How to Have Fun for [nearly] Free: A Guide for Foreigners in Far-Flung Cities
First, make friends. Fun isn’t completely free – it comes from reciprocal relationships. You give someone the pleasure of your company (and gather stories for further recounting), and you get VIP treatment for free. How to make friends, you ask? Simply be friendly – but somewhat classy (no one likes lewd foreigners).
Second, jump into parties like tardy troubadours. Like crashing someone’s KTV party (whoops!), but expecting that they’ll have more fun after we arrive (after all, who doesn’t love laughing at foreigners crooning out-of-key to Forgotten Bands of The Nineties, or bumbling the lyrics on Taiwanese pop ballads?).
This brings me to point number three: fun is free is you look for fun everywhere. And you’re more likely to have a great time if you occasionally create fun yourself, be it dancing in the square to music blaring from a fast food joint at midnight (or, ahem, videotaping your friends as they twirl in the snow), or creating a mocumentary about the Urumqi conservatory (the plastic flower garden at KFC).
By Saturday afternoon I was exhausted…of staying on campus, of working from my living room. Except for my part time, and several minor sojourns off campus for lunch, I hadn’t left since last Saturday. Between IELTS tutoring, class and test preparation, dealing with bank and grad school application stuff, and finalizing student grades, I’d basically spent the whole week in my living room. And I needed to get out. In order for me to maintain productivity, I need to occasionally switch places or break routine.
So after IELTS and lunch I went to Nanmen and tracked down a book I had my students recommend: poetry in Chinese and Uighur from a renowned Uighur poet for one of the professors who wrote a recommendation letter for my graduate school applications. I’m giving it to a Lit professor, but it’s actually probably more suitable for someone studying Anthropology or History: the illustrations make it look like a bad Steven King novel, the Chinese forward is sappy and apologetic, and the translated titles of the poems are saccharine and simple. The Uighur may be soaring, but the Chinese borders on insipid.
Next I wandered down towards ErDaoQiao, for a late lunch of pumpkin dumplings, quite possibly my favorite food in Xinjiang. Lunch was followed my more wandering in the late afternoon snow, soaking in the area and the cold winter sights – children coming home from school, men carving sheep on the street, shops selling imported chocolates and tea (I did stop to buy a bar of hazelnut chocolate for Pierre – $1.75 for Turkish chocolate), men shuffling in groups, women bustling in burqas and old matrons in full fur, the cellphone thieves tentatively displaying their wares with a flash of their coats, street sellers hawking roast corn and the last of sweet summer melon. Southern Urumqi in winter.
Wandering was followed by an early dinner of spicy garbanzo beans from the same delicious food stall on 陕西巷 (Shanshi hanzi), eaten with cold nipping my fingers and pepper tingling my lips.
I then walked over to the Texas Café, run by a Seattelite and his oversized wife, and staffed by a bunch of friendly Uighurs who would beat out any of my students at an English Public Speaking Contest. When I arrived the wife was giving inadequate instruction in IELTS preparation to an eager young Han probably paying far too much for this paltry session. She’s about fifty-five and well-meaning, but by no means qualified for the job. It took me five minutes of accidental eavesdropping to figure out that she was preparing him for the IELTS, for all her advice was off. It sometimes seems funny the way us foreigners get perceived as professionals of various fields in China. I act as an IELTS trainer, and I’m the most professional one I know in Urumqi – but my only qualifications are being a native speaker, having a few years of English teaching experience, and collecting resources on the test from various official websites. I’m not a professional. But at least [I hope] I’m not inaccurate in the information I impart.
Between seven-thirty and nine I was joined by J, Pierre, S and C. They had bland Tex-Mex. I had coffee. Thankfully I had borught beef-baked naan, which we munched once we exited the cafe. We endured an absolutely awful open mic night, shared stories, rehashed events from the past week, and (except for Pierre, who had to work today, and thus head for home at eleven), made plans to further our evening adventures.
J was exhausted after another week of decision-making concerning his upcoming year and international flights, so we made our way over to DQ to satisfy our sugar cravings. Closed. The Best Food at Nanmen? Ice Cream machine broken. So we shot a few silly video clips involving S banging on the DQ doors and S and C Uighur waltzing to the slow pop blasted from Best Food, and then headed over to KFC, where we frolicked in the Urumqi Conservatory (aka a bed of plastic flowers) and they all had ice cream sundays.
Turns out we were right across the street from one of C’s friends who was having a small KTV party and had invited her (and by unknown extension, us) to go over and join. So we trumped across the street, took the elevator to the 32nd floor of 百花村酒店 by the electronics market – and then realized C’s phone was dead, and none of us had her friend’s number. So she whipped out her ipod, showed the workers her friend’s photo, and told them he was surnamed “Wang”. And thus we were led on a treasure hunt through the labirynth of KTV rooms, stopping to peer in every window. At first the KTV workers thought we were Uighur (a Mexican-caucasian, an African American, a Sindhi-Indian American and myself…), so they brought us to all the Uighur KTV rooms, where we saw middle aged couples waltzing in front of the TV to traditional songs. Finally we located the friend, crashed his party of three, and went on to endure two agonizing hours of drinking weak tea and listening to originally-awful songs being banged and clanged to pieces through said friend’s tuneless singing while looking at the city under snow from panoramic windows at the back of our room.
Perhaps Justin Bieber’s secret Asian roots are cause for his otherwise inexplicable popularity in China.
After KTV J went home and us three girls went to Cabana’s (of New Year’s Eve Variety Show fame). The Kazak girl and two Han guys who had been at KTV said they were afriad to go to a Uighur club, and pleaded out.
Last week I left right after the Xinjiang-time New Years, as Pierre needed to go home and get some sleep before work the next day (a recurring theme). After I left, however, S and J met the DJ, two Filipino singers, and two Brazilian dancers who are currently working at the club, and then later went out to KTV with the Brazilians and the DJ. Last night we went back to drop in on the trio near the end of their shift.
The Brazilian girls have been in China for a year. They work for an entertainment company that basically “rents” them out to different dance troupes or clubs for a month at a time. Each month they’re in a different Chinese city. A few days before their time is up they get a call and hop on the next plane, then have a few days rest before starting the next gig. They’ve spent the entire year living in hotels. Sometimes they work for theme parks (like Happy Valley in Shanghai) doing big afternoon and evening dance shows; sometimes they work in small clubs like Cabana’s. Clubs hire them for foreign appeal – though in Urumqi, where they could easily be mistaken for Uighur (or Russian), this doesn’t really seem like a big draw.
When we arrived they were sitting in the back of the club chilling with the Filipinos and Chinese dancers and looking rather bored. One more dance and they were done for the night, back to their hotel to sleep until noon the next day. We sat and chatted, then went on the floor and danced for a while – and noticed we were almost the only girls (but, being a pack, it was okay). Uighur girls dress conservatively (especially in winter – full sleeved sweater tunics or loose designer shirts over slim black pants or leggings) but act absolutely wild. I was latched onto by a rather tipsy (but benign) Turkish guy with fobbish glasses and a pink oxford shirt who then asked if we were straight when we were dance-attacked by a petit girl glad to find some other females. But rather innocent fun was had by all, and we ended the evening with copious handshakes with the Turkish guy’s Kazakh friends who were quite dissapointed that none of us could speak Russian. Between us we drank perhaps half a beer (and copious amoutns of weak tea) and spent less than ten pounds, mostly on taxi fare and dinner at Texas. The end.
And today is a slightly snowy Sunday, snowflakes drifting lazily down as sunlight floods the livingroom and I think about getting back to finishing up some paperwork and prepping for this evenings IELTS tutoring session.