Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BFF = Baijiu Friends Forever

Given that, in describing my entrance into Xinjiang, such terms as "traumatic" or "agonizing" or "consuming all truth and reason" would not be amiss, it seemed that as I finally got settled in Urumqi there was no way things wouldn't start going my way. But three weeks in, that's just it--I guess I assumed that once I arrived I would get my bearings and things would just fall into place immediately. In fact, every single day around here feels like an uphill battle, and an especially frustrating one at that because so much of the time I find I don't have a clue about what's going on (even when I thought I did)! Even the smallest tasks can require wading through many iterations of bureaucracy and procedure (not my natural proclivity, as you may know). Lest you think I'm just complaining about language barriers and culture shock--yes, there's some truth to that, but it's more than just that.
For instance: 
Instructions for enrolling in school as foreign language student 
1) Email school at address posted on official website
2) Wait for email to bounce
3) Track down current exchange student to give you email address of exchange program director, send message
4) Receive no response because "she doesn't check her email during the summer"
5) Get cell phone number of exchange program director
6) Call and explain that you would like to take classes, get vague directive to fill out application
7) Submit application and receive no confirmation
8) Show up months later at school, hope for the best

Even now that I am theoretically enrolled in the Arts Institute, I deal with a host of daily challenges. It took me nearly two weeks to get the correct card to check out a key to a practice room because no one in the Music Department seemed to know the correct procedure--professors would direct me to other professors, who would point me back to the original person I asked. For a few weeks my ghijak teacher was not responding to my inquiries about when we could meet for a first lesson--I thought he had dropped me as a student. Classes change meeting times sporadically, or are canceled without warning (at least for those who aren't connected via social media with the teacher). Xinjiang also operates on two timezones--the official time, which like the rest of China is calibrated to Beijing, and unofficial "Xinjiang time," which is two hours behind. This is a constant point of clarification that recently was only further convoluted by the school's take on daylight savings time--shaving off thirty minutes from class start times in two directions. My ATM card still hasn't arrived, although I discovered that it had been languishing in the Urumqi FedEx facility for a week and a half because they didn't have the right address on it. Even once I contacted them and they assured me that they would deliver it within a few days, it is nowhere to be found and I am no closer to paying my rent. In other words, even the things that seem like they should run like clockwork, well, don't. Even the clock! When my sister and I were little our mom used to give us these stickers of frogs wearing prize ribbons with sayings like, "I tried my best!" and "I solved my own problem!" I'm keeping morale up now by mentally awarding myself a frog ribbon daily.

Besides my frustration about how difficult it has been to get started in Urumqi, I also was feeling a bit blue about how codependent I am on my host. She's absolutely lovely and I am learning a lot from her about local music and culture, but the fact remains that she has her own life, work, and circle of friends that I can only encroach on so much. In addition to such trivial tasks as calling FedEx Urumqi and getting student ID photos taken, I set myself the goal last week to "make friends." Hong Kong was such a crutch--between the vast sea of English speakers and the easily accessible online events postings, I had no trouble connecting with new people. Not so in Urumqi--for one, there is virtually no English except among the few expats here*, and you're considered lucky to come across a non-belated concert poster. Beyond that, I just have had trouble finding opportunities to plug in with the community at the Arts Institute because it is so insular.
*A side note about the expat community in Urumqi--from what I have been told the expats here are  largely divided into two distinct camps: researchers and missionaries. While religion does underly many of the tensions in the region, I guess the missionaries are either discreet enough, or more likely considered a religious buffer against extremism by the government, to avoid notice. Still, they aren't discreet enough for the tastes of some here--my favorite anecdotes are the Uyghur who complained that the leaders of his English language circle "only want to talk about Jesus," and the missionaries in language classes who use biblical references in all of their example sentences. 
This downtrodden note seems like a great lead-in for what shall be hereinafter referred "The Great Uyghur Baijiu Bash of 2015." A little background: months before I departed for my Watson year, I came across this gem of a video--a Uyghur music rendition of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." 

