Thursday, April 26, 2012

Home Town of My Heart

There is one small town in the southern part of this province that has always stood out to me above all the others.  Kerya is still like stepping into the past with the dusty dirt roads winding between neighbors homes.  When asked by Uyghur friends in the city “oh, where are you from?”  I often try to fool them and say that I am from Kerya.  I can’t really convince many of them, but a few do pause for a minute to consider if I am being serious.  I think it is because this region is known to have slightly fairer lighter skinned and haired people.  In fact some actually call them ‘Yellow Uyghurs’ because of their ‘blond’ hair – just like mine. 

Ancient history teaches that Kerya use to be its own kingdom.  Once the princess of Kerya was kidnapped and was being forced to marry a king from a nearby land.  The women of Kerya are said to have raised up with furry at the treatment of their beloved princess and chased after the warring King to retrieve their precious monarchy.  The women won the battle and were reward by the royalty with these special robes that speak of their bravery and strength.  The blue bars are like their breastplate for battle.   ( The details of this story might not be 100% accurate.  It is one of those legends that everyone one I ask tells me a slightly differing version).

The women of this region are still known throughout the province for these unique outfits and accompanying small teacup shaped hats.  They tend to wear them for family celebrations like weddings and circumcisions.  Every time I have gone down to visit the home town of my heart I have sworn that I would buy one of the traditional robes… but every time I asked the price, I can’t get over spending about $50 USD on something that I will never really wear.  Friends of mine are packing to go back to the states for an undetermined length of time and as part of their farewell ‘bu yao’ they generously gave me their Kerya robe. 

Now I really do fit in.  I bet you can’t pick out the imposter. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Do They Eat Pork In Rome?

When in Rome, right?    One practical application of this here is regarding pork.   I grew up in Canada in a fairly normal North American family.   The reality is, we ate pork.  Bacon.  Brats.  Ham.   Pork Chops.   Growing up in a mostly homogenous, town I never thought much about pork.  

Now having moved half-way around the world, I find myself in a largely Muslim context.    Kazak.  Uyghur.  Tajik.  Dungan.  Uzbek.  There are numerous Muslim minorities represented around me.   Eating kosher (halal in Arabic) is a big deal here.   I have Uyghur friends that won't even eat in a different Muslim minority simply because they don't believe they are 'really' halal.   Here, NOT eating pork is a strong identity marker for many Muslims.   Many of my friends, being Muslim, naturally don't eat pork.

A hugh part of hospitality out here is cooking for your guests, and while I might not be the best chief in the world, it only seemed appropriate, then, to make my home kosher/halal.  I haven't completely given up pork, but it seems that if some of my friends are going to be able to come to my house it needed to be pork-free.   Yet I'm finding that declaring my home halal isn't always enough.   Just tonight I served a local dish to a few friends.   I had previously told one of them that my home was halal.   Yet, as the main dish was set on the table I noticed the uneasy glances of my guests.  Using Uyghur, they asked my American friend that was there, "Is this house halal?"  Only after my friend's reassurance that my house was completely pork-free did they feel free to eat.   Other expats have reported guests that have come to their place but completely refused to eat.   For some, a simple declaration of 'halalness' is not enough.

It can be confusing to me at times.   It seems the safest bet is to always eat in restaurants or in other's homes at the invitation of friends.  Going that far isn't an option for me, I want to place hoste, and welcome others into my home.     I will continue to keep a halal kitchen.   No pork products.  I only buy meat at halal grocery stores.    "My house is halal", is a common phrase when inviting Muslim guests over.   Ultimately I can't make people feel comfortable eating at my house nor is it my goal to make someone feel this way.    There are some that I just simply won't invite over knowing their strong convictions.    Like many things in life, it seems prudent to know one's audience before inviting anyone

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sent From Home

I always find care packages such and telling way of understanding a person and what is important to them. Lifting the lid of the box reveals what friends and family deemed worth of paying good money to have sent. It speaks of the comforts of one’s home that are most missed by the receiver. For instance a person who dug through a parcel sent to me would quickly learn the tale of a coffee-addicted, chocolate-loving, book –reading young lady.

For the last few weeks one of our Uyghur friends has been staying with us as we waits to go meet up with her husband on the other side of the country. Today a care package arrived from her village down south, that her mother had carefully filled with goodies from her home town. I was anxious to look over her shoulder and see what treats were pulled out. I wanted to watch her face fill will excitement as she saw the items that represented the things see missed most. The first layer was bags of raisins, walnuts, almonds and other dried fruits and nuts. Under that there were eggs, more than a dozen fresh, home-grown, hard boiled eggs. The whole bottom half of the box was nothing but homemade nan (bread) wrapped in newspaper. Some of the bread was baked with real pieces of lamb and lamb fat right inside. The contents tell the story of a small town girl, travelling to a very non-muslim part of the country. She and her family know how hard it is to find Hallal food, so her mom took the time, and energy to send her things fresh from their farm.

