Old Version

‘I taught a Uighur to sing the Beatles’

I emerged with a lighter wallet but richer in experience.

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

Illustration by Liu Xiaochao

When I first came to China in 2011, I was fortunate enough to be tea scammed on Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu. Yes, you read correctly: I’m one of the lucky ones. 
After not one, but two consecutive tea-tasting ceremonies with groups of “university students from Beijing,” I emerged with a lighter wallet but richer in experience. 
Cue wide ridicule from friends and family, with one of my better-traveled pals proffering a piece of advice that has stayed with me to this day: “Never do anything you wouldn’t do at home.” In many ways, he’s right; if a band of strangers asked to go for an impromptu cuppa on a UK high street, I’d most likely, in my awkward Britishness, politely decline. 

In July 2014, keen to escape the Beijing bustle that I’d begun to call home, I headed for China’s far western city of Kashgar in Xinjiang. After a bumpy start to the year, Xinjiang had been making headlines worldwide, so there was a sense of danger surrounding my trip that, ultimately, turned out to be completely false. I instantly fell in love with its energy and architecture, as well as the friendliness of its residents. 

On my second day, I took a bike out from my hostel for a ride beyond the limits of my Lonely Planet map that marked the boundaries of tourist certainty. As the roads grew dustier and buildings fewer, a local on an electric scooter cruised alongside me and blurted an enthusiastic “Welcome to Kashgar!” 

He was a short, plump Uighur man whose bushy moustache crowned an infectious smile. Myself not well versed in Uighur, and Mandarin a similarly unstable linguistic bridge, our dialogue was sparse, but he did his best to explain the sights and his life in Kashgar as we meandered along. 

After around ten minutes, my new companion, Ajim, invited me back to his home. The “you wouldn’t do this in England” alarm bells started to ring, but this opportunity to see inside a local dwelling was appealing, as was escaping the summer heat. I accepted the invitation, banking on myself being a more mature judge of character here than I had been in Shanghai. I was 70 percent sure this wasn’t a scam. 

The creaking wooden door of Ajim’s home opened to reveal a shaded courtyard inhabited by his sister, her young daughter and his father (and his immense, sternum-tickling gray beard). A black-smith by trade, Ajim proudly showed off his knife collection, before we sat together on a beautifully patterned rug and tucked into homemade noodles. 

Then came the surprise; I was to become Ajim’s English teacher for the next hour. Not exactly what I’d signed up for, but he’d been an exceptional host and I didn’t want to be rude. Class began and stuttered on terribly, owing more to the quality of instruction than lack of student enthusiasm.  

Flicking through Ajim’s worn-out textbook, I couldn’t help noticing a recurring section called “A Little Present.” After each chapter’s grammar pounding, disciples of this edition could relieve themselves with some of the finest ballads of the English canon: ‘My Heart Will Go On’, ‘Candle in the Wind’, Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’, ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles – the contents read more like the playlist of a jilted lover than a progressing linguist, but something was needed to liven this class up. 

Having forgotten to pack my grandmother’s Greatest Love Songs compilation, teaching the melodies would prove difficult. Fortunately, a good Beatles fan never sets out on the long and winding road without a selection of Fab Four hits, and I happened to have ‘Yesterday’ on my phone. 

Paul McCartney’s voice cut through the silence, and all barriers of language and culture faded as we connected through this musical masterpiece. Ajim was familiar with the melody, but his basic English reading skills proved a stumbling block. We pushed on regardless. 

I chose to break down each word syllabically – ‘Yeah-si-ter-day’ – and student Ajim would scribble down the corresponding sound in Arabic script to create a completely nonsensical phonetic lyric sheet. At first, this transcription seemed like such an easy game to play, but took over half an hour to reach McCartney’s second longing for yesterday. 

The hard work paid off, however, and the end result of this Kashgar KTV session was a heart-warming rendition of what is supposedly the most covered song of all time. Recited in a sort of half-sung style, it felt more like a poetry reading, but seeing Ajim’s enjoyment made it a touching moment – you might say he took a sad song and made it better. 

It turned out to be the beginning of a holiday friendship; when class was dismissed, I was taken on a tour of the impressive Afaq Khoja tomb, the following day, Ajim picked me up bright and early for a trip to the famous Sunday livestock market. People make a place what it is, and it was through Ajim that I truly came to understand and appreciate Kashgar. 

Despite trading email addresses, I haven’t heard from my Uighur friend since, but the time spent with him and the lessons I learned have stayed with me. Supposedly “dangerous” places are still filled with decent, honest people; talk to them, go with them, head off that beaten track. Sure, approach situations abroad with a rational scepticism, but experiences like this tell me: keep doing things you wouldn’t do at home.