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July 30, 2009



My students, all first or second generation Xinjiangers

A month back, I gave my sophomores their final examinations-- a blind choice from six questions, which I had distributed in the previous class so that they could prepare some answers. HZQ, in response to one about travel, told me that he wanted to visit New Zealand for its natural beauty and for its "mysterious minorities" because the Maoris "eat people." (And we wonder why we have race problems in Xinjiang...) Another student LL, on a tangent, confessed, "sometimes, when I'm kissing my boyfriend, I think about my roommate and how she's studying right now, and how I should be studying too!" The interview I had with XYZ (as I will call her), however, I keep turning over uneasily in my head. She had picked one of the hot pink index cards that I had dealt before her, and read: "In Western countries, many people can trace their family tree for hundreds of years. How far can you trace your family tree? Do you have any interesting stories about your ancestors? Why can you trace it that far (or not)?"

Back in March, we briefly had covered genealogy in class. With twenty-five students per section, though, I found it difficult to collect any individual stories. Moreover, my graduate students previously claimed that they could not trace their ancestors back more than three generations, to their grandparents. So many Chinese brag about five thousand years of history, but it struck me as odd that those studying in Xinjiang do not realize that they too represent one strand in that long, tangled narrative. In preparation for this exam, all of my students who chose this question admitted that they had called home to ask their relatives about their heritage.

In China, wealthier people tend to keep family tree books or scrolls, though only some of these have survived the upheavals of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, those families that moved to Xinjiang in the Han migration over the last fifty years now are disconnected from their lineage, recorded somewhere on the east coast. Others were the product of a series of last sons, stretching back several generations, and therefore cut off from the main line of descendants. Now their ancestry is lost to history. Still others have lived for hundreds of years in villages populated only with people who share their last name, Hui, Li, Zhang. Unlike most Americans, no "immigrant experience" compels them to look for their names beyond the ocean; their family roots are entrenched firmly in the soil upon which they walk every day. But back to XYZ.

I remember vividly when XYZ introduced herself in September. I had asked my students to mention their favorite American among a list of other questions when presenting themselves to the class. Her peers named Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, the "Freedom Goddess," among others, while XYZ quietly said that she admired Stephen Hawking and his astrophysics research, unaware that this scientist is, in fact, British and notorious for cavorting with strippers. At the time I was amazed to receive such a mature response; my students often idolize figures that embody money, fame, beauty, and athleticism.

Today, however, XYZ began telling me about her family, poor peasants from Henan Province. A terrible reputation precedes Henan, kind of like America's New Jersey, only for different reasons. Because Henan is overcrowded, people often migrate out, looking for work-- any work really-- and unlike other Chinese, they will take on the most demeaning jobs to support themselves as street-sweepers, toilet-cleaners, shoe-shiners, and more, thereby displacing local laborers. Consequently, many Chinese view Henan people with a twinge of disgust. XYZ herself could not follow her family beyond three generations because several decades ago, when her grandfather was a young boy, he was starving during one of China's many famines. His father trespassed on a nearby farm and stole some sweet potatoes to feed his son, but the landlord caught him and beat him to death.

XYZ's own family racked up debts keeping a small farm in her village. Neither parent had any education beyond middle school. When XYZ was a young girl, her father decided to leave for Urumqi, over two thousand kilometers away, to look for a job. As a migrant, he first worked collecting recyclables. In the United States, the garbage man drives around the neighborhood in a gigantic truck equipped with hydraulics and a beeping alarm. Organized labor unions often protect his salary, health, and benefits. In China, however, the poorest men root around trash bins looking for plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and metal tins. Those that are slightly better off ride rusty bicycles with carts, yelling that they will buy off people's rubbish, and later selling it back to factories at a marginal profit. XYZ's father eventually made enough money to pay off their debts, and by the time she was ten, he relocated the entire family to Xinjiang.

Ten years later, XYZ's father sells fruit. She is a stellar student at Rockriverton University and her brother started his freshman year here as well. In comparison, her cousin-- whom XYZ claims is far smarter-- still lives in Henan and has failed the college entrance exam three times because applying to university from a densely populated province remains very competitive. During the exam, XYZ broke down, saying that her classmates did not know, could not know about her family's past. Actually, many of my students shoulder that same, secret shame as children of peasant farmers, which I hope one day will grow into self-confidence.

XYZ's story, of course, is a familiar tale shared by thousands of people in China. In any other province, her family's simple rise to modest success has few implications. In Xinjiang, though, these "outsiders" have been set on a collision course with the local population. In 1949, Han Chinese comprised 6% of Xinjiang's population; now it has risen to over 40%. Like many foreigners, I am quick to criticize this overwhelming migration into Xinjiang, which has marginalized minorities, sometimes in their own communities, through pro-Chinese policies and economic development. XYZ, however, puts a very real face to that migration; that to so many Han Chinese, Xinjiang represents and realizes opportunities otherwise impossible in their home village. In the wake of July's tragedy, we may try to seek easy solutions by supporting one group or the other. The situation in Xinjiang is far more complicated than what any newspaper article, blog entry, or academic book strives to describe, though I will try to post more about the riots in the coming days. The longer I live here (which is not so long to begin with), I realize the futility in "choosing sides"-- that I cannot judge my students and deny them the opportunity to seek a better life.

Posted on July 30, 2009 3:49 PM

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Great blog (with some stunning photos), particularly the last entry. Having been to Xinjiang (though 4 years ago) and having lived in Beijing for a few years until recently, I share and understand a lot of your views. Keep it up!

Posted by: Jamil Batcha at July 31, 2009 4:47 PM

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