02:27 am: new blog
I'm sure you all thought I was long gone. My camel got lost in the desert, I ran off with a Kazakh nomad and had no time between milking the cows and churning butter and hauling water from the well to post to my blog, or that I had simply been blown away in one of our windstorms.
Well, all of those are possibilities but I have actually just been busy and mostly off-line. Off-linedness has its advantages, but here's to being connected.
Yes, I'm a lazy cow, but that's not the reason I haven't been updating. China has now decided not to be friends with livejournal, so until I move my blog somewhere else you won't hear much from me.
I can't say I'm working on it but I'm thinking about it, and as soon as I turn myself right-side up again I'll try and sort it all out.
there is no news worth knowing from my little world here. i have sunk into a life so routine-filled that what gets me through the day is the knowledge that it will end soon.
i'm not completely depressed, but happy that urumqi and all of its evils are awaiting me. happy that i will return to a life of different frustrations and fewer monotonies.
here in los angeles i walk on water and have repeatedly been offered attractive packages for staying and every time empty promises that i will "think about it" fall out of my mouth, smile and all. i am a pensive person but the thinking never takes me more than a few minutes, every time returning to the conclusion that unless losing my mind is in the itinerary, staying is impossible.
i'm not ready to sentence myself to that kind of death. the death of 9-5, the death of business casual, the death of a promising career path, vaulting from beige-carpeted cubicle to beige-carpeted cubicle, each more prestigious than the last.
i'll continue counting my pennies in never-never land.
yesterday, i was talking to someone about china, my experiences there, and what i thought of it. the issue of human rights came up. this well-educated person who apparently reads the news was shocked and a bit disbelieving when i described the political situation, and the extent of censorship and fear.
it was actually the second conversation i had had that day on that very topic, and both times my observations were met with veiled skepticism.
my perception of it is skewed, for sure, since i live in far west, "turbulent" xinjiang, home to terrorist separatist muslims who would like nothing more than to destroy the peaceful, harmoniously integrated multi-ethnic society the CCP has so laboriously built up.
my google alerts recently have been flooded with this news item, about a "terrorist camp" found in a desolate mountain region of south xinjiang. here's the chinese angle.
now, these guys were probably not hanging out there having a tea party, or a male-bonding drum circle sort of thing, or plotting ways to make the communist party more powerful, but ... 18 people shot dead on sight? is this what a country does when it's working hard to improve its human rights record?
more of you probably heard or read about the incident made famous by a climber and his cellphone camera, where tibetans trying to cross into india were also shot on sight. here's a bit about that.
things are definitely more tense in xinjiang and tibet, minority areas with long histories the chinese don't figure into as much as (or in the ways that) they profess. if all the minority areas in china split off, it would be a pitiful fraction of its current size.
of course they're nervous.
but this kind of cruelty and repression is not limited to people who speak a different language. take a look at the front page of RFA and you will see stories about human rights lawyers and journalists being detained, tried, and found guilty of various crimes constantly.
it's no north korea, it's no turkmenistan, but the heavy hand of the powers that be is much, much heavier than most people seem to realize.
10:47 am: life goes on and on and on
and i am here again in los angeles, with both feet on the ground in this supposedly celestial city.
happy two thousand and seven, dear readers. i hope you rang in the year having good times or perhaps good dreams. i was not too bothered about staying up for midnight or not, but happily had a chance to chat with a certain someone in xinjiang who i miss very much, so i ended up awake to see the birth of the year.
there is not a lot to share about being here. i find everything is in the same place, most people are doing the same things. the holidays were fairly uneventful - last year's chihuahua circus party is still the undefeated champion of christmas eves.
there it is - my holiday greetings, some words dragged from my reluctant self so i don't lose my beloved bloggees.
