TAO TAO HOLMES shares her experience as a perceived insider and perspective as an outside observer in Xinjiang.
Photography by Jake Fromm
When I walked past storefronts in China’s far west Xinjiang region, I would sometimes catch shopkeepers pointing and mouthing the words “Weiwu’er.” At security checkpoints, I would be treated more rudely and roughly than China’s majority Han people, at least until I dug into my pockets and flashed my navy blue passport. When I walked into Han restaurants, a hush would often fall upon the room, guests eyeing me warily from above their bowls of noodle soup.
“My Mandarin isn’t great… I’m American,” I would publicly announce in Chinese. “Could you recommend me something tasty off the menu?” Instantaneously, the tension in the air would disperse, smiles lighting up guests’ faces. A moment later, someone would always declare, “We thought you were Uighur.” Other guests would nod along. “You really resemble a Uighur.”
Among Uighurs, my ambiguity was a privilege. Among Han, it was a liability.
Uighurs are a Turkic group of people with a look distinctly different from Han Chinese—there are Uighurs who are redheads, who look Slavic, some with very angular features, and others who look more conventionally Chinese. Historically, they were rivals of the Han, and most were eventually driven further west; today, people in Turkey can easily understand the Uighur language. Xinjiang, after all, is ancient Silk Road terrain, home to different bloodlines mixing over the millennia. Today, however, it is a region best known for terrorism and ethnic unrest—between when I accepted my teaching post and when I arrived in the region, there were two reported terrorist attacks in northern Xinjiang.
I spent most of last year at a university in Shihezi, a small, predominantly Han city out in the desert, a two-hour drive north-west of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. There, I taught a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses alongside two other Americans through the Princeton in Asia Fellowship. I think my students were less excited to have a foreign teacher resembling the local oppressed minority rather than a character from Friends, even if she did go to “Ye lu” University.
I identify as half white New Englander and half Beijing Chinese, meaning that I am tagged by Chinese as a hunxue (“mixed blood”) and have the privilege of passing through the world with racial ambiguity. My facial features have oriental undertones and European overtones; in the past, I have been mistaken for Filipino, Portuguese, and Kazakh, but never have I fit into a racial fabric so seamlessly as I did in Xinjiang.
In Xinjiang, I looked distinctly Uighur, yet was also distinctly American, making me both an insider and an outsider—treated kindly by local Uighurs, racially profiled by Han Chinese, and protected by the power vested in me by an American passport. Among Uighurs, my ambiguity was a privilege. Among Han, it was a liability.
Xinjiang is China’s elephant in the room. It is the largest Chinese province, making up one fifth of the nation’s geography—the size of Great Britain, France, Spain, and Germany combined—and a region different from “mainland” China in almost every conceivable way. People in Xinjiang use the term nei di, or “inner land,” to refer to China’s other provinces, and the rare foreign travelers you meet passing through the region will tell you they landed a great deal: entry to a seemingly different country, without the need for another visa.
It is a land made up of contrasts. Geographically, it is split between snow-capped mountains and desert basins. It borders eight countries—Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the disputed territory of Kashmir. Culturally, it is split between the Uighurs (45%) and Han Chinese (40%), with other minorities contributing to a medley of forty different ethnic groups. Religiously, it is divided among atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims. Linguistically, it is split between government-mandated Mandarin, and Uighur, a Turkic language that uses an Arabic-derived script. Most places have both a Uighur and Chinese name. For example, the ancient city outside of Turpan is known as Yar in Uighur and Jiaohe in Mandarin.
Xinjiang is often referred to as China’s Wild West; the name “Xinjiang” itself translates to “new borders.” But Xinjiang as a “Wild West” is more desolate than romantic. During China’s Qing Dynasty, thousands and thousands of convicts and other prisoners were exiled to the region. Soon after, regular civilians followed. Today, Xinjiang still feels like both an outlier and an outsider.
