of his friends. In total our group was comprised of seven different nationalities. Planning a party for that many people takes way too much time and energy, so we decided to just crash a random wedding. Actually this is considered totally acceptable. Most weddings take place at huge restaurants and there are almost always empty tables around the edge of the party. If you are willing to eat the same food as the wedding guests you can buy a table of your own and join in the dancing.

Some of us went shopping and found good Uyghur party outfits. This season’s fashion expands beyond just sparkle and glimmer to include leopard and fishnet (it’s considered trendy not trashy – this year in Uyghur shopping leopard is ‘in’ for every age).

The scene that greeted us at the door was much like any wedding a man in a suite, a women in white, even the bridesmaid. But this was no wedding…

This time we crashed a circumcision party. In Uyghur culture boys are circumcised when they are about 7 or 8 years old. The party and the actual event take place several weeks apart, which means last night was more of a big overblown birthday party for this kid too (hence the reason Mickey and Mini mouse showed up part way through the evening).

At these parties the mom and dad dress up like it's their wedding, the kids stand around singing songs and playing little game, all the relatives eat until they are stuffed, and we foreigners awkwardly swing our arms around and call it Uyghur dancing. But I think both of the boys would tell you: "It was the best birthday ever!"

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I've Seen that Look Before

This afternoon an expat came by our house to get advice on opening a business. Thankfully we had kept detailed notes last year throughout our painful process. We spelled out to her the need to first find an office, name your company, write a business proposal in a different language, apply for barcodes, wire in money, ect.ect.ect. We showed her sample documents of everything we got approved and stamped by the government. We told her stories about the officers who only wanted bribes and try to make your life harder so that you will pay them, we told her at what offices she might meet a helpful person. We filled her in on the rules that we know have already changed.

The more we shared of our rather painful experience the better we felt about our ability to thrive out here in many awkward situations. The more crazy stories she heard the more the colour drained from her cheeks and the more she took on this rather freaked out facial expression. I’ve seen that face before, in fact I think my roommate/business partner reflected it back at each other for months last year. Scared, intimidated, overwhelmed, drowning, ready to run, or throw-up, or throw in the towel, or forget the whole plan ( a face can really reflect all of those negative emotions in a few seconds).

Reviewing the process made me so thankful to be where we are today.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

A newly arrived American couple invited us over for dinner to show off their apartment and update my roommate and I on how they were doing at settling in. The wife had been at our home earlier in the week learning all the ropes of hosting and being hosted in a local Uyghur family. We taught her the rules of what to say at the door, how to pour the tea, when and where to wear slippers the hints to watch for about when it’s time to leave, and how to accompany someone out. She spent time trying on our headscarves and tying them in different and trending ways.

We told her our visit wasn’t meant to be a test on what we had taught, it was just an informal time to hang out. Even in light of our telling her to relax, we could see the wheels in her head spinning as she tried to remember which seat was the one of honor and who should be the furthest from the door.

As the evening wore on we took our bowls of ice cream into the living room and kept chatting. Once everyone had used their spoons to scrap the bottom of the bowls clean, her husband stood and started to clear the dishes and take them back into the kitchen. My roommate and I got the hint at once and both figured it must be time to go… we casually checked our watches and started rubbing our hands together while looking at the other person for confirmation. As we were still going over our pre-leaving ritual, the husband returned from his task in kitchen, threw a cushion on the floor, and flopped down to join in the conversation with a story of his own. My roommate and I were confused by the clearly contrasting cultural signs…’should we stay or should we go?’. We glanced and each other briefly and could tell we were sharing a mutually awkward moment of forgetting how to be a guest in our own culture. It suddenly clicked that the clearing of the dishes was a kindhearted act of servanthood on the part of the husband and not a bold hint saying “get out of my house”.

I burst out laughing at our mutual misunderstanding… but as many of you know, my laugh is not one of those subtle easy to hide behind your hand or disguise as a cough type of laughs. When I laugh people start making hyena comparisons… others grab their cell phone and offer to call 911. This poor couple had no idea what had hit them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Body Language

My roommate has been teaching English part time at t local Middle School (The school’s English slogan, which is printed on every student’s school jacket is: swifter, higher, stranger). Despite the misprint on their clothing, she was pleasantly surprised to find how high of a language level they really have.

One day in class she was doing a warm up activity with them. Yelling out things like “Stand up if you are an only child”. “Stand up if you have ever traveled to another country” “Stand up if ….”

One of her question was “Stand up if you can speak three or more languages”. Three students jumped out of their chairs. She decided to inquire further. Looking at the first student she asked “What three languages do you speak?”

“Uyghur, English, …” then he proceeded to name some other local language that is rather popular out here.

The second student was able to sit down with a simple “The same three”

Turning to the last student, “and you?” she asked.

“I speak English, Uyghur, and…” with a smug, smarty pants look on his face “body language” he said in an elaborate voice.

The class burst into giggles and my roommate groaned inwardly, 'that's they type of day it is going to be.'

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Why You Have Stomach Issues

As I have mentioned many times… living here overseas means living with stomach issues, namely diarrhea. Our local friends have a lot of reasons to explain away our discomfort. My top two I heard recounted from fellow expats this week are:

1. You drink cold water from the fridge – no wonder you have diarrhea, drinking cold things will make you sick.

2. Your underwear is too low. If you wore ones that were higher cut they would keep your stomach warm and you wouldn’t have this problem.