01:12 am: it's a beautiful day, let's go stand in line
david recently sent me this article, about mobs of old people in beijing lining up in the wee hours of the morning for one head of free cabbage. apparently there was a bumper harvest of cabbage around the capital this year, sending prices plummeting and leaving sellers with more of the green leafy stuff than they could sell.
the free cabbage thing is a publicity stunt to attract other buyers who see long lines, and a way to get rid of the surplus they'd never sell all of anyway.
this phenomenon is something i've witnessed plenty of times. it's quite amusing in a newspaper article about a faraway land where the elderly clamor for cabbage, many of whom could easily afford to shell out a few cents.
all of us urumqi residents who go to the large french supermarket chain with any regularity know what it means when eggs go on sale. all seems normal and calm in the dry goods sections of the store: bored employees demonstrate juicing machines, useless xiaojies lurk in every other aisle to help you choose merchandise they actually know nothing about, and customers wander around picking things off shelves.
but the closer you get to the produce and meat section, the thicker the crowds become. you begin to realize a couple things: they are all elderly, they seem particularly cheerful, and they are all carrying more eggs than i generally eat in an entire year.
i've never investigated egg prices at carrefour; when they go on sale i generally regret having walked into the store at all as the checkout counters and the eastern half of the store are choked with enthusiastic egg-consumers who are agog at the great deal they're getting.
they swarm in great droves, chattering constantly. i have to think it's more about socializing than actually getting eggs.
a few weeks ago i stopped by on a weekday around lunchtime to pick up some pie-baking supplies in preparation for thanksgiving. i expected crowds to be relatively thin, but instead .... carrots were on sale! i discovered it's much worse than eggs - they're not breakable so you can load an entire cart, or multiple shopping baskets with them, and they keep for a long time.
lines of cheerful old people with twenty kilos of carrots each, and a few irritated people like me who had somewhere else to be, snaked around half the produce section. there was only one employee weighing and stickering an entire village of carrot-buyers' treasures.
i imagined these delighted people, loaded up with carrots, returning home to subject their families to weeks of carrot-eating. carrot jiaozi, carrots in stir-fry, carrot ...? what on earth can you do with that much carrot?
as the article points out, these are people inured to hardship and a few hours of waiting in line doesn't add up to much. will this kind of frenzied cabbage-hoarding and carrot-collecting survive to the next generation? probably not.
it makes things crowded and inconvenient for a lot of people, but one thing i admire about the country and its people is the way the elderly live. go to the parks at dawn, the square at dusk, and anywhere in between; you'll find old people doing tai chi, ballroom dancing, knitting, play chess, walking their dogs or their grandchildren, or just hanging out.
where are the elderly in the US? is everyone sitting inside watching TV?
last year, on a lunch break i stopped by a little noodle shop by the school to have a quick bowl then get back to teaching. an old woman and her about-12-year-old granddaughter sat down at the same table.
they heard me talking to the waitress and the woman, obviously amused, chuckled and nodded with approval: "she can speak chinese!"
she asked all the usual questions, and i asked her about herself: retired, two grandchildren.
"retired life is pretty good, huh?" she was glowing with carefree-ness and beamed after my question.
"it's great! no pressure! no work! i can look after my grandchildren and do whatever i want!" it's a kind of satisfaction i wonder how many of our elderly can profess, and i wonder how many more generations this attitude will last in china.
it's at least a month late; i smelled that scent of coal combined with the bite in the air that means it's close to freezing. it's something you smell only once or twice, then it sinks down into you and becomes so normal that you don't smell it again until the next year, when it happens for the first time. it should have been snowing for at least a month already, but we haven't had the first storm yet this year.
i made the short walk home, thinking all the while (as i have been constantly these days) that i am glad to be making another visit to the states this year, and especially glad to be leaving this neighborhood soon, very soon. every time i walk down these winding lightless filthy roads to my solitary home where i hear my neighbors occasionally switching on a light and drunk men on the streets below fighting with each other, i think how few times i have to do this again.
astrid (who is also living alone) and i were talking today about the unnaturalness of our solitary lifestyles, of occupying a space with just one body. my kitchen usually produces food just for one person; i read under these lights and no one else; this coal-powered radiator keeps only me from freezing to death.
this is particularly poignant in a place where it is the given to constantly be surrounded by people. if not family, friends. if not friends, classmates or workmates. if not them, strangers. the constant press of people becomes so natural that many locals don't seem to enjoy time by themselves.
the contrast, the clash, of being americans in a place that is so focused on community reminds me of the need for balance. i appreciate our independence, our opportunities for aloneness, and the privilege of going into a room and shut the door, knowing no one will open it without at least knocking first. however, i recognize the naturalness of community, family, and sharing space and time with other human beings.
as i learned from hitchhiking with lots of truck drivers several years back, sitting around by yourself all the time makes you crazy. out of all the truckers we hitched with, only one was passably sane: he had a dog.
i've lived alone for the better part of two years now. while i have a rich social life here in urumqi (sometimes overwhelmingly so) i find that my introvert ways are being overridden by the desire to share the occasional morning cup of coffee, to come home and discover someone hanging out in the living room, to have the opportunity to appreciate an empty house.