The first thing every Shihezi cab driver always asked me was: “What ethnicity are you?” Or to cut straight to the chase, “Are you Uighur?”
The answer, “I’m American,” prompted the same response every time: “Oh, I thought you were Uighur,” often followed by, “Then why would you come to Shihezi?!”
I had a choice to come live in Xinjiang. Uighurs do not—the government makes it nearly impossible for them to get the paperwork they need to leave the region, not to mention the country. And the Uighurs—whether they genuinely desire independence from China, or simply want a modicum of human rights—are silenced and swept under the rug, away from the eyes and ears of international media.
As with many native peoples, the Uighurs are being steadily disenfranchised. Their land is being taken, their language repressed, their religion suppressed, and their customs increasingly policed and restricted.
With the escalation of the last few years, there have been different forms of repression—no beards, no burqas, no Korans in public. With tight curbs and high risk of punishment on both local and foreign journalists, less than five percent of clashes in Xinjiang are reported, according to Shohret Hoshur, a Uighur journalist and political exile. And in the global games of realpolitik and power balancing, feigning ignorance of realities on the ground is often in the best interest of foreign countries and their companies. With current murmurs about Uighur recruitment by ISIS, foreign powers continue to turn away.
Since the 1950s, the Xinjiang Production and Military Construction Corps (XPCC), better known in Chinese as the bingtuan (brigade), has been the main institution behind Han migration, reclamation, and resettlement in the region. XPCC soldiers were the first to colonize Xinjiang after the region was officially incorporated into the People’s Republic, an event that has been politically branded as the “Peaceful Liberation of Xinjiang.” From the 1950s to 1970s, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens from major cities like Shanghai were given clothes, food, and tickets to Xinjiang, many of them migrating involuntarily, leading to swift economic growth and urbanization.
One of these citizens was Uncle Jia, my building’s 70-year-old garbage man. He arrived in Shihezi in 1960 at the age of 16; his father and three sisters had died of hunger back in their home province of Henan. Uncle Jia worked in a coal mine for most of his life, and he now has two daughters and a son who also live in Shihezi. His grandchildren are starting to head off to university in the “inner land.”
When I passed in and out of Beijing—2,000 miles to the east and a four-hour flight—over the course of the year, everyone I met there was shocked to hear that I was living in Xinjiang, a place of unrest and historical exile, beyond the boundaries of the “inner land.” Older women and men alternately viewed my willingness to live and teach there as either brave and daring or foolhardy and illogical. Why go to Xinjiang when you could go to so many other places in China? The same word came up again and again to describe the region: luan, or chaotic. “Xinjiang is too chaotic,” Beijingers would say, shaking their heads.
The land that is now Xinjiang has a history of being tugged back and forth. Under control of Chinese dynasties at different points in history, from Genghis Khan to the Qing, it wasn’t until 1955, after several decades of shifting leadership and allegiances, that the landmass was established as an “Autonomous Region.” At that time, the Chinese government’s policies towards Xinjiang’s minorities were relaxed and accommodating, the XPCC having just begun laying out its initial groundwork. Then, in the late 1990s, China’s increased economic investment in Xinjiang, and consequent growth and development spurred increasing economic inequality between Hans and other groups. In the city of Karamay, for instance, the oil rigs only employ Han workers, while Uighurs are publicly pushed to the fringes.
Years of economically infused ethnic tensions came to a head on July 5, 2009, when Uighur riots in Urumqi led to the deaths of an estimated 200 people. The event became known in colloquial parlance as “qi wu” or “seven-five.” Ever since qi wu, the city’s security has been ramped up: there are military tanks outside all of the major bus and train stations, guarded by stone-faced personnel holding machine guns and long, baton-like spears, and security checkpoints everywhere.
Nowadays, Han migrants to the province are brought in not by coercion but by the potential for better economic prospects. If you ask Han folks of any age in Shihezi or Urumqi why they came all the way to Xinjiang, many of them will say fewer people, less competition, and thus better odds of making money.
