Choosing a sailor's life

Updated: 2013-09-03 08:02

(China Daily)

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Nurpaxa speaks Mandarin almost fluently, but sometimes she stops and struggles to remember a word. "People on the deck were shouting jingyu (whale) when they saw the enormous creatures surface, but I didn't even know what jingyu meant," she laughed.

Choosing a sailor's life

Female Uygur sailors keep fit aboard the Peace Ark.

She admitted that when she first joined the navy her language skills were stuck at the level of Ni chi le ma? a traditional Mandarin greeting meaning, "Have you eaten yet?"

The officers and Han crewmembers have been teaching her Mandarin. "We have been learning from each other. They teach me Mandarin and I teach them the Uygur language," she said.

Nurpaxa is learning English too and her favored destination is the United States. "I want to go to Disneyland," she said. "I joined the navy to travel the world."

Dances, radio shows

Born and raised in Urumqi, Suriya speaks fluent Mandarin and hosts a radio show on the Peace Ark at dinner time every day. She broadcasts essays, diary entries and articles written by officers and ratings.

She first saw the ocean when she was sent to a training camp in south China's Guangdong province. "I was so excited that I shouted 'I love the ocean' in Mandarin and in Uygur," she said.

That was her first trip outside Xinjiang and she was fascinated by the different culture, tradition and climate in the south of China. "I have learned a lot since joining the navy. I want to introduce the culture and traditions of my hometown to every place I visit," she said.

Suriya and the other Xinjiang women have performed traditional Uygur dances at a number of parties aboard the Peace Ark, drawing warm applause from the crew. They have also danced for locals from the host countries the ship has visited, including Brunei and the Maldives. "We danced at a deck party and people loved it," she said. "I am glad we have the opportunity to help people learn more about our traditions."

Suriya was a sophomore when she enlisted. She said more than 200 students applied for just one vacancy. "The training was tough in the camp. You had to get up at 5 am and only got five minutes to call home every Sunday. It wasn't easy for a 20-year-old separated from her parents for the first time in her life," she said. "But I relished the opportunity to join the navy. You have to be very competitive to be part of the first group of female sailors from Xinjiang."

For her part, Tursungul Mamat, a 22-year-old radio operator from Kashgar, said she was proud to be a member of the navy. "My grandfather was in the PLA and he taught me how to fold shirts neatly when I was a little girl," she said. "It has always been my dream to join the military and serve my country, and now that dream has come true."

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Ju Zhenhua contributed to this story.