Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Type of Questions We’re Asked

As foreigners people are naturally curious and want to ask a lot of questions about our life… but the tone of the question can take on a very different feel depending what people want out of the relationship.  Some people are openly interested in getting to know us better and wanting to be a friend they ask questions like: “How long have you been here?”  “How old are you?”  “Are you married?” “Where did you learn to speak our language?”  “How long do you plan on living in this country?”  I gladly answer each one of these questions and in turn reciprocate and find out more about the person sitting next to me.  I go away feeling like I am really part of life here and connecting with my neighbors and friends. 

 Other people look at me and only see a white face and what they suppose is a big western bank account.  These people also have an array of questions:  “What is your job here?” “How much money do you make each month?” “Can you teach my child English for free?”  “How can you help me get a passport to your country?”  I try to remain polite as I explain that in our culture asking someone their salary or financial information is a very rude thing since we consider this a private matter.  I tell them that it is so private I don’t even know what my parents or my brother make each month, but somehow that does nothing to stop the on slaughter of the rest of their questions.  I go away from these interactions feeling dirty and used and less than human. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Uyhgur people pride themselves on their hospitality.  They will invite you in, even when they are on their way out the door.  It is the polite thing to do… but you don’t actually have to accept unless they offer more than three times.  Often a simple “Thank
you, see you later” will suffice to get you out of this sort of invitation. 
While we were down south, my travel companions were taking pictures and I stopped to play with a small child.  Soon enough his grandparents appeared at the door of a nearby home- peeking out to see who was talking to the child.  When they saw us, they invited us in.  We politely declined.  They asked again… this time citing how tired we must be after walking around all morning.  Once again we refused to impose on them.  Finally a third time they entreated us to enter their home saying we should sit for a while.  The wife looked a little stressed, but the husband was so insistent, already holding the white lace curtain back from the doorway and motioning us to cross the threshold.
The courtyard of the home was brightly lite with the morning sun streaming in.  Several young women bustled about cutting pieces of meat, chopping potatoes and stirring the great smelling concoction that was boiling away on the stove.  The house a furry of excitement and we sat down right in the middle of it on the raised platform.  Some of the family stopped to nod in our direction or engage us in mindless chitchat, but for the most part they industriously kept working on food preparation.    We soon came to find out they were in the midst of preparing to host a party that night for over 30 guests.  No wonder the wife had looked stressed.  This was one of those time that the family really hadn’t wanted guests, but we had taken them at their word and were now adding to their hospitality work load of the day.  Even after eight years here I still can’t always read these situations correctly.  

The husband seemed to know it was his ‘fault’ we had come in, and it was left to him to serve us.  This is a very anti cultural thing.  It is always the youngest woman in the family’s job to run around like a slave and serve the guests… but she was still busy cutting veggies, she had moved on from potatoes and was tackling the large pile of carrots that sat washed and scrubbed in front of her.  The husband was not use to the job and entertaining, he forgot to give us tea… but he did get us each a bowl of ‘langpong’ a clear glassy starch noodle served in a mixture of black vinegar and red pepper spice.  My friend has nicked named it ‘man jello’ for its consistence and the kick in it taste.
We eat rather quickly, played with the little boy for a few more minutes, complimented their home and prepared to take our leave.  We didn’t want to bring the family more trouble than we already had and tried to excuse ourselves from their home.  “No stay,” they all chimed in.  Even though the same command was repeated several more times, we took our leave, grateful for the snack and a place to rest out of the hot sun. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Late Night Kabobs