It turns out that Abduwali, the musician himself, is an instructor in Urumqi, and the former teacher of a friend who just left the city. She had introduced us, and one evening I ran into him as I left the Arts Institute. We chatted and he invited me to come watch his ensemble's rehearsal, a Uyghur jazz combo-type affair. I eagerly agreed and watched them jam out until the bassist literally wore out his fingers. The musicians were great, and afterward some of them invited me to join them for dinner. We bonded over hotpot, one of them telling me about his Uzbekistan conservatory days and showing me videos of his award-winning performance in an international competition. They were excited to hear I was from Texas, and insisted they take me to Urumqi's aptly-named Texas Cafe after dinner ("It's owned by a Texan!" they exclaimed). Sadly, Texas Cafe was closed, but the night was just beginning. We went back to one of their homes, where they pulled out naan (Uyghur bread), a dutar (two-stringed lute) and a large bottle of baijiu, China's infamously pungent and potent alcohol of choice. After the musicians launched into singing muqam songs from Islamic poetry and Uyghur pop, they pulled out a shot glass. 
"Us Uyghurs, we like to make long toasts and tell stories when we drink." 
They filled up the glass. 
"We are so glad to have met you tonight. We are your friends for life, and if you ever need anything, ever, let us know and we will help you! Hosh!" 
They passed the shot glass to me.  
" makes me so happy to have gotten to know you tonight and heard your wonderful music. Ours was truly a fortuitous meeting tonight. I am so grateful for your help and hope that I, too, can help you in the future! Hosh!
We toasted many things that evening ("To music!" "To friendship!" "Hosh!") and as we approached the end of the baijiu bottle, one of the musicians emptied it completely into the shot glass and handed it to me. I tried to politely refuse, but:
"This is me giving you my good luck! You cannot refuse!"
I figured that at least that would mean the baijiu consumption would be over. But then they pulled out a second bottle.

I just want to take this opportunity to clarify that until that evening, I had been drunk once in my life (one month prior) and had certainly never thrown up from drinking. In college, my exposure to extreme alcohol consumption was as the person keeping friends from choking on their own vomit. And so after I returned to my apartment that evening and slapped myself in the face to retain consciousness while throwing back liters of water, I had a chance for hazy introspection about the evening and where things had gone awry. My head was spinning and I was stumbling and slurring as I vocally coached my liver: "Hang in there--you can do this!" Barf. This is probably a sensation most of you have experienced long before I did last week; however, now that I have finally been naan-tossing drunk, I can confirm that the baijiu shots hellhole is one into which one should never descend, and that I have no intention of drinking to excess ever again. That said, I did feel a strong glimmer of pride as I stared into the toilet basin--I had gone to a Uyghur drinking party with fantastic musicians, held my own (at least in terms of speaking Chinese language), and left with self-proclaimed lifelong friends. Culturally speaking, this felt really significant because these types of get-togethers are a huge part of the social culture; moreover, as a female it was amazing to have had the chance to attend since gender divides are so strong in Uyghur culture.

As for less alcohol-soaked social gatherings, the girl who had introduced me to an erhu teacher at the Arts Institute has been very sweet and invited me to visit her family home in Shehezi, a town two hours away from Xinjiang. Her parents come from Gansu Province and speak Mandarin with a really strong accent, and so they would say something to me and she would translate it to more standard Mandarin. That said, we had some pretty eye-opening exchanges--for instance, they were amazed to hear that there are Chinese people in the United States who own Chinese restaurants where they make and sell dumplings. I gave her dad an English name, Mark, and then was at a loss when he immediately asked, "So what does it mean?" I looked it up and got "Mars" and "warlike," which I didn't tell him, so I settled for a happy medium: "It means you're fiercely awesome!" He seemed placated. Her family was welcoming to a fault, insisting that I sleep in their daughters' single bedroom while both of their daughters slept out on the couch. I felt bad (also stuffed because I had gorged myself on the aforementioned dumplings) but they wouldn't have it any other way. As for Shihezi itself, if you have the chance to go, I wouldn't--the city was constructed fifty years ago in the middle of the desert as a semi-colonial project. With massive streets, empty monolithic buildings, and a gentrified Han population it has all the charm of a waiting room. (Surprisingly it is home to a university of 40,000 students and participates in many international exchanges. Regardless, I can without a doubt say I have seen it, and helped you dodge a bullet in the process...)

I have had my first two ghijak lessons, and while it's still to early to offer any serious commentary on the learning process, it's a great time to post a new video of lackluster stringed instrument playing! Ghijak presents unique challenges from erhu, especially since it has four strings instead of two and the bow, which is not attached to the instrument, has a higher contact point with the string than it does on the erhu. My biggest challenge right now, beyond keeping the bow on the string, is keeping the bow on the right string--the whole instrument pivots on the spike that rests on one's lap, so there is a swiveling motion to account for when playing that I have never dealt with before. I really like my teacher, though. He's a really nice guy who is seriously picky and sounds like he is screaming all the time; in fact he just cares a lot and tends to talk loudly, especially about the history of Uyghur instruments and music. He showed me this very cool instrument which he called the "grandfather of the erhu"--it looks like a large erhu with a metal body and five sympathetic strings (not played but  that vibrate when the two main strings are played). Because of the sympathetic strings and the metal chamber the instrument echoes the notes long after they have been played, and the sound has a distant and haunting timbre not unlike a sitar. He complained that no one wants to study the instrument these days, and I told him I was very interested, so tentatively I am going to take lessons on both instruments! In the meantime, here's the video status report on ghijak and erhu:

I regret that there are not more pictures in this post--I haven't been toting my camera as freely because I don't want to draw attention to myself and also don't want to jeopardize anyone whose image I might post. That said, I'm working on it--more pictures to come!