There’s still great disparity between the north and south of Xinjiang. The northern half of Xinjiang has been much more diluted by Han populations, Shihezi being the best example. The south, however, is still very much Uighur, despite being plastered with abundant government propaganda—messages about loving China and professing loyalty towards the Communist Party. In Kashgar, the biggest city in the south, far less Mandarin is spoken. For foreigners, it’s best to stick to English; Mandarin, the state language, is unwelcome, a cue for repression. The south, too, is where conflict goes unreported. You might hear whispers of a village being massacred or officials being murdered. Yet our university administrators insisted that southern Xinjiang was perfectly safe. For us, it was all very odd and disconcerting, and with a closely controlled press, there was never any way of confirming, denying, or substantiating the rumors.
I asked “Professor Lee” what he saw for the future of Xinjiang. He sighed. “It’s going to go the same way as it did for the Navajo in America.”
Most of my time in Xinjiang was spent within a distinctly Han community of students, teachers, and Shihezi residents, though with regular visits to Uighur restaurants. It was only on a trip to Turpan that I got a real sense of Uighur life. A mostly Uighur city a few hours south of Urumqi, Turpan felt altogether different from the many Chinese cities that I’ve passed through over the years: more relaxed, more carefree. Encountering us foreigners, Uighurs in Turpan were friendly but unflustered, outgoing rather than diffident. The city felt equally lively and relaxed, with all its raisin sellers, kebab stands and the mixed array of hair colors, eye colors, and cheekbones.
When I returned to the US from Xinjiang, I met up for coffee with a local college professor. A number of years ago, he had penned an essay on mistreatment of Uighurs that went into a published book, and thanks to that, he had been banned, like many academics, from re-entering China. We chatted for nearly two hours, his memories and descriptions of life in Xinjiang animated and infused with passion. He told me that he would love to go back, if he could. He loved the Uighur people and the region’s physical beauty. He also told me that if I were to mention him in any form of writing, that it’d be in my best interest to give him a pseudonym, “for your sake, not mine.” He suggested the name Professor Lee. Associating myself with his name, he said, might flag unwanted attention.
I asked “Professor Lee” what he saw for the future of Xinjiang. He sighed. “It’s going to go the same way as it did for the Navajo in America.” Lee said the treatment of Uighurs in China and of Native Americans in the US holds uncanny parallels, which he says does not bode well for the Uighurs’ future. As with many native peoples, the Uighurs are being steadily disenfranchised. Xinjiang’s natural resources are being exploited by Chinese companies and oil wealth funneled away. Their land is being taken, their language repressed, their religion suppressed, and their customs increasingly policed and restricted.
I’ll never forget a certain winter afternoon at the Urumqi bus station, where I and my two fellow American teachers were waiting in a clump of people to get inside and buy our tickets back to Shihezi. Any semblance of order was already a lost cause, yet a male policeman looked over and barked at me to get in line. I did the best I could, pushed up, penguin-like, against the people in front of me.
Suddenly and out of nowhere, the policeman leaned forward and shoved me in the chest, sending me backwards. “Get in line!” He repeated. Flustered, I continued to do my best to merge with the crowd. A moment later, the man stepped forward and shoved me in the chest—again. This second time, his touch shook me to the core, and an uncontrollable eruption of English expletives burst forth, showering over him.
He looked surprised. I realized later, that I don’t think he expected me to speak English. I think he felt entitled to treat me like livestock because he assumed I was Uighur.
A female police officer nearby told him to back off. He withdrew, and the three of us proceeded through the security checkpoint and over to the ticket counter. I was stiff with disbelief that a figure of authority had just indulged in using physical force, choosing to single me out. Patiently standing among more than 15 others, I had been viewed a fair target.
It was the moment in Xinjiang that I felt the most Uighur.
Tao Tao Holmes is a 2014 graduate of Yale College, 2014-2015 Princeton in Asia Fellow and is now working at Atlas Obscura. Contact her at email@example.com.