One of my former classmates and friends posted the following on his blog.  I loved his vivid description of a cool spring night on the town. So I asked permission to post it here so you could all enjoy.
I remember chatting with a guy from Central Asia when I lived in the States.  He talked about how quiet the U.S. was and how it felt lonely at times due to the lack of people on the streets at any given time.  Only after moving here have I fully comprehended what he must have been experiencing.  Especially with summer just around the corner, I have fully enjoyed cool evenings here and the chance to get outside after a long winter.  Sidewalks are bustling with people late into the evening.   Walking home from a friend's place tonight I was savoring a few minutes to myself.  People leaving a wedding party stood outside a banquet hall.  Men stood in a circle outside a mechanic shop chatting about the VW Santana they were working on, cigerettes glowing in the low streetlights.  New beds of flowers appeared on the curbs tonight; the workers delivering these flowers were eating a late dinner squatting in circles or on ledges along the street.  The strange sounds of dialects I do not speak or understand rose from the midst  migrant workers while just a few feet further I heard a group of men chatting in Kazak, two plump old women in loose fitting head scarves gossiping in Uyghur, and some university students yelled back and forth, bottles of beer in hand as they headed off for  a night of carousing.   Couples strolled by enjoying a leisurely evening walk. Store clerks squatted on the stoops of their shops aimlessly watching traffic as it rolled by, horns blaring occasionally at fearless jaywalkers.  Old men sat on street-side benches chattering away about whatever old men chat about.   Fruit sellers crowded corners of one intersection in particular with their flatbed carts, hawking the last of their day's supply of mangos, bananas, pineapples, and apples.   The smell of fresh, hot nan came from the guys baking bread in open-topped clay ovens.  Smoke from kabob grills wafted the aroma of spiced lamb skewers across my path.  Here it was 10:30pm and my street was more active than any street where I lived in Columbia, SC might have been at noon on any given week day.

As you might guess one of my favorite things about such a scene is the food.  Somehow dinner eluded me tonight.   Lost in thought as I headed home it occurred to me that I was hungry.   Just yesterday I came across a Turkish donar kabob cart that sells a sort of Turkish gyro wrap sort of thing.  Spiced lamb and beef roasted on a spit, then shaved onto a very thin flat bread and topped with slices of cucumber, spicy cabbage, onion, and a yet to be identified sauce.   "Turkish gyro!", I thought.  It was only a few minutes past my house up the street.  With this goal in mind I headed in that direction.  To my great disappointment the cart was not there.  This is the problem with mobile food service.  It's never where you want it to be.  I mean, can we get an app for iPhone that tracks the worldwide movement of mobile food carts? Or maybe I just need to get the number of the guy that owns the cart.  Regardless, my dreams of the prized Turkish gyro came to a swift end.   The story wasn't over, however.

Just a few feet away stood a mobile kabob station.  Unlike that flaky Turkish gyro cart, you can set your clock by this kabob guy.  Night after night he appears sometime after dinner in the same spot.   His business consists of a kabob grill, a table spread with skewers of meat, kidneys, liver, lung, tendon, and a few items I've yet to identify, a fan to blow the smoke off to the side, and a table with stools for his customers to sit at.  Saved by the kabob guy!  Ordering 5 kabobs I sat down and watched with great anticipation as my kabobs got grilled up.  First the skewers went on the grill.  Then salt, cumin, and chili powder were added.  "Do you like it spicy?", the guy asked.  "Yes.  Please add extra spice", I replied.   After a slight pause, having noticed I'd been coughing, the guy kindly added, "You've got a cough.  You had better not eat too much spice.  I'll put less spice."    Though I don't yet completely understand Asian logic about health and what should be eaten when I have to admit I appreciated this complete stranger's gesture of concern.   But enough of that.  Let's get back to my kabobs.  After adding spice, he grabbed a piece of nan in one hand and my kabobs in the other.   Then he wrapped the nan around the kabobs, letting the grease and spice soak into the bread after which he added a bit more cumin and chili.  This was repeated several  times until finally, my late night snack was served up on a metal tray covered in a plastic bag (easier to cover the tray and then dispose of the bag since there is no way to wash dishes).   There are few late night snacks that compare.   Paying for my kabobs I headed back up my street past fruit sellers, kabob grills, and late night strollers.  I see why my friend missed home if his neighborhood was like this one.   This is definitely one scene I'll miss when the time comes for me to head back to the States.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I Got Kissed

As I wandered through the aisles of the bazaar I could see the group of them strolling towards me.  Their tall embroidered hats set them apart from the rest of the shoppers.  These women were Tajiki.  Tajiki’s are another one of the many minority people groups that live out here.  Due to my coloring and rather large nose I am occasionally taken as a Tajiki.  Our eyes meet across the way and I was brave enough to call out a greeting to a totally stranger.  I wasn’t sure whether she could speak Uyhgur or not, but I thought it was worth a try.  Her face light up and she too started moving my direction to greet me. 

