Tag Archives: China

Silent Night in China

Silent Night in China  —by Jinny Batterson  

The Thanksgiving I spent in Ala’er, Xinjiang, China as a foreign English teacher at a desert reclamation college was one of my most memorable (please see post from November 24, 2014 for more detail).  Buoyed by the good feelings that holiday celebration generated, I started making plans for Christmas. I checked with the school administration and got permission to rehearse and conduct a student winter holiday chorus as part of a larger program by the school’s English department near the end of the solar calendar year. As December advanced, many shops on campus and in town put up Western-style Christmas decorations. (You’ve probably noticed that most holiday decor these days is manufactured in China.) Because American friends with experience in China had cautioned my husband and me to avoid any appearance of religious proselytizing, I picked out three more or less neutral holiday songs for our chorus numbers:  “White Christmas” (on honor of a light snow which fell in late November and  lingered in shady areas for weeks), the Latin round “Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace),” and as a finale, a rousing version of “Deck the Halls.”  I tried scheduling four weekend chorus rehearsals—I think two actually took place, with a different set of student singers at each.

The English program, coincidentally held on Christmas Eve, found our chorus of about 60 singers, rehearsed or not, standing in uneven rows on three sets of steps at the front of the school auditorium. Most of the students owned or had borrowed red or green clothes to wear. I had a red elf’s cap from a local shop, and wielded a long chopstick as my baton. Our singing was lusty, mainly on key, and well received.  Other acts by some of the Chinese teachers of English got great reviews, especially one by a half dozen young women skimpily clad in black who did a jazzy dance to a hit English-language song in China that year, “God is a Girl.”  As a program finale, “Santa Alex,” one of the school’s best English students, explained a little of the secular part of the legend of Santa Claus. Alex was dressed in an improvised Santa costume, scrounged and adapted from one of the local shops. We’d supplied him with a sack filled with the red envelopes most Chinese children get at Chinese New Year, each containing a few hard candies and a small-denomination Chinese coin. Everyone got a small gift. No one, not even the laziest student, got a lump of coal.

Christmas Day was not a holiday in Ala’er. In fact, most students were extra busy studying for end-of-term exams, which would start soon. However, the older brother of one of our students, who lived in town, invited us out to dinner.  Asajean, whose name roughly translates as “Jesus,” was ethnically Uyghur, member of a largely Moslem group that had lived in this arid area for centuries. He ran a small private English tutoring business, and had often phoned us with questions about English vocabulary or grammar.  We joined him for a “big plate spicy chicken” evening meal at a local restaurant.  Afterwards,  Asajean walked us back to our campus apartment. It was a cold, clear, starlit night, with the stillness that only comes when most people are indoors and motorized traffic is non-existent. As we neared our apartment block, some unexpected music started playing over the campus loudspeakers—“Silent Night,”  complete with four-part harmony and English lyrics. For one brief moment, this juxtaposition of a Chinese-administered university, a Moslem dinner host, and a Western religious Christmas carol seemed the most natural thing in the world. Happy holidays, all!

Mutton Dumplings for Winter Solstice

Mutton Dumplings for Winter Solstice  —by Jinny Batterson

The first time we spent the winter solstice in China, we were in far western Xinjiang in northwestern China.  By December, it was really cold in our small town of Ala’er. The temperature in the central ground floor area of the campus market near our apartment block was often at or near freezing. All fall, multiple small vendors had arranged their fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats for sale on trestle tables in this large open area. There was a wide doorless entryway at one end of the cement-floored market, and the roof, though covered, was more than two stories up. As winter approached, a few of the fresh market vendors persevered,  lighting small fires between market stalls to help keep their produce from damage, covering their products with quilts and blankets at night. Most vendors, though, just gave up for the winter.  In contrast, the restaurants along the edges of the market nearly all stayed open. Most were only big enough for a few tables, with a kitchen at the back—glassed-in single story enclosures with the sort of plastic flap doors that drop back into place once someone goes through them. When the heat in our apartment was dicey, even if we had enough food on hand to cook at home, we’d sometimes head for an evening meal at a market restaurant just to stay warm. Many of the restaurants specialized in dumplings and dumpling soup. Both steamy variations got more appealing as the weather got colder.

Early on December 22, the day of that year’s winter solstice, our Foreign Affairs Officer, Mr. Ma, brought a surprise gift to our apartment: two large bags of frozen mutton dumplings, to be stored in our smallish freezer, then reheated batch by batch for as many meals as we could make of them.  He explained in somewhat halting English that we should boil some of the dumplings that evening, and also eat our fill of the dumplings throughout the winter to help keep warm and to protect our ears from freezing.  He said that since the dumplings were shaped roughly like ears, people had come to believe that eating dumplings would help prevent chilblains or frostbite on one’s ears.   As it happened, we didn’t try our dumplings until a bit later in the winter because that evening, the head of the English department invited us out to a huge meal of mutton hot pot.

