From outsider to respected teacher
To his colleagues and students, Nurmemet Tuniyaz is no longer just “the Xinjiang guy”, but a respected teacher of English who’s known for his strong work ethic and athletic physique.
The 42-year-old, from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, has followed the same routine since he began teaching at the Beijing Space Middle School in 2003. He always arrives at 7 am, 20 minutes earlier than his colleagues, even though he has to take his 7-year-old son to a nearby primary school first.
“My son has to wait at the gate for nearly half an hour becausehe’s required to get to school by 7:15 am,” Nurmemet said, “He’s well cared for there; everyone knows him.”
When he started at the school, Nurmemet was determined to prove himself and to demonstrate the professional competence of teachers from Xinjiang. He transferred to the school from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, four years after he married Gulinar Keyoum, an aerospace engineer.
Although he had taught in Xinjiang for eight years, he still had to prove his worth in Beijing. “I passed several exams and took trial classes before the school accepted me,” he said.
As the only teacher from the Uygur ethnic group, Nurmemet knew he was under heavy scrutiny during his first few months at the middle school in Beijing. “Some teachers whispered about me, and doubted my teaching ability. They believed my transfer was just a favor because of my wife’s job.”
Aware of the pressures, he requested the role of head teacher of a freshman class, and although he’s strict in the classroom, Nurmemet is friendly with the students after school.
“I like playing basketball, which is a link with the students,” he said, “If they see me as a friend, it’s easier to improve their study habits.”
His wife’s heavy workload means she’s only at home for three or four months a year, so Nurmemet has plenty of time to devote to his vocation. His commitment has never wavered, not even after the birth of his son, because he knew he had been accepted.
“In the beginning, I was called ‘that Xinjiang guy’ by my colleagues and some parents, but by the end of the first semester, they were calling me ‘Teacher Nur’, because they had witnessed my ability and the efforts I made,” he recalled.
As the eldest child in his family, high expectations were heaped on Nurmemet when he was young. His father was a driver who worked on a route between Urumqi and Nurmemet’s hometown, Maigat in southern Xinjiang, and it was his idea to send Nurmemet to a Mandarin-speaking school.
From his base in Beijing, Nurmemet has helped many people from his hometown, including arranging performances for traditional Uygur musicians, such as the Doran Muqam Troupe, in Beijing and eight countries in Europe.
Moreover, he regularly invites his colleagues in the capital to his hometown to learn about life there. “In 2004, I invited two colleagues for a weeklong trip to Kashgar, and a year later they arranged for some of their friends to visit Xinjiang,” he said. “That was what I wanted to see.”