Important cultural note:  Tajiki women customarily greet each other with a short peck on the lips.  While I had learned this fact about their people in the past, and had even seen photographs at the Museum and in local guide books, it completely slipped my mind.  Uyhgur women, on the other hand, greet by kissing each other for a second longer on both cheeks.  So as I held her hand affectionately I puckered up and moved my head ever so slightly to one side… she however didn’t veer at all and went straight for my mouth.  The resulting kiss was a little awkward as the corners of our lips meet and I remembered in a flash why she didn’t offer her cheek.  

One more cultural milestone accomplished.  I have now kissed a total stranger on the lips in the most respectful way possible.  
 Spotting them in the Bazaar

 Still friends after our akward kiss

 A Group shot to print off and take when I go and visit their home town latter this summer.

 Me, trying to be Tajiki

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Stuffing the Head Scarf

When I travel down south I tend to wear a head scarf, it is more appropriate and respectful of the culture.  When I use to wear them I always felt like my hair was just too flat to hold it up, I tended to spend the majority of my day readjusting the colorful accessory and in an attempt to keep it from slipping off.   All Uyghur girls put their hair in a big bun on the top of their head and you can see the bump of hair under the scarf.  Uyghur girls have such long, thick, dark black hair that I always just figured it contributed to the seeming large appendage on the back of their head.   My relatively short, thin, plain hair was only be twisted up into a droopy little bun that just couldn’t compare.  Their secret isn’t in their length of their hair, or its thickness … the truth is most Uyghur girls stuff their head scarves.  To get that really full-back of the head-bump under the scarf look,  all you need is the biggest scrunchy known to man,  a hair clip with so much volume and fluff of its own that it rivals the size of a soccer ball.  Now with the popper tools in hand I tool can have the trendy fashionable bulge on the back of my head. 
The Desired Look

Getting 'How to' Lessons

Pulling It Off

Monday, May 14, 2012

What are you Taking a Picture of?

My travel companions both had large fancy cameras practically glued to their hands as we travelled around the desert.  They kept snapping pictures of life and all its simple pleasures.  Sometimes their antics drew a bit of a crowed.  Locals would stand behind them and try to figure out what exactly they were taking a picture of.  To them they saw clothes hanging out on the line, but my friends saw village life in all its beauty.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Right Dirt Road

On our last trip south my roommate decided she wanted to visit a friend who lived in a small hamlet , near a small village, outside a small town.  We tried calling her number as soon as we got into town.  We took a bus out to the village and tried to look her up at her place of employment.  Sadly she no longer worked at the Uyghur wedding hair studio.  My roommate had been to her house twice (once in the dark) but we were up to the challenge of trying to locate the correct dirt road somewhere outside of a tiny little hamlet that know one has ever even heard of.  

We found a taxi driver willing to drive us and before we knew it he was stopping the car in the middle of two intersecting streets and announcing we had arrived.  From our seats in the car we could swing our heads from side to side and take in the five store fronts that made up the entirety of our destination ( I mean this place made Tawakkul seem like a booming metropolis).  The drivers followed our glace as we looked over our surroundings.  “How long are you ladies planning on staying out here?  I can wait and give you are ride back into the village if you want?”  We stepped out of the car, paid him his money and assured him, we were fine and didn’t need a ride back.  Before he drove off we did ask him to point out which road would at least get us in the right direction.

It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing , the leaves on the popular trees were dancing in the wind.  We had been walking for almost ten minutes when we heard a car rumbling up the road behind us.  As it slowed down we saw the familiar face of our driving leaning out the front window “Now do you guys want a ride?”  We waved him passed and kept ambling down the street.  We didn’t really want to mention we were looking for someone, since in an area this size having a foreigner come to visit you normally means the next guest through your door will be the police asking a bunch of questions.   Twenty minutes later the same, now familiar voice could be heard from the car driving by “Are you guys sure you don’t want to hop in?”  