Sound logic on their part since they would never do either of these things and don’t seem to have the same problem, but they forget that I spent more than 20 year of my life in Canada drinking ice water and not wearing granny panties tucked up under my armpits. Sadly I have learned there is no point in arguing with their statements of concern… instead I say “Thank you, I will have to try that next time, maybe it will help.”

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Long Distant Dating

My roommate is dating a guy back in the states which equals a lot of phone calls, Skype chats and such, but they are also trying to be creative in their dates. This weekend my roommate's best friend, who use to live out here and is now back in the states put together a scavenger hunt for them do simultaneously from both sides of the world. They were allowed to work in teams of three and had two hours to take pictures of as many things on the list as they could. In the end I think I got more together time with my roommate out of the activity than her boyfriend did, but we had fun running around the city making fools of ourselves.

Speaking Spanish to random strangers – We kept asking these cute little Uyghur girls were their shoes were. The poor moms had no idea what was going on, but since we seemed nice and unthreatening they assumed we weren’t casting some type of evil curse and let us keep talking to the kids.

We spoke over a loud speaker as my roommate tried to help the ladies dressed in bright yellow stretch clothing sell their Jasmine ice tea drink, by yelling out in the local language that "American’s like drinking it too".

With a desperate look on her face, and no words my roommate tried to ask where the bathroom was (it’s harder than you think playing the dumb foreigner card, when you understand exactly what they are saying to you).

We rode animals,

Drank coffee,

And squished as many people as we could on a park bench.

Our opposing team had more fun re-interpreting the instruction and not taking things as literally as we did.

Us- eating street food

Them- eating street food

Us- Writing a message in the sand

Them writing a message in the sand

Us- a couple on a date

Them- A couple on a date (it is an old picture of my roommate riding a donkey cart down south, with her boyfriend’s face imposed over the drive)

Fun times guys. Thanks for including me on your long distance dating.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Even After You’re Opened Everything Is A Hassel

My roommate is the hero of story to come. She conquered the following situation on her own, in a second language on little to no sleep. She deserves your comments of praise.

We have been trying to figure out how to do our end of the month finance, accounting and tax stuff. Trust me when I say that grade 11 accounting in no way prepared me for being a business women overseas in a country that presumes the need to keep two sets of books, (which sounds ober sketchy – but it is the only way to get things done). We have done more than 10 jobs this month, but we were only given 5 registered receipts and couldn’t apply for anymore until next month. Even our accountant told us “only print this type of receipt when absolutely necessary, don’t waste them on little $20 jobs you do”.

Why? Because for every official government receipt a company issues they have to pay taxes. That same amount has to be directly deposited into your company account. In order to take out money from our account we have to have an official receipt that has been issued for our company expenses incurred, but of course no other business wants to give us receipts because than they would have to pay tax (vicious loop).

To this point most of our clients have been fellow expats, who, as long as they are not running their own business, don’t really care what the receipt looks like. We could print them out a nice invoice in English and sign it and they would be just as happy as if they had gotten an official registered receipt stamped with our company's red chop. While this works it is less than honest on the tax front and also makes us look like we are not really busy working.

While we have a great brand new printer, copier, scanner deal that we bought for our business, it sadly cannot meet the needs of a business in this country. In order to issue proper government honoured registered receipts, you must print them on old school tractor feed paper – the type that only works with an ancient dot matrix printer. My roommate went to the computer market, learned the word for dot matrix, bought a second hand printed (forced the guy to give her a real receipt) and than lugged the 50 pound thing all the way home.

My roommate is a smart girl, and knows her ways around computers. She tried installing the printer software on her old computer with XP, didn’t work. She tried installing it on her new computer with windows 7, it also didn’t work. She tried trouble shooting and down loading what she needed off line, but none of that worked.

She dragged the whole unit and her lap top back to the market and demanded “I can’t install your printed, I want my money back”. This, in a country were returns are unheard of, and once the money is in your hands you NEVER give it back. The guys at the shop figured she was just a dumb foreign girl who knew nothing about computers so they offered to help her out and install it for her. Two of them spent over twenty minutes apiece trying before announcing “Oh, it’s because your computer is way too old”

“It says it is compatible with XP and this unit has XP, I tried it on my one with Windows 7… but that didn’t work either”.

“Oh of course not, that operating system is too new”. These guys were starting to sound like Goldie Locks now all my roommate need was to find one that was “just right”. They kept trying, their boss came and tried and in the end their conclusion was “Your Computer speaks English, this printer doesn’t. You need to get a new computer”

“Yeah right” thought my roommate “I am going to buy a whole new, none English speaking computer, keep your cheap chunky second hand printer, just so I can owe the government more money. I don’t think so”. She left the shop, free of the burdensome printer’s weight and headed to the opposite end of the market, hoping to find a seller who could help her.

But the guy from the first shop, who was still put out about having to give her money back, followed her down the hall “Don’t sell to her. Her computer only speaks English and all she will do is hassle you with her problems” he yelled behind her.

Resolution: our accountants promised to print our receipts for us each month, but they couldn't help this month since their own out-dated dot matrix printer had broken down.