Our roommate clapped her hands with excitement and pulled out the eggs and bread. “Girls, look what my mom has sent. Please eat!” My American roommate and I looked back and forth at each other, wondering if it was indeed wise to eat the newly arrived food. When my mom sends me a care package it can take over two months to get to me. My roommate was having the same thought “how long has this thing been in the mail? Is it safe to eat?” Thankfully we quickly learned that her mom had just put the package together the night before and sent it all via the overnight bus.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Special K

I love cereal. I absolutely love it. If I had my way I would eat cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But cereal is one of those, hard-to-find, overpriced, never-really-tastes-quite-like-home, type of items out here. I have been disappointed more than once by off brands and weird flavors. Disappointed, that is until recently when some of the Uyghur supermarkets in my neighborhood started stocking Turkish imported Special K. They even had a buy one get one free sale a little while ago for international woman's day... I saw it as a chance to hoard a little.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Wreaths of Roses – It's a Guy Thing

So our second theater experience taught us more and more about this modern Uyghur arts community that we are trying to break into. The tickets were crazy expensive, we got the cheap seats and still felt the strain on the budget at paying almost $25 US for one night of entertainment. The most expensive/ best seats in the house were selling for almost $175US, but our neighbors that we talked to about the show all seemed to think it was worth it when they heard the famous names that would be performing.

We got all dressed up with bling and leopard print for the performance and even met up with some of our friends for dinner first. As the lights dimmed and the actors took to the stage we quickly realized that a lot of the evening was going to be above our heads linguistically. The poetry and the music both were written with a superior grasp and articulation of the language. But music is one of those art forms that lyrics don’t have to be understood for the message to be communicated.

As one artist was caught up in the deep emotion of her song a small child ran up on the stage and handed her a bunch of flowers. It took the kid a minute to get the musicians attention, she actually ended up pulling on her sleeve a little. The performer graciously accepted the gift and the interruption as she tried to continue singing.

This young girl was not the only audience member to take to the stage during the evening… in fact men, women, and children alike had all purchased bouquets and wreaths of flowers to give their favorite singer or dancer. Grown men would march on stage and mid note drape a fellow male singer around the neck with a ornate arrangement of roses. They do it was such composure and masculine flare that I almost lost the humor of a guy giving another guy flowers. This wouldn’t happen in North America, would it? The audience is not allowed on stage to shower the entertainers with gifts of appreciation are they? I have witnessed this sort of group participation before, it is a regular part of school performances here. A student will have to sing a song in front of the whole class and part way through his/her seat mate might run up and encourage them by passing off an apple from their lunch. I just never expected the same spontaneous acts to happen at a formal performance at the theater. You could tell which artists were best loved based on the armful of flowers they had to carry off stage. I also soon learned to judge who their fan base was based on whether it was young giddy teen age girls adoringly showering the Uyghur Justen Beber with presents, or prestigious business men in the community offering their gratitude to their contemporaries.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Theater Goers

As I walked towards home my attention was drawn to a big colorful sign at the edge of the bazaar entrance. In Uygur it read “He doesn’t have 2 wives?” The picture portrayed a crazy band of characters from a man with his head bandaged, two stylish women on either side, a few police offices, some strange bandits in black and other random participates. I read further on and realized they were selling tickets to a play that was being performed at the local theater. The tickets were only $5, so my roommate and I decided it would be an excellent way to have a listening class.

The story was hilarious. The main character had been in a car accident and had given one address to the hospital and another to the police. Both were his home, since he had two wives and two places of residence. As the police start to investigate the accident, the lead character was forced to pile lie upon lie so that his marital status would not discovered. We followed a lot of the story, but all the stretching of the truth and fibbing to the offices was meant to be confusing, even for native speakers. We did get really lost at the end when the bandits/mafia guys showed up stuttering and waving around guns, I am not really sure how they fit into the story. The staging was amazingly creative, with only one living room set up center stage, they wove the story in such a way that you were never confused which wives house they were in at the time.

Another thing about the performance that caught our attention was the one character who scripted in such a way as to come off very stereotypically homosexual. They had him dressed in a flaming pink shirt, tight pants, he spoke in a high pitched voice and was constantly waving his hands around in over dramatized fashion. This very modern and public display seemed miles removed for our trip to the village just weeks ago. In a culture where at least on the surface the aim is often to be viewed as a more spiritual or pious follower of Islam, this blatant display seemed abnormal to us. In fact there was a very traditional couple sitting just a row in front of us, after a number of rather subtle sexual references they jumped up from their seats and left. The rest of the audience continued to roar with laughter as the main character tangled himself in his web of deceit.

The look at modern urban Uyghur Youth culture, the excellent language practice, and the amount my roommate and I felt we were part of the shared life of those around us won us over. Our workmates, taxi drives and teachers all had all either seen the play or knew it was showing. We were able to reference current humor and happens. We have decided from now on we are theater goes, and already have tickets for our next outing.