Uighur Encounters


After work today, I decided to cruise on over to McDonald’s, like I usually do during the summer semester days for a quick bite. Fries, chicken nuggets, coke…Very authentic Chinese. And in front of the McDonalds, as usual, were a pair of decidedly NOT Chinese fellows I see every now and then whever I go by that area. We always exchanged nods and smiles, but beyond that, no actual contact. I’ve always been curious about them – I knew they had to be Central Asian of some sort – very Turkic in appearance. Swarthy skin, grow facial hair easy, and, most tellingly, sky blue eyes on one of them.

So after eating, I skimmed my Chinese phrasebook and plopped myself right down in front of their stall and let out a "Ni Hao." Of the two, the blue eyed, smiley one immediately grabbed a stool for me, while the other simply eyed me with curiosity, if not a smile. I did my best to be polite and offerred a hand to him and said hello again, followed by my name. He nodded but did not respond. Meanwhile, my blue eyed friend went for a pre-sliced melon and offerred me a piece. It was delicious – sweet and juicy – a perfect way to fend off the summer heat. I commented on as much in broken Chinese and the two nodded in obvious agreement. We talked about some basic stuff – I asked where they were from and they said Xinjiang, which is a place I’ve been interested in learning about for awhile now. How fortunate I’d run into a pair of Xinjiang natives from there so far from home!

With some difficulty I managed to get their names – I was asking in the improper fashion, I knew, but "your name is what," followed by me giving mine generally worked out rather well. What suprised me was that when they wrote theirs down…It was in Arabic script, not Chinese characters. That was interesting – luckily in Xi’an, a man I met at the Great Mosque taught me how to say "nice to meet you" in Arabic (he spoke smatterings of seven langages by just talking to tourists (!!!)) so I rattled off "ana sar aidenbil guike." And got no response other than vague curiosity.

Intrigued, I managed to attract a Chinese fellow who spoke a bit of English (like a magnet for them, really) and I asked him to ask them how long they would be in Jinan. He tried but other than a (irritated?) look, no response. By now, my two prospective friends have gotten awkwards. They aren’t looking at me or him and do the shy eye thing whenever I try to talk to them. It only then just hit me: They can’t speak Chinese. They knew the very basic questions (which is not hard since the Chinese tend to ask them in the same order) but beyond that, my Chinese was actually better than THEIRS, and they were technically Chinese!

Feeling a bit awkwards myself, I thanked them as best I could and left.

Now I’ve been researching a bit of Uighur. It uses the Arabic script but it’s not the same language at all…It’s actually a descendent of the Chagatai language, which united Central Asia for over 500 years, along with Urdu, though it borrows quite a bit from Mandarin, Persian and Russian. Today I picked up a few phrases to throw at them, but as I suspected since it was raining earlier, they were not around McDonalds. However just down the road was another melon stand with more Uighur guys – must be a community around. I had no idea they were here in Jinan. I asked in Uighur if they spoke Uighur and one fellow said "yeah" (I think) and proceeded to ask me stuff I had no idea how to respond to since I did not prepare the proper phrases. So I told him best I could in Chinese that I was looking for two Uighur friends that had a cart nearby and he nodded as if in understanding…But if he’s like my other prospective friends…He had no idea what I was talking about. Halel and Brekmanth…I will find you again.

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