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Christmas Goose

For about a month now I’ve been seeing a Uyghur tutor on the weekends. The decision to Uyghurfy my weekends has ended up providing me with a sorely needed breath of fresh air capable of dispelling the monotony of my stiflingly Han Chinese environment, where I’m normally surrounded by oil refineries and the children of military and energy industry elites. On Saturdays and Sundays, after my brisk morning run, I take the bus to southwest Korla where American SUVs give way to donkey carts, where automobile taxis are replaced by endearing (yet dangerous) modified motorcycle types, and Lei Feng style PLA hats yield to trademark doppas and cabby caps.

Two Uyghur fellows chatting at the busiest intersection in the Uyghur neighborhood.

Uyghurs get around by sitting on the back of these motorcycles and telling the driver their destination.

My teacher is a perky, tiny woman whose primary job is teaching English to ambitious Uyghurs at a private training center but who had the grace to accept the topsy-turvy odd job of teaching Uyghur to a foreigner on the side. In addition to being an enthusiastic teacher, Rayhangul is also very Uyghur, which means, among many things, she often gives me impromptu invitations to attend some sort of Uyghur social function with little or no advance warning. A few weeks ago I unexpectedly found myself at a Uyghur wedding celebration downtown. And this week? The anthropologist in me of course could not say “no” when Rayhangul, literally in the middle of our Sunday class, took a call and then invited me to go out to the countryside and have lunch at her sister-in-law’s place. This time, fortunately, I had my camera.

My Uyghur tutor, her husband, and her sister-in-law stroll down a country road to the family owned gas station.

Perize with grandma.

Good times and good food were had by all. I got commanded by adorable little Perize to “EAT, EAT” when the pilaf came out. While exploring the family’s little countryside compound, we came across a the family’s traditional mud-brick oven, a tonur, and when I proposed that I build one when in America and start a nan business, I was told I can’t… because America sadly does not have the salt of the Taklamakan desert. I was thereupon invited to take a sample of a block of salt just recently seized from the desert. Eventually, we had to leave.

It was a Sunday so on the bus ride home, my thoughts eventually gave way to the more boring logistics of preparing for class the next day. One of the things I needed for class was black paper, since at the time we were just beginning Christmas season and I had a “naughty or nice” activity that would award naughty students (as determined by a jury of their peers) with a “block of coal.” But since the closest Michael’s is several thousand miles away and “arts and crafts” isn’t exactly a booming industry in this cutthroat wild west oiltown, I knew procuring black paper would require some advance planning. I turned to my Uyghur tutor and asked, naturally, in Uyghur, “Where can I buy black paper for my Christmas class?” Or so I thought…

In Uyghur, “black paper” is qara qeghez, with the q’s and the gh representing, for the uninitiated, a bunch of garbly sounds that happen somewhere in the back of your throat (linguists cringe). Though I really feel I can say I’ve mastered these non-English sounds, I think that between the sounds of the bus, the lateness of the day, the inconvenient succession of q’s, r’s, and gh’s in qara qeghez, and my first teacher ages ago teaching me (I think erroneously – he was an ethnic Kazakh) that the gh in qeghez doesn’t really need to be pronounced, my teacher didn’t hear what I intended. She gave me a funny look – but at the time I thought she was only confirming the fact that black paper really isn’t…well… a commodity in these parts.

We began discussing where I could buy some qara qeghez, and she directed me to a bazaar that would be near my drop off point. A Uyghur girl sitting nearby couldn’t help but overhear our conversation and be intrigued at a Han Chinese learning Uyghur (I know I’m not Han Chinese, but, in China, I’m Han Chinese), and in the spirit of hospitality intervened and offered not only to take me to the bazaar but show me exactly where I could get some qara qeghez.

We got off the bus, and I said goodbye to my teacher and her husband as they were getting off elsewhere. My new friend and I started meandering through the bazaar, and eventually the wares start becoming decidedly un-stationary-ish… pots, pans, shoes, and then, ahead, cages and cages filled with all sorts of poultry. “Here we are,” my host said, pointing to the poor imprisoned poultry. I was confused.

Some bilingual Chinese-Uyghur acrobatics eventually taught me the new Uyghur vocabulary word for the day, ghaz, which means goose. My mangled qara qeghez was heard by all on board the bus as qara ghaz, and so my teacher and my new friend graciously decided to accommodate the strange foreigner’s strange traditions and help me procure a black goose with which I could celebrate Christmas. Because, as you know, how can it be Christmas without a black goose? Hours earlier, when my teacher gave me a puzzled look at my inquiry about black paper, I tried to explain, saying, “We have lots of fun activities in my lessons, I need the black paper [goose] for one of the activities.” Fun and exciting indeed!

I wasn’t able to explain the actual situation to my teacher until a few weeks later. In those intervening weeks, she believed that Americans somehow have to use a black goose for some sort of Christmas ritual in the States. Maybe not… but I hope one day I’ll have a family to make some Christmas traditions with. Anyone where I can buy a black goose in Tennessee? Do black geese even exit? I’m sure my tutor was confused in more ways than one.

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