2005.03.29 Urumqi, China
Wang Fu Jing St., Beijing
Wang Fu Jing St.,

I went for a midnight snack yesterday with Tiffany, Nisagul, and Shamsiya. At one point a customer walked by our table wearing what--outside of Asia--would be an amazing tank top. The lower hem of the garment ended well above the woman's navel. I can't recall which colors the fabric were, but remember them being quite loud. Petite purple satin bows graced the front, forming a neat row above her breastline. The halter was made from a string of pearls. Unique as this shirt might have been most parts of the world, it was rather unremarkable for China.

Tiffany and I tried to explain some of the differences in what defines appropriate fashion in the U.S.. I could tell that no matter how we articulated it, there was no way to convey our sense of aesthetic:

"Less foofy," I tried. "You know: no feathers, lace, fur, hair--that kind of material isn't really seen often in America."

"Or elastic," added Tiffany. I nodded my head in agreement as Nisagul and Shamsiya stared blankly.

"You know, I've found myself buying stuff here I would never wear in California," Tiffany continued.

"Oh, me too. And I didn't even realize how wrong it was until I wore it back in Seattle."

I went on to relate one of my first experiences upon returning to America in late January:

"I was walking up Jackson Street in Seattle's Chinatown. I was wearing what clothing I had that was suitable for the weather--this very same blue cap and shirt I'm wearing now, in fact. So, I'm walking towards this bus stop. A homeless woman standing beside it starts sizing me up. As I draw nearer she looks me squarely in the eye and says, 'That cap and shirt is ON, dog!' Up to that point I hadn't realized how different they were from what most people in America wear."

I reminded Nisagul how a couple weeks prior I'd shot several photos of her with Rahila, solely because the clothes they happened to be wearing that evening were so different. Nisagul had on a sheer, lacy, purple, long-sleeved shirt. Rahila was, as always, looking good, but I was bemused by the thick tuft of feathers forming her shirt collar.

Sadly, after staying on in my flat for the first two weeks after my return, those two have moved back into the dorms. While I was away Rahila's brother, who works nearby at the Grand Bazaar, visited my place. The apartment is really nice and everybody--locals and foreigners alike--always comment on what a great place it is. Well, Rahila's brother got the idea that he would move in and share it with me.

This wasn't an arrangement I would have been interested in anyway, but he went about it all wrong, annoying me at every step of the process. One day Rahila mentioned that her brother wanted to meet me sometime over dinner. I thought nothing of it at the time--I've met family of several of my local friends before, including Shamsiya's sister, all of Nisagul's immediate family, as well as her grandmother.

Dinner seemed normal enough until the conversation started revolving around learning English. Lincoln--I don't know why people in this country choose an English name in addition to their given one, especially when that choice is invariably bizarre--wanted to study abroad. I could tell where things were going but was still surprised when he demanded that I tutor him twice weekly. I made the excuse that my course schedule was still not yet finalized, and even after it was I would rather not commit to set meeting times just to work on his English. "Perhaps we could all get together often over dinner," I suggested. Nisagul, whose spoken English was better than Lincoln's, helped translate my reservations. She later told me that he was utterly mystified as to why I was unable to set aside two regularly scheduled weekly sessions to teach him English.

The next day Lincoln called me, asking to borrow a few books he'd seen on my shelf. They were old textbooks I'd finished, but I still didn't feel like sharing with somebody so grabby. I let him use them anyway. I had heard from both Nisagul and Rahila that his next step was to ask me to move into my place.

A few nights later, Rahila said that she had to move back into the dorms. Her brother had suddenly decided that it was inappropriate for her to stay in a foreigner's apartment. As Rahila's closest friend, Nisagul expressed solidarity, saying that she would move back as well. The very next day most of their belongings were gone.

The ironic bit is that I would have had far more respect for Rahila's brother if he had been a bit slicker about it. (Though I still wouldn't have considered living with somebody so interested in practicing English.) If he had kicked her out first, playing the role of conservative Muslim protector of his little sister's honor, I would have accepted that at face value. I would have chalked it up to cultural differences, reflecting that it's probably kind of weird even in the U.S. for a man to be sharing his flat with two female university students.

Instead, knowing his true motivations, the whole affair just seemed unnecessarily stupid. He never did get around to asking me to move in himself--he'd probably already heard back through his sister how receptive I was to the idea.

Both friends continue to stay over the occasional evening. (I'm not sure how they dodge the nightly dorm bed count.) Nisagul actually spends the majority of her nights here as the dorms are locked up by the time she gets off work. Both have left changes of clothes and pajamas; Nisagul's goldfish have yet to move back.

It is actually kind of nice to have the occasional moment of solitude, as well as not having to worry about being decently clad when stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Still, it was so good for my language skills, having those two chatting away in Uighur constantly. Oh well. Given how things have been going, perhaps there will be a Roommate Swap IV entry shortly.