Sixth Storey Story

Shamsiya Leaves
for Work
March 30, 2007

When I returned to Urumqi earlier this month I asked Nisagul how things had been over my absence. I sarcastically inquired as to whether we had any "nice, new neighbors".

The reason why my question was tinged with sarcasm is because our flat is in the thick of student housing. The place is a six-storey walk-up on the edge of campus, most of the other units in the block have been partitioned with plywood to cram as many students in as possible. Most of our neighbors are young, transient, and looking for the cheapest alternative possible to the dorms.

Average apartment conditions around China, even without students, tend toward the grotesque. Just yesterday, somebody--again--stole the lightbulb from our floor of the stairwell. Residents often leave their garbage in front of their door, rather than taking it down themselves. Loudly hawking phlegm up and out is common everywhere across the country. It's a rare afternoon I return from class and don't see at least one gob of spittle on the way upstairs.

On top of the poor sanitation, we have the same issues with noise that annoy apartment-dwellers worldwide. For a long period the couple just above us on the 7th floor argued nightly, yelling at each other and throwing things while their baby wailed. They have thankfully been replaced by another couple who argue less frequently and would appear to be childless.

One night last autumn Shamsiya stumbled to my room bleary-eyed. It was 3:00 A.M., she asked if I could help her somehow. Poor Shamsiya occupies the sole room of our apartment which shares a wall with an adjoining unit. Our neighbors were clearly drunk, singing songs and laughing loudly. I pounded my fist on the wall several times, finally a voice yelled back in Uighur, "What is it!" I responded back even more loudly in English, using choice words I have seldom spoken. I doubt anybody on the other side of the wall actually understood, but it did shut them up for the night.

So, when Nisagul said that there were new students who had moved in below us on 5, and that she heard the same music coming up from their apartment every night, I steeled myself for the worst. "I'm not sure where they're from," she went on. "They're not Uighur and definitely not Chinese--I think they may be Kazak. They have one of those--what do you call it--accordions?"

Our new neighbor, whom none of us have actually yet met, is wonderful. Most evenings since I've returned to Urumqi I've been treated to the sound of some talented young Kazak woman practicing. Her accordion repertoire is not vast--I've heard her play a total of perhaps three songs. Most often it's this certain piece which I can't recall the name of, something by Verdi, I think. The best is when she switches to the dombra, a traditional Kazak stringed instrument. She sings along, in a rich, rolling voice. Her voice is clearest from our kitchen and adjacent breakfast nook. If I stand directly above the gas line running through both of our units, she might as well be here with me in the same flat.