2004.09.18 Urumqi, China
Courses for foreign students have resumed. My days are again shaped by Chinese character tests and Uighur conversation drills.
Thursday's conversation topic was supposed to be "cleaning" but we somehow kept returning to "socks". There is evidently quite a difference in everything to do with socks from what is typical in America. Class carried on for an hour, always returning to that subject. From what I gather, socks here are like thin, nylon stockings that have been cropped off at the ankle. People seem to own three pairs or less, and wash them by hand nightly. Idiotic as it such a chat may sound, it was actually a lot of fun to talk about.
I'm excited: Xinjiang University has finally arranged a calligraphy teacher for me. The professor I'm working with is Uighur, he'll teach me Islamic calligraphy in the Arabic script. After I settle into a routine balancing his instruction with my language courses I plan to get another instructor for Chinese calligraphy. I feel more comfortable working under a local calligrapher now than I would have upon my arrival in March. I've become far more communicative in Uighur, and my comprehension level has zoomed up. While far from fluent, receiving instruction in some other language doesn't intimidate me the way it would have this spring.
I'm not quite as happy about the state of my Mandarin--the courses for which I was registered this term are slightly beyond my ability. I knew that the level was too high from the first day--my grammar class skipped a textbook-and-a-half from the point spring term left off. I managed to keep up anyway over the inital weeks but realized that I was devoting all of my time to achieve little comprehension. I finally decided to drop back a level this morning. Even if it means a review of the texts I studied over spring semester I figure it will keep me exposed to the language and solidify whatever grasp I've attained.
I'm going to spend at least this next academic year studying at X. U. I've been happy living in Urumqi and have no point at which I plan to move along. Staying on is settled--I've agreed to live in my new apartment through June. After then, I don't know. I'll travel over summer 2005, though may wind up returning here again thereafter. I'll see how far I've come with the language and calligraphy, then decide whether I feel more attracted to a new life elsewhere.
My social life continues to be full. I took coffee this afternoon with Catherine at Urumqi's hoity-toity Hoi Tak hotel. We spent the evening shopping up at Hua Lin, a collection of hundreds of stores selling every item imaginable. I first heard of Hua Lin when Uighur instructor Gul-Chehra described it to me using the idiom, "Paqat tokho-sut yoq." That translates somewhere along the lines of "everything but the kitchen sink". It literally means, "The only thing missing is chicken-milk."
While browsing around Hua Lin I found myself attracted to some of the kitsch that can come only from Asia. Many stores were devoted to wares such as three-dimensional, life-sized palm trees crafted from hundreds of neon tubes. Others sold nothing other than those huge digital wall-clocks which display time, temperature, date, and--occasionally--the lunar date beneath pictures of shimmering waterfalls or pulsating religious imagery. I didn't buy anything, though am considering a return trip before my next visit to the U.S. If I can figure how to pack one up, I'm sure any of my family members would be happy to have such an item on display in their home.
Dinner was spent gorging myself on sushi with Rian and Laura. I promise to add a sequel to the Cast of Characters entry to connect readers to the new names and faces in my life.