Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Watching The News With My Host Family

On Wednesday I spent about 15 minutes scrolling through the one thousand plus television channels that my new host family has. Each Turkmen house, no matter how small, is towered over by a large satellite that picks up everything from Russian to Chinese to Arabic channels. At my former host family I was never able to have the television to myself, and very rarely watched TV at all. When my new host brother handed me the remote because he had to go out and kill a chicken for dinner, I relished in opportunity to look for news channels broadcast in English. Eight hundred channels later, I found Aljazeera in English and plopped myself on the floor in front of the television. The big story on the news was the unrest in Urumqi in western China. I was previously aware of the tension between the Han Chinese and the Muslim minority in the region, the Uighur [weegher]. Interestingly enough, this is something I didn’t know until I got to Turkmenistan, the Uighur speak a language very similar to Uzbek (See Uighur women in first photo and an Uzbek woman in the second photo). The region where the Uighurs live used to be in Turkestan and they speak a Turkic language. One of my friends here just went on vacation to China and she searched for a Uighur restaurant where she could show off her Turkmen language skills. She tracked down a restaurant, ordered entirely in Turkmen and ate a meal that is standard in Lebap—palow, yoghurt and naan. On Monday I had just talked with her about the Uighurs and we weren’t aware of what was going on in XinJiang. As I was watching this story on Aljazeera, my host family came in with lunch and we kept the television on as we ate. Although there were no sound bites of the Uighurs speaking, my host family drew the conclusion that they were Uzbek because of their clothing. My host family is educated and pretty aware of world events, but the resemblance was so uncanny that I understood their confusion. The materials, dress styles and hats are almost identical to those in Uzbekistan. The women on the television were wearing traditional knee length shirts, loose pants and square hats, similar to those worn by many women in my town. It took me several minutes to explain to my host family that these people they were seeing on the television were Chinese and not Turkmen or Uzbek. I don’t know if they actually ended up believing me, but I told them the story of my friend in China and my host mom’s response was, “mmm…maybe,” still pondering whether of not I was trying to trick her. “No, really, she spoke to them all in Turkmen and they understood,” I declared. Again, “mmm…maybe” was the response I got. I understood their incredulity because even for me it was unreal to see shots of demonstrations in what looked like my town on the international news. It reminded me of how recently Central Asia was full of nomadic tribes and how cultures and languages moved fluidly across non-existent borders. Now with immigration laws, and tight border control, Central Asian people are not able to wander like they did less than 100 years ago. Forced to settle in countries not necessarily split along already pre-established tribal borders, they have now taken up the identity of their country rather than as a more broader Turkic peoples who spread across former Turkestan.