Finally the straight country road started to bend towards the left and my roommates got excited.  “I think this is it” She said.  I looked at the row of small homes and one side and the plots of land with small green heads of crop pushing through the soil on the other and wondered to myself  “ how this dirt lane looked any different than the last six we had passed”.   “Yes this is it, look” she started pointing out minuscule landmarks that assured her we had reached our destination.  It took us another ten minutes to reach the last house on the lane and as she peeked in the front door that was slightly ajar she whispered back “The layout of the house looks right, but I don’t recognize anyone sitting inside”  She pulled her head back out and asked what we should do.  “While we have come this far… even if it is the wrong house Uyghur people are so friendly they will likely invite us in for a drink before we have to keep walking.” 

But they weren’t all strangers, and it wasn’t the wrong house.  Out of all the hamlets, near all the villages in all the parts of this province… my roommate had lead us to the right house at the end of the correct dirt road, to the very living room of her friends family.  We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up and having a great dance party with the whole family.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Same Bus, Same Lady

During the summer of 2010 a friend and I took a crazy trip south, we spent 55 hours in 5 days on the bus travelling.  On one of our many rides we meet up with this sweet older woman who was traveling with her granddaughter.  We had a sweet time chatting and sharing our food with them.   We even ran into the on the street twice over the next few days.   During my most recent trip south I was at the bus station again planning on travelling between those same two cities when I once again ran into this same women.  We had quite a joyful reunion.  When Older Uyghur women get excited the pitch of their voice tends to go up several notches hitting high notes almost unknown to the human ear. A skill that I have learned to imitate quite well.  The squeals and shrieks of delight let the rest of our bus mates know the excitement of seeing each other again.  Soon all were in agreement that Allah had planned for us to meet up and be friends.  We sat next to each other for the next eight hours holding hands or her sleeping with her head in my lap.
My friend and the women on the bus two years ago

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Not Dead to Me

When my friend called to tell me she couldn’t come over I knew by the sounds of tears chocked up in the back of her throat that something was majorly wrong.  It took a little probing for her to confess what was really going on.  “My Dad just past away, so I can’t come and teach your tutoring class”.   A few days later this same friend came over, her once free flying curly dark hair was tucked up under a sedate colored headscarf.   She looked like she has lost some weight in light of her family stress.  As she sat down next to me and I took her hand in mine, I was torn with how to best offer my condolences and comfort here.  My culture screamed in me to let her cry, to hold her close and help her remember all the great memories of her father.  My understanding of Uyghur culture dictated that I simple say “Don’t cry, this too will pass” .  In the end I went for a bit of a middle ground and inquired about how her family was handling all this.  “How’s your mom doing?” , I asked.  “Oh she doesn’t know yet, we haven’t told her”
“What?” I couldn’t believe have I had just heard, it must have been a language mix-up or some sort or misunderstanding on my part.  How could the wife of the deceased possibly still not know that he had died.  Hadn’t she noticed all her children wearing head scarves and morning, or the neighbors dropping by for the 1st, 3rd and 7th day funerals, at the very least didn’t she notice that he hadn’t come to bed the last week or so.  My friend saw the puzzled look on my face “she was sick and staying at by brothers for the last week, we thought it was wise to let her recover before burdening her with this news.”  It was almost two months after her spouse had been burred that this poor women was finally deemed able to handle the news.  

For a long time I thought this family must be an isolated incidence, but I soon heard of others that kept close deaths in the family a secret for loved ones ‘for their own good’.  My roommate says her friend’s parents had withheld informing her friend of an older sister’s death so that she could finish her college exams and get a good score.  I heard of another patient in the hospital who had cancer, but the family chose not to tell him what it was so that ‘he wouldn’t worry’.  In each of these cases, can’t help but feel sorry for the poor soul left in the dark, Sorry for the person who is never given the opportunity to morn alongside the rest of the family.  I know if it was me, I would not only be hurt by the passing of a loved one, but even more hurt by the betrayal of my family