Ex-Roommate in Paris

Shamsiya Inspects Bizet's
Grave, Père La Chaisse
PARIS, France
August 2, 2012

Over the time I knew her in China, Shamsiya was floating. When we first met she'd just dropped out of med school. She'd begun a string of unskilled jobs in restaurants to get by. She did manage to do all right but was unsettled in life over the years we shared an apartment together in Urumqi.

But, sometimes there really are happy endings. Shamsiya and I have spent these past two days catching up around the new hometown she's comfortably adopted: Paris.

Five years ago, just a few weeks before I finally moved on from my time living in China, Shamsiya asked if she could introduce me to one of her friends.

"Sure, I'll probably have time some night before I leave. When do you want to meet? What's her name?", I asked.

"It's not a girl this time... ," Shamsiya said, her voice trailing off.

"Oh, you have a new boyfriend! Is he also Uyghur?"

"No. He's French."

Shamsiya and Rodolphe in
Courtyard of Great Mosque, Paris
Prior to meeting her new beau I wondered how likely the relationship was to last. Any long-distance relationship would be hard to maintain, let-alone one that spanned cultures and continents. At least one party among many of the foreign/local couples I've encountered across Asia often seemed to have a blase attitude toward commitment. I didn't want to see my friend get hurt.

But, I liked Rodolphe from the first time we met. There was nothing about him that seemed sketchy or questionable. Polite, well-mannered, employed with an international corporation that brought him to Urumqi, and obviously mad for my roommate--when we finally met I thought it was Shamsiya who was the lucky one. But, I knew that he was due to be transferred to another country in some months. I assumed that would be the end of the story.

Instead, Rodolphe went to lengths beyond any I can imagine to maintain the relationship. For example, once over a period working in the Sudan he took his one week of holiday time to take four flights arcing around the globe (then another four back again) to spend what little free time he had with Shamsiya back out in Urumqi. It was easier for the couple to continue on when he was transferred to Beijing where they lived together for some years. The proximity probably helped, but I'm sure the paperwork still must have been daunting. The difficulties and bureaucracy that Uyghurs have to cut through to be issued a passport are so great that many people I know who wanted one eventually gave up trying. Even after the couple were legally married in China, Shamsiya was still told by the bureau in charge of issuing her a passport that being married to a foreigner wasn't grounds enough to issue her one. I have no idea what measures it took on the other side of the equation, getting a visa issued for her to come live here in France and what all paperwork had to be sorted through to get her settled here. Rodolphe is clearly one devoted husband.

Ice Cream Catch-up in the 5ème
It's been a lot of fun to catch up with a familiar friend in an unfamiliar place. We've been going about town to see the sights and chat about what's new in our lives and those of mutual friends. One afternoon we took in the permanent collection at the Institut du Monde Arabe. At the Institute bookshop We each bought a French language version of the tales of Nasruddin Effendi (humorous legends of a quirky character told across the Muslim world) so stories I translated in class and stories known to Shamsiya since childhood. We paused for ice cream and then for coffee at streetside tables across the Latin Quarter. Shamsiya was always a redoubtable player of SET; I was happy to finally pull out the deck I always travel with from the bottom of my bag.

Our second afternoon together we ate laghman and kebabs at the sole Uyghur restaurant in Paris, Restaurant Tarim near the Parmentier Métro. Afterwards we scanned the map for nearby attractions; I suggested we explore the nearby Père Lachaise cemetery together.

It felt so much as it always had hanging out together about town--even if we were in a city on the opposite side of the planet from where we'd ever seen each other before. Despite how distinct the setting is walking through the streets of Paris we both kept remarking on how we felt like we were back in Urumqi.

Shamsiya and David in
Paris Metro Station
There are differences and developments in both of our lives, of course. In at least one way perhaps the two of us are moving in parallel. Shamsiya is presently enrolled in a program of intensive French study for new immigrants. It sounds nearly identical to what I began this past spring back in Québec. When speaking, the two of us occasionally lapsed into either French or Uyghur. (At home we always spoke in Uyghur.) But, it's mostly been English we've used these past days--the first time we've spoken together in that language. My Uyghur has grown rusty. After five years of speaking English with Rodolphe, Shamsiya has grown fairly fluent.

Rodolphe himself managed to join us after finishing work one evening. He knew of a good Moroccan place the other side of the block from Paris' Grand Mosque. The three of gorged ourselves on an enormous platter set with tagines, couscous, and kebabs. At the end of our dinner, Shamsiya insisted on pulling out her bankcard and treating.

"I always wanted to do this. I always wanted to be the one to buy you dinner, one day. You always took me out in Urumqi," Shamsiya said.

I was touched. Thank you, Shamsiya and Rodolphe. Perhaps next time at mine in Québec?

Now, I'm off to see yet another friend who I originally know from Urumqi. Fellow American classmate at Xinjiang University, Logan, is getting married to her long-term fiance this weekend. The wedding ceremony will take place in the hometown of the groom's family in the south of France.

Next stop: Burzet