I stand silently, eyes lowered and biting my lip. Everyone is staring at me, waiting for me to speak. My mouth is dry. It feels like it has a whole desert inside.
I’m twelve years old. I shouldn’t be afraid to introduce myself to my new school class. But, as I stand alone in front of 40 curious faces, my knees want to shake with the stress. It’s not because I have to speak 普通话, Standard Mandarin Chinese, instead of the local words our family use. It’s not even because I’m the only one in class today who’s new.
It’s because I’m different from these children. I’m judged before I open my mouth.
My Aunt told me that I mustn’t be ashamed of my traditional dress and long pants, even though these city girls are all wearing tight t-shirts and jeans. She says I should be proud of my colorful patterned shirt, even though all the other shoulders in the classroom are plain. Auntie didn’t say anything about my hands, reddened and rough from hard work in our home.
These children look at me and know I’m poor, that I’ve only just moved to the city. But these children don’t know some things. They don’t know that this month is the first time I can remember living with my parents. “Dadam”, my dad, moved to this city to start a small business when I was two, and my mother joined him the next year. I’ve been living with my aunt and my younger sisters in our home village for the last ten years.
These kids don’t know that my first brother, the pride of the whole family, was born two months ago. They may guess, but they don’t know that he’s the reason I’m in this city. All the time that I’m not at school, I am to spend feeding and looking after baby Ehmet. Any homework I do will have to happen when he is asleep.
My new classmates are starting to giggle at me with my traditional clothes and anxious eyes. But they don’t know the real reason my words won’t come. My Dadam told me last night that six years of study are enough for a girl in our family. After this year, I can no longer attend school.
I will never have the chance that these children have to study for exams and learn a profession. I can only ever become someone else’s sister, or mother, or wife.
As I look down at my dress, I remember something else my Aunt told me: “Women are like flowers by the roadside. After blooming, no one remembers that we even existed.”
I look again at the hard faces of my new classmates. A new thought comes to me; “In the end, no-one will remember. So I can say whatever I like!”
I open my mouth at last. “Good morning, my name is Amangul. I come from a small village at the edge of the desert. When autumn comes, the pomegranates on the trees glow red like fire…”