Since our arrival in Ala’er several months earlier, we’d found a number of local restaurants that specialized in mutton dishes.  We’d sampled lots of mutton kebabs and several varieties of mutton stews, sometimes invited by students or in-town friends, other times on explorations of our own. Our experience in Xinjiang was the first time in our China travels up to then when we were keenly aware of dietary differences between Han Chinese and some of China’s other ethnic groups. Much of the local Xinjiang population is Moslem.  Many of the inhabitants of rural Xinjiang are sheep-herding pastoralists of the Uyghur nationality, one of 55 non-Han groups officially recognized in China.  Moslems do not eat pork, which plays a substantial role in the traditional Han diet.  Han and Uyghur restaurants in Ala’er were distinct.  At the Uyghur restaurants, the menus were always pork-free. A few Han students and faculty (including the chair of the English department) would occasionally eat at a Uyghur restaurant. The reverse never seemed to be true.

Some of the less tolerant Han students and school officials, including the Foreign Affairs Officer, looked askance at our eclectic restaurant choices.  So a gift of mutton dumplings from someone who did not seem to us to be very sympathetic toward Uyghurs seemed a little odd.  Why not pork dumplings?  We did not ask, chalking it up to just one more local Xinjiang custom that we might never understand.

Two years later, after a year’s interval back in the U.S., we were again teaching in China as the winter solstice approached. This time we were in a small city in Sichuan province where there were almost no Uyghurs—the proportion of Han Chinese was likely above the national average of over 90 percent. It was quite rare to find a mutton dish on any restaurant menu, and we never saw mutton for sale at any of the local markets near us. So it was a surprise when our Foreign Affairs Officer at this second school invited us out for mutton dumplings on the winter solstice. When I did some later research, I found that mutton is one of the meats most closely associated with “yang,” or warming energy, in Chinese medicine. An early Chinese physician is said to have cured peasants in his village from winter chills with a hearty soup laced with mutton dumplings. In much of northern China, mutton dumplings or mutton hot pot are traditional dishes at the winter solstice. I’m not sure how much truth there is to the legend of the physician’s cure. My Western mindset has not yet fully absorbed the concept of food as medicine. However, any excuse to eat dumplings, especially mutton ones, in cold weather, is fine by me.

Fall Foliage–“Huyang” Trees

Fall Foliage—“Huyang” Trees    –by Jinny Batterson

Vermont has its maples, Colorado its aspens. The Taklamakan region has its “variegated leaf poplars,” known in Chinese as “huyang” trees.  These trees are desert-hardy, and have been spotted even deep within the Taklamakan.  Their leaves at different stages and on different parts of the tree can mimic poplar, willow, and even maple leaves. In the autumn, they turn a golden yellow, lighting up the area around them. Until I went to Xinjiang, I had never heard of these trees (also called “Euphrates poplars,” though not so often in sometimes ethnically tense Xinjiang).

Recently, the trees have become increasingly endangered, and I worry they may follow the trajectory of the American chestnut trees which once formed an important part of the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. During the early 20th century, nearly all American chestnuts succumbed to a fungal blight accidentally introduced from Asia—only a few isolated stands remain.  So far, no biological blight is affecting the variegated leaf poplars, but the incursion of more and more people into the areas where they’ve grown has put increasing pressure on these “trees of the desert.”  Some of the characteristics that make them most adapted to their geographical region—deep, extensive roots and slow-decaying wood—have also made them most susceptible to human invasion.  Their harvested wood is popular for building materials; their intrusive roots make them anathema to those constructing housing or irrigation projects near stands of the trees, whose roots over time will invade foundations and pipes.

The Chinese national television network, CCTV, in 2009 broadcast a 12 part series titled in English, “The Last Stand of the Euphrates Poplars.”  Shortly afterward, in 2010, the P.R.C. applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for parts of the Taklamakan/Tarim Basin region, including the Euphrates poplar’s extensive stands there as part of the justification for a designation:

“The Tarim Basin is the world’s core area of these poplar trees which cover 352,200 ha, accounting for 90% of their total area in China and 54.29% of the global distribution. The largest natural poplar trees in the world occur in the Tarim River drainage area and large areas of undisturbed poplar forests have been preserved in this region.”

The application is still under review.

As a town resident in the Tarim River oasis settlement at Ala’er, Xinjiang, I got few initial chances to see these poplars up close. That changed one autumn weekend when a work colleague arranged a group day trip out into the desert. We packed up a small van with tarps, water, and a picnic lunch, then set out from town.  We stopped first at a fairly high set of sand dunes, took some pictures, and took turns horsing around and rolling down the sides of the dunes. A large trash heap near the dunes only slightly marred the idyllic scene. (Why bother with landfills when the desert winds will sooner or later cover your trash for you?) Even here there were a few poplars, their roots burrowing deep under the dunes.

Next we stopped at a construction site where several tributaries that flow out of the surrounding mountains meet the Tarim River. Since it was autumn, flow from the glacier-fed tributaries was minimal or nonexistent, but there was a lot of piping and several dams—trying to capture as much of the water as possible. For our picnic site, we went downstream about a third of a mile to a large grove of poplars, golden and just starting to shed their leaves. There was a slight breeze, and the trees murmured in a way I associate with aspen groves in the American West.

It is possible that ancestors of the current trees developed as much as 65 million years ago. It is my hope that, despite our busy efforts to “conquer” the desert, these beautiful trees will continue to thrive where little else can for millions of years more.