Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ethnic Dances

Dear Murderous Ones,

I wrote this account in March 2009. In July 2009, deadly ethnic riots broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang. 200 people died, at the least. There are many explanations for these demonstrations. I'm not sure what the truth of it all is, but I'll just say that, I wasn't surprised. 

Xinjiang has long had the reputation of a place of exile - for Han Chinese, that is (I doubt this applies to, say, Xinjiang's Uighurs). A place to send troublemakers, people with inconvenient opinions, whose transgressions don't warrant imprisonment, but whom authorities prefer to isolate, keep out of the centers of power and opinion. Lin Zexu spent time in Xinjiang, and just a few days ago, AP spoke with He Weifang, well-known Beijing law professor and co-signer of Ch. 08, who was involuntarily transferred to an obscure Xinjiang college.

As places of exile go, Xinjiang, at least the part I visited, is pretty nice. He Weifang seems to agree: "I don't think it is a bad thing," he told AP. "It is quiet here. I get to read. I get to interact with fellow professors and students. It's a good thing."

My friend Susan, who is on a temporary assignment at a Xinjiang university, has found, I think to her own surprise, that she's liking Xinjiang a lot. I can see why. Yili, the Kazak Autonomous Region, is a beautiful area: grassland valleys, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The air is clean, nature within easy reach; the food plentiful, fresh and tasty. The city itself is pretty ordinary: your basic Chinese frontier city, dusty, a hodgepodge of nondescript buildings in various shades of beige, with the occasional faux Roman columns to add a little...well, actually, I've never been sure what the whole faux Roman temple architecture in China was about. But there are surprises here: sudden, ornate Uighur homes, with carved pillars and eaves, an old Chinese temple transformed into a Muslim restaurant.

And, at the risk of dropping a big, ole''s the people. I don't know when I've ever been welcomed more thoroughly and with such genuine warmth. You know those drinking nights out I mentioned? I know they have their obligatory aspect, but everyone seemed to be having...well, actual fun. Real friendship, or comradeship at least. I don't want to go into too much detail, because I was not there as a journalist or even an amateur blogger; I don't want to repeat overheard or shared conversations. But on my last memorable night out, at a Kazak restaurant (it involved, um, dancing as well as drinking), what I heard people say was, "we're friends here. Not just work friends. After we retire, we'll still be friends." Who knows if that will actually come to pass, but they meant it, at that moment.

My favorite exchange was with one of the University officials, who along with everyone else at the table urged me to return to Xinjiang and that my friends and family should come too, because they would be equally welcome. Susan and he proclaimed their friendship over baijiu (they'd bonded on a school sponsored trip to Kashgar), and Susan told him about our friendship.

"You and your family and friends are always welcome here," he said. "Because she is your friend. And I am her friend."

"Ah, I see," I said. "Therefore, I am your friend."

"Yes! It is mathematics!"

And he's a mathematician, so he should know.

I also really appreciated that he didn't pressure me into ganbei-ing baijiu (he was the one who suggested that I try it with garlic, to treat my cold). But I will admit, after I, uh, had to get up and dance with the Mongolian woman and she presented me with the ceremonial shot, I downed it. Rather neatly too. I think this sealed my friendship with the group.

I don't want to idealize Xinjiang; obviously I don't know it well at all, and there are serious problems there, particularly between the majority Uighurs and the incoming Hans: issues of ethnic and religious oppression and loss of cultural identity. The city where I stayed was the site of violent demonstrations in 1997; in the run-up to the Olympics, Chinese authorities supposedly thwarted a suicide bombing attempt on a China Southern Airlines flight in Xinjiang - I say "supposedly" because Uighur activists and some foreign observers accused China of exaggerating and fabricating such plots to justify a pre-Olympic crackdown on any potential dissent. Again, I am so far from expert that I hesitate to comment overmuch on these issues.

I will tell you what I saw.

The students - and the teachers - here don't encounter a lot of Western foreigners, so my coming was seen as an opportunity to meet a real, live American and get some English practice with a native speaker. I'd done this kind of thing thirty years ago, but this was one of the only places I'd been to in China recently where I was really a rarity, a novelty.

I loved the students. They were enthusiastic, sweet, a little shy but not so shy that it stopped them from asking questions, excited to have a foreign guest and to share their culture with me.

I went to their "English Corner." They'd arranged a presentation with me, all about Xinjiang, about the local foods and customs, and the particular cultures of Xinjiang's "ethnic minorities."

