Our life in Urumqi

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The happiest farangs in Thailand…

We’re so happy to be back in Thailand.

Ian and I didn’t smile much in the last few months. We’ve been struggling with extreme isolation and difficulties with our (now former) employers, and we both realized it had been taking a toll both physically and mentally. I’m not sure we realized just how extreme our transformation would be when we hit the ground in Bangkok.

Ian’s appetite disappeared for pretty much the entire time in China. He’s lost ten kilos from when he was last in Thailand, and he was by no means a fat bastard then.

The realization that we might have been catastrophically lied to combined with the stress of leaving was, for me, compounded by a run of bad health in the weeks up to our departure. One small malady after another has worn me down in the past month; none bad enough to keep me in bed, but just enough to run me down excessively. I look haggard.

Virtually overnight, this is gone. This is our first morning in Bangkok and I’ve woken up feeling like my old self. Ian even managed to eat two full airline meals and then pick at leftovers from mine. Airline meals! Two of them!


On banquetting….

Going out for a company meal in China is all part and parcel of the
way things are done here. None of this going for a beer after work
nonsense, it’s a full banquet or, literally, nothing. As non-Chinese
speakers we are, thankfully, left out of the majority of
inter-departmental small-talk and can focus on the real reason we’re
all gathered at table: the banquet bounty itself.

Some of the more noticeable points here are:

The excessive amount of food

There are 15 people seated at the table and they serve food for, oh,
roughly, about 40 people. Food comes in a what seemed like a rather ad
hoc fashion, but there is some sort of method to the madness. First
come a succession of what I suppose you’d have to call salads,
disinguishable from the rest of the food mainly by being cold.

Then come a succession of smaller meat dishes and the vegetable
dishes. The highlight for me is braised eggplant and capsicum in a
sticky hoi sin sauce, which I naturally over-indulged in. Tofu also
features highly, these folks know what to do with soy bean!

Then come the centrepiece dishes; seafoods, duck, chicken (boney as
hell) and, unbelievably, Mongolian beef, JUST LIKE AT HOME!!! I nearly
cried with happiness, but it seems this particular piece of heaven
hasn’t made it as far as Scotland, because Ian had never heard of it.
The Peking duck, athough a long, long way from home, was also most
welcome. One of the highlights of living in this region is that pork
is not ubiquitous; due to the high Muslim population, these banquets
always feature my favourite meat, lamb instead, and the lamb here is
absolutely to die for;

The five per cent alcohol – that got our colleagues smashed.

They served alcohol there, but not exactly as you might recognise it.
A steady flow of extremely fruity red wine is delovered to the table.
The bottles are immediately flattened the second they arrive, but not
in the way you might think. It’s polite to serve other people’s
glasses before your own (instead of your own) and so the second a
bottle arrives it’s grabbed by a hospitable fellow-diner and shared
among all 15 people at the table.

The difference here is that the wine is about 5 per cent and the
glasses are small, so each glass of wine lasts Ian precisely 2.5
seconds: i.e. the amount of time it takes him to politely wait one
second, grab the glass and raise it to his mouth.
This causes a problem if, like me, you have decided for the sake of
your health, to have a week relatively off alcohol and came with no
intention of drinking (and the crappy wine in any case takes up
valuable Mongolian-beef-space). It’s rude to refuse the glass, or not
subsequently refuse to drink it, and yet, there’s 15 people around the
table, meaning that our glasses are to be filled 13 times in the name
of hospitality. What to do? Well, of course, a sneaky sideways flick
of the booze into Ian’s glass keeps us both happy, he gets a more
respectable share of the wine; I get to (more or less) stick to my

Not to cast any apsersion on China or Chinese as a whole… but…
seriously, the people at our company, man, they cannot drink. Two
100ml glasses of 5 per cent alcohol and all the girls are giggly and
walking on more severe diagonals than normal. Ian gets many looks of
awe and I get many looks of pity as he soaks up all the available
wine; unsurprisingly he remains almost completely unaffected. More
than one of the co-teachers were rough and well off their game the
following day. (Being of Celtic descent is both a blessing and a curse in China.
Imagine a Scottish Legolas drinking with Chinese dwarves: Ian)


The seating order

One of the more interesting things we noted is that the Chinese
teachers we work with automatically arranged themselves in order of
seniority, leading away from our manager. There was the big boss (next
to Ian, lucky him…) then our manger, then the longest serving
teacher, then then next longest… and so on, down to the girl who was
hired only a few weeks ago. And the newest girl was the one
continually sent to fetch new bottles of wine from the waiter. What’s
that you say? Sixty years of communism making an equal society? Bah!



Pix coming once we’re in a country that doesn’t have sucky internet.

Bring your bling – Uyghur weddings!

Thus far we’ve been invited to two weddings in Urumqi: one Han and the other Uyghur. As examples of comparative anthropolgy they’ve been very interesting.

Take, for example, a Han Chinese wedding. The one I attended (Ange couldn’t make it) was the wedding of our supervisor and it was a wet affair. The common drink to dish out here is a clear liquid death called baijiu (sounds a bit like bye, Jo) which (in the more expensive cases) comes in porcelain containers and is served in shot glasses. Typically, the stuff ranges from 50%-85% proof and just one leaves a taste of nailpolish remover in your mouth for hours afterwards. It’s fairly minging. Does the job though, no mistake about that! And it’s not a good idea to have one when you’ve a class later that day. ‘You smell like Daddy’ is not something you want your students telling you of a weekday afternoon. Packets of cigarettes are left on all the tables for people to help themselves.


What the hell?

Okay, maybe starting this topic was a big mistake for two reasons.

1. I only have so many hours in the day and there is a LOT of weird shit I don’t understand here, and;

2. I’ve been in China six months, sure, but I reckon you could be here for years and still find there’s a lot that doesn’t make any sense from an outsider perspective. I’m a long, long, long way from expertise.

Nonetheless, here goes, a list of the top four differences between China and my home, as seen by me (NB: we work for a company dominated by Han Chinese and live in a predominantly Han neighbourhood, and so it is the Han way of doing things I reference below.)


Who needs logic anyway…

In case the etymological study of the word ‘logic’ didn’t give the game away, this is a contribution from Ian. On a Bad China Day.


Logic. The word has its roots in the ancient Greek logos, of which one meaning is to say or speak. In the thinking of Heraclitus, who first used it in a technical sense, it meant something akin to Truth, alethia. Nowadays, however, it denotes a systematic approach to something, a manner of saying or doing things that confirm to a logical, that is, comprehensible and easily verifiable truism. It is this wordview, this paradigm, that signifies Western technological thinking more than any other. And it doesn’t apply in China.



What do you call an Aussie, an American and a Scot in the desert… er, you call that the entire teaching staff at my school. And the entire teaching staff at my school decided to take a weekend jaunt  a week ago, to one of the most enjoyable places I’ve been.


Camels and kebabs – life in Urumqi

Welcome to my blog; three years and nine countries after I first decided to set it up…

I live in Urumqi, Xinjiang, far north-west China. Take a second to get a mental image of that. You might need to close your eyes and try to recall a detailed world map. Far. North. West. China. Nowhere near Beijing or Shanghai, and definitely not a tourist trap. The China cliches do not apply here, my friends. There’s no old people in weird wicker hats. There’s no terraced rice paddies here and there’s not even that much rice, comparatively speaking. There are few grand monuments, a distinct lack of cute stone villages and and no serene, flowing rivers to conjure up romantic images of yester-year.