Had a visit from a Chinese classmate earlier today. I hadn’t seen her in a while. In fact, the last time we spoke was on WeChat almost a week ago. That night she told me that we couldn’t message each other anymore, that some “bad situation” came up and she had to think some things over.
I figured it had to do with her boyfriend. She had told me before that he didn’t allow her to have male friends on WeChat and that he knew her login information. Obviously the jealous type. My guess was that he found our conversations about Chinese medicine, hypnotism, aliens, art and angels and told her to shut the whole operation down.
But no, that’s not the case. The thing is that my friend Aliya is from Xinjiang. I say she’s Chinese and – on the books – she is, but in actuality, she’s what they call Uighur, an ethnic minority from China’s northwestern region.
North of Tibet, bordering Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, Xinjiang is a dry expanse of Central Asia full of lamb-loving, grape-picking Muslims. China gobbled it up in the fifties when the revolutionary spirit was strong and the borders were pushed out as far as possible. Many Han Chinese families were told to move to these border states and spread the culture of the new regime. Since then, Xinjiang has been a land of tension, second only to its southern Buddhist neighbor.
The past ten years have been especially tenuous for Xinjiang people. Riots and massacres and blackouts and home visits from the police.
I was there five years ago. A friend and I ventured out in search of lamb kabobs, wisdom and adventure. We ended up stumbling into the one year anniversary of a protest where over 150 Xinjiang people died at the hands of Chinese police. It was an intense week. Hostels had signs that read “We are not responsible for guests who are reprimanded for taking pictures of the military.”
I’ll insert a video from that week. It’s a fun video. There were fun moments, but I did return to Beijing with a feeling similar to what I’m feeling now.
Aliya told me that she’s had trouble sleeping the past few days, that she’ll only eats one meal a day. Her boyfriend was apparently involved in some Urumqi college rally three years ago. Police have been raiding peoples’ houses lately