This was a mixed group of students. Most were Han, but there were Kazaks and Uighurs as well. Now, everyone seemed happy and excited to participate. But...the MCs, the kids doing the explanations and introductions, were Han. "And now this Kazak girl will show us the Kazak dancing!" The Kazak girl did, with a big smile. A Uighur couple did a traditional dance, acting out the roles, having fun with it. All the performers were really good - I learned later that they were either enrolled in the arts school at the University or were at members of the dance club or the music club. Then, a young Kazak man played a song on the dombra, the Central Asian lute. He was dressed head to toe in black, his hair spiked like an early 80s punk, his collar turned up. He played with fierce concentration. No pro-forma smiles here. When he finished, he made a little, abrupt bow, stone-faced, and left shortly after. Elvis has left the building, I thought.

It was just a little strange, hearing these Han kids talk excitedly about the quaint local customs, introducing the "ethnic minorities" to perform in front of me.

There was one particular Uighur girl there, outgoing, a live wire, wearing a sweater with some slogan spelled out in sequins, I forget what it was. Regardless, she sparkled. After an explanation from the MCs about several aspects of Uighur culture, she stood up and explained things from the perspective of an actual Uighur. "This is why we make the chuanr on iron and not wood." "This is why we eat this dish with our hands." She laughed a lot, seemed to be close to many of the other, Han students. But she was not shy or apologetic about explaining her own culture in front of them.

When it came time for questions, she stood right up. Her first question I couldn't exactly understand. It had something to do with how young Europeans were portrayed in films and television that she'd seen. The gist of her question was, were they really as sexually active as they appeared? Did they kiss and do such things on busses, in public?

Perhaps, I said, it's true that Europeans are more sexually active at a younger age than most Chinese, but I am not an expert. Perhaps they are more demonstrative in public as well. But different European countries have different cultural norms in this area. And of course, films and television tend to exaggerate.

Her second question: "Is it always true that the more powerful people in a country will always cover up the less powerful? Will the less powerful always lose their culture? How do you solve this problem?"

I paraphrase, but this was the gist.

The other kids in the class reacted, but I wouldn't say they overreacted. No one passed out in astonishment; I didn't get the sense that anyone was running out to inform the local Party representative (though who knows, really?). Still, I was impressed by her fearlessness. There's no more loaded an issue in China than anything smacking of "splittism."

As a member of the majority culture in my own country, what could I say? Well, that, to start. I'm in the Han position, you know?

And: "It's a very difficult problem. And it's really up to you and your children, how much you can preserve your culture, what's really important to you." I couldn't say, "too bad the Chinese government doesn't support an official bilingual policy, so if you have to learn Mandarin to advance in education and government and business, maybe the Han should have to learn Uighur or Kazak too." I don't know, maybe I could have said that, but I didn't think of it then. The whole issue of whether Xinjiang was "Chinese" or whether it should be something else, East Turkistan, maybe, well, I wasn't going to get into that.

What I did think of to say was this: "You know, it goes both ways. In America, African Americans are a minority, but African Americans' contributions to culture are so significant that African American culture really is a huge part American culture - all Americans' culture." I talked about Chinese people in California - "that cultural influence is a part of our larger culture as well. Maybe here in Xinjiang, it's a little similar. Maybe Han people are also influenced by Uighur culture and by Kazak culture - maybe you are creating a new culture, that is a blend of all the people here."

I think it's true, from the people I've met. The Han cab drivers, with their Uighur accents, the love of the food and the land, the way they socialize and drink and dance - it's different there. China, but not China. Chinese but not Chinese.

But is this enough? Enough for Xinjiang's Uighurs and Kazaks?

I have no way of knowing.

Lisa -- Sunday...


  1. You do lead an Indiana Jones kind of life, Lisa. Even if at heart you're a Padres fan:).

  2. It seems to me that left to their own devices ordinary people will make friends or not depending not on race or ethnicity, but on personal proclivities. My guess: there are some agitators with their own agenda making trouble and stirring up hatred for their own ends. If the "riots" started because people were fighting government repression of their culture, then I wouldn't call that ethnic-based, but political. Oh, yeah, there are everywhere little knots of three or four teenage boys prowling around looking for a fight. I guess that could cause that sort of culture war. The Jets and the Sharks. But that would be a rumble most that everyday people would just see as sad. As I see the news about cultural killing in this vivid and moving account.

    1. Annamaria, this was clearly ethnically based, but the circumstances are very murky. The wiki account is actually pretty good. Basically it started over protests over the deaths of several Uighur migrant workers in Southern China, and then it depends on who or what you believe. Riot police were called out, I think it's safe to believe that demonstrators were beaten and arrested, and the whole thing blew up into a horrific murderous spree. Mostly Han were killed, but according to Uighurs, there were quite a few Uighur deaths at the hands of police as well. And, yes, thugs on both sides.. I think yes, it's essentially political, but when political power is apportioned according to ethnicity, the whys are murky indeed.