I woke up early at Fausto’s house; peering through the lacy curtains with sleepy eyes I saw an orangeish sky. Dawn already. I lay awake in bed, thinking of the coming day after my five hours of sleep. It’s just not enough at my advanced age.
I reluctantly got out of bed to rush home, then off to my morning class.
Today is Oraza Eid (in other places called Eid ul-Fitr), a Muslim celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. It’s an important day to go to Mosque, and the locals heeding the morning call to prayer filled the entire mosque, its expansive courtyard, the sidewalks, and the whole street was packed with men lined up on their prayer rugs. The mullah’s voice resonated across the quiet morning as commuters fled from motionless buses, huffing up the street past praying Muslims.
At home, after gulping down a cup of coffee and a few bites of naan, I grabbed my books and headed to Chinese class. After a restless two hours that normally would have been four (Kazakh class cancelled due to the holiday), I came back home and basked in a couple solitary hours spent alternating between bumbling around my house doing little things and half-heartedly cracking a book.
In the afternoon, I wandered down the road to hang out with David, whom I have not seen much of lately. We talked for a couple hours about Xinjiang, future plans, and classes. In that time, a call came from my Kazakh teacher’s daughter, inviting me over to their house for the festival. It’s customary to go to friends’ and relatives’ homes to have some snacks, eat some meat, chat, and then move on to the next one.
I arrived to find a house empty of guests except myself. My teacher sauntered in with wildly messy hair and around-the-house clothing, and started ordering her daughter to bring tea, spoons, fruit. I admired the dastarkhana spread of pastries, Kazakh cheese-type stuff, fruit and nuts. Soon the meat appeared and I was ordered to je (eat), and after that dumplings appeared and I was ordered to je some more. About the time I was preparing to bid farewell (these holiday visits are intended to be short and sweet) a gaggle of Kazakh women showed up. I had to je some more, had a bit of conversation with them, and got to listen to them talk about me in Kazakh. I could understand most of what they said, I’m very proud to say.
I left with the gaggle, made my way home with a gift of several kilos of raw mutton, and nearly immediately left again to have ice cream with a traveler coming through the region who had crashed on my couch a few weeks ago and an American archaeologist I met recently in a supermarket.
The ice cream store is run by a friendly Uzbek man who once discovered I’m studying Kazakh and ever since only replies to anything I say in Chinese in Uyghur. Close enough, I can understand.
The three of us were happily going on mostly about systems of education until the above-mentioned proprietor began yawning loudly and eventually got up to close the shop doors. We took the cue, paid up, and headed home.
My head hit the pillow and I was in total oblivion until
Another early morning class. I woke up an hour before class started and managed to peel myself away from my sheets, groggily have some coffee and naan, and arrive at class a few minutes late.
I found myself again completely restless in class, unable to imagine how I could manage to make it through all four hours of class today. But in the break between classes, I received a call from another traveler I’m hosting right now to say that he had arrived in town, and was waiting on the street by my house. The excuse to skip the last two hours that I desperately wanted just materialized.
I ran home to meet my guest and almost immediately ran off again to take him to the train-ticket selling office. After trying several sold-out destinations, we got him a ticket for Lanzhou and we proceeded to other places to inquire about camera prices and change some foreign currency.
As we made our way back up to my side of town, lunchtime had arrived and we headed to a local semi-Turkish restaurant run by an Azeri woman for lunch with a few other friends.
After lunch, Guillaume (my guest) and I sat in my living room for hours while I answered question after question about the United States and China. I tried unsuccessfully to get some work done. Even the simplest task was unaccomplishable as every time I left the room I was called back with a cry of “Tiffany!” and another question.
He left for dinner, and I cooked up some vegetables with some of that mutton for myself. I got a call from another friend I’ve seen too little of lately, we talked for quite a while, and now I’m at home writing this waiting for Fausto to come over.
I haven’t prepared for my classes tomorrow. I’m not concerned.
Tomorrow I’ve got classes straight through till dinner, then a dinner date, and then I’m hoping I can come home to an empty house to collapse, sit around and do nothing, or maybe page through the Chinese travel magazine I picked up recently.