Trading Language Lessons in Xinjiang

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 84-85:

Then, on her own, Kama brought up the topic of marriage, explaining how there weren’t many suitors (probably out of fear of Cuma, the drunken father-in-law), and of them, none were without their own problems, so nothing could be settled for the time being. She went on to say that many of her former classmates were already engaged and some were even married. She spoke with a sense of despair, adding, “If I don’t marry, I’ll be an old lady, and no one wants to marry an old lady. If I do marry, I’ll be just like Mom, day in and day out doing housework, cattle work, sheep work … from now until when I’m old.”

She talked a lot that day, about how she wanted to work in a town somewhere, maybe learn a trade. She thought five hundred yuan a month would have been enough, as long as it could get her out of the wilderness.…

Who knew that this cheerful, resilient girl harbored such a humble, desperate dream.

I WONDERED IF THIS was what drove Kama to so assiduously study Chinese with me—she was determined to learn not only to speak but to write too. She borrowed my Kazakh exercise book to copy out the vocabulary list and phrasebook in the back. She wrote out the pinyin next to each character, studying as if she were really in school. But the content itself was not at all practical, with phrases like “Courtesy must always be a two-way street” and “Life is finite, time is infinite” … what in the world was the editor thinking?

I also sought to learn better Kazakh from Kama, but she always ended up going on and on, to which I had to say, “Enough, enough already, I’ll need a week to learn all that!”

She smiled. “For me, it would only take a day.”

She was right. Words that she learned at night, she had memorized the next day, acing her spelling quiz! I had to increase the difficulty, taking points off for writing even just a stroke out of place. As a result, she only got ninety-five points. Angrily, she crossed out the ninety-five and demanded that I change it to a hundred. I took the pen and wrote “85.” Her eyes bulged. Panicking, she relented, “All right, all right, ninety-five it is.…” She was completely serious.

As a result of our mutual language lessons, our tongues often crisscrossed to comic effect. The best gaff of mine was: “Add some more black?” while her most memorable blunder was: “Por adam, por donkey.” The former meant, “Add some more sheep manure [to the stove]?” The latter was, “One person, one donkey.”

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Filed under Central Asia, China, economics, education, labor, language

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