I recall it as being Sunday, March 17, 2003, that the administrative liaison called all six foreign English teachers to a meeting in one of our on-campus apartments, but it might have been Monday, since I also remember that the visit was precipitated by President George W. Bush’s 48-hour “High Noon” ultimatum for the Hussein family to leave Iraq or face invasion. There were six of us: three Americans, two Australians, and a Canadian, and for most of us it was our first year in China. A Chinese English teacher provided translation:
“You may have heard that your president” – the Australians and the Canadian immediately bristled – “has announced the United States will invade Iraq on Wednesday. We would like you to not go outside once the war begins. If you have any shopping to do, you can give us a list and we’ll get it for you.”
All of us had been at the school, a private K-12 headed by a former provincial deputy education minister that catered to cadre children, for little more than one semester. It was ostensibly modeled after Eton, or so they kept telling us, but as far as I could tell the similarities stopped at “expensive boarding school.” I had been in China for a total of five months, all in Urumqi save 24 hours in Beijing registering at the consulate and getting fleeced by an “art student.”
“First of all, three of us aren’t Americans,” said one of the Australians. “He’s not our president.” We had fair warning this discussion might happen, and decided to tease out exactly what the school was thinking. “Why don’t you want us to go out?”
“Well, it could be dangerous.”
“Why?” The answer was, after some deflection, basically “Muslims.” We refused to promise we wouldn’t leave campus, arguing that we weren’t going to hide in the school and that besides, we didn’t feel any threat. Eventually the administrator gave up on trying to hold us there, though they’d try again later when news of SARS belatedly reached the school. The fact was that every time we went out, we were often approached by Han and Uyghurs who were intrigued by foreigners or wanted to practice their English. And most of the Uyghurs, in my experience from 2002-2005, tended to view Westerners as a closer cousin than the Han. I heard more than once that “at least Americans believe in one God,” as opposed to the Han alternatives of atheistic Communism and overlapping polytheisms of Daoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese spirituality. I sometimes heard cruder, more dubious and flat-out racist theories as well, but the common denominator is that they could speak to a Westerner with less fear of getting in trouble. Reluctant and afraid to speak about religion, ethnic discrimination, politics or history with their Han Chinese neighbors, colleagues, and classmates, a fair number of Uyghur students, teachers, and professionals sought out Westerners to serve as sympathetic ears. In 2004, when pro-American feelings seemed to peak among the Uyghurs I met, a man in his 50s who loved to talk politics proclaimed in what seemed all seriousness “after Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush will come to liberate us.”
While China’s version of affirmative action allowed Uyghurs to have more children and enter university with lower test scores, unspoken rules resulted in disadvantages in other arenas. One friend vented when, at university job fair, he was told “no minorities” before he even sat down. Another engaged in civil disobedience by inviting us to his home in Kashgar, where we only found out we had overstayed the number of days foreign house guests were allowed when all three of us were pulled into the police station. They took a long statement from him – who we were, where we met, what we did, where we would usually hang out, why we were here – and had him place his thumbprint and signature at the end while our passports were faxed to the head office for review. We chewed him out afterwards; we would never have come, or at least overstayed, if we knew it would get his family in trouble with the authorities. “My family decides who gets to stay in our home,” he said. Late one night at Fubar, an expat pub opened by friends near the center of town (now closed), with loud music blaring, a young Chinese woman at our table stood up, raised her glass and yelled “Fuck the Communist Party!” and proceeded to condemn half the Politboro Standing Committee. The young Uyghur man sitting next to her immediately stood up, raised his glass, and starting yelling “I love the Communist Party! I am a patriot! Long live the Party!” with panicked fear on his face. I don’t know if he ever went back to that bar again.
My Han friends and students, on the other hand, sometimes appeared incredibly disconnected from the Uyghur society around them. An entire university class of Han students (my English classes at the university level were almost entirely segregated, with Han students receiving better facilities and textbooks) didn’t know the Uyghur word for banmian (laghman), the staple noodle dish, the equivalent of going to UC San Diego and never learning the word “burrito.” I have lost count of how many times I heard a Han Chinese person express befuddlement at the idea that Uyghurs did not eat pork, and several occasions when someone was pressured to eat pork or drink alcohol by a superior within their company who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Han high school students eagerly took myself and another teacher on a tour of the city, only to refuse to join us in entering the Uyghur quarter south of the city center, and hastily beat a retreat looking genuinely scared, and I knew a few adults who were frightened as well, even on major streets in broad daylight. One Han professor became a drinking buddy, introduced by a Singaporean teacher who worked hard to serve as cultural interpreter. One boozy night in 2005, at his apartment, the professor asked me “Aren’t you afraid of the Uyghurs? You’re an American, they’re Muslim. They hate you.” Frustrated that for nearly three years both sides had been frank with me but never with one another, and thinking we were now drinking buddies who could tell it like it is, I looked him in the eye and said “No, they don’t hate me. They hate you.”
He went quiet. We left soon after, and my Singaporean friend said I had been way too harsh.
“Friends are honest with each other,” I argued. “He’s a smart guy, I didn’t say anything he doesn’t know.”
“Yes, he knows it, and you and I know it, but you can’t say it to his face. It’s too much.”
The professor didn’t invite me drinking again, and I left Xinjiang not long after. By then, any fondness I heard from Uyghurs in Xinjiang for Bush was dissipating as images of the ongoing violence in Iraq piled up in the media and, perhaps more importantly, as China and the U.S. aligned on many elements of the “War on Terror”. China embraced WoT rhetoric in its campaigns against real and imagined separatism in Xinjiang. The fact that Uyghur prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not handed over to the P.R.C. showed there was still daylight between the two countries’ perspectives on Xinjiang, but after that I never heard of anyone entertaining the idea of America swooping in to liberate Xinjiang. At the time, I thought the man who told me Bush was going for a trifecta with Xinjiang was delusional; now I think he might not have meant it as a genuine prediction, but a wish that it was true, that someone was coming, or maybe just that I would understand how he felt. That someone would listen.