2004.11.25 Urumqi, China

Cousin Lup Ng, Auntie Julie
and David, Summer 2004

Things operate differently in China: Nisagul has been forced to move back into the dorms. Staying off-campus is evidently not a simple matter.

As accommodation in Chinese schools goes, Nisagul is among the lucky ones--there are only four to her dorm. Eight students sharing one room is the standard, ten is not unheard of. A 10:00 P.M. (XJT) curfew is enforced, at which time building entrances are chained shut and nobody may leave or enter. Shortly thereafter a roll-count is conducted, ensuring everybody is present. Prison-like as the conditions may sound, they're fairly standard and tolerated by students I've met at universities across the country.

There is some leeway. It's possible to fib, perhaps passing off a night or two out with friends as obligatory time visiting family, but that's the extent of it. After Nisagul's absence was noted for several consecutive days the situation evidently warranted not only admonishment from the dorm-monitor, but referral to her academic advisor. She had already paid rent in full for the year; they told her this obligated her to stay in the dormitory every night.

Being the clever person she is, Nisagul managed to stretch her stay at my place out a couple additional weeks. She claimed her reason for staying off-campus was actually in order to violate another of Xinjiang University's policies. The X.U. administration had previously decreed that students could not fast over Ramadan. Needing to be out of the dorms over that month was plausible enough, and to some degree true. Most Muslim students do try to observe the fast on-the-sly, but that's difficult to do, especially for those with Han roommates. Over her time at my place she did rise about an hour before dawn every day, in anticipation of consuming nothing further until sunset.

The authorities bought it, telling her she would be allowed to stay off-campus through the end of Ramadan, at which time she would have to move back into the dorm or face consequences.

So, she's taken her books, clothes, and goldfish, leaving me on my own once again. It's a shame. For the three-or-so weeks we spent together we did manage to keep the conversation half-English, half-Uighur. My spoken skills are going through a period of rapid improvement: I don't want to lose that momentum.

I feel conversely about the state of my Chinese. I have finally managed to make myself drop those classes entirely. Mandarin is not the reason I am here, yet found it hard to resist the availability of lessons at no additional cost. I was still trying to attend Chinese classes even after returning from Alma-Ata, but realized I was falling into the same pattern of spring semester: less devotion to Uighur, less time practicing calligraphy.

It's ironic--I live in China, but it feels odd to me the occasions I actually do speak Chinese. Most of my friends are either Uighur or fellow foreigners. Chinese is a language used when I'm out on the street or in some way out of my element: on the bus, in shops, restaurants, and taxis the default will be Mandarin. I can negotiate those situations well enough--but it feels strange. There was some point a couple months back when I became more comfortable expressing myself in Uighur instead. Perhaps I'll try to stack Chinese onto my schedule again next semester. I'll be here at least through June.

I've been sick over the past three days. Symptoms have included a sore throat, phlegmy cough, chills, sweats, and general muscle pain. I allowed myself to skip the last couple days of class, 80% of which time I slept. Yesterday afternoon I had such large, dark, puffy circles under my eyes I looked as if I'd just lost a fist-fight.

I seldom get the flu (which is what I now think this must be) so all sorts of possibilities ran through my head at the height of the illness. SARS? The onset of lung cancer from the weird charcoal I use to light my hookah? Whatever it was, I am now recovering and actually left the house this evening for the first time in a couple days. Hopefully I'll manage to attend class today. It's Thanksgiving in the U.S.--the missionaries are ditching, but I don't have better plans.

Weather in Urumqi is becoming very unpleasant. The daily high temperature has been just around freezing, fierce winds have made even being indoors difficult. Power gets knocked out occasionally, the noise made by air ripping around outside is loud enough to make sleep difficult. Setting foot outdoors means not only enduring the temperature and sudden gusts, but contending with debris and desert sand swirling about. Thankfully the snowfalls of some weeks ago have largely melted; I fear what December and January have yet to bring.

While the bulk of this update has been about my current goings-on, I would like to dedicate this entry to the memory of my Great-aunt Julie, who passed away in Hong Kong this weekend at the age of 80. She was the last of my father's parents' generation.

I would call on Aunt Julie the occasions I visited Hong Kong and always enjoyed her sweet personality and kind reception. It was through time with her that I developed much of my sense of the city of Hong Kong. I don't believe any return visit will feel complete, no longer able to visit her Causeway Bay apartment for dinner or go out for yum-cha the afternoons she felt energetic. I am saddened by her death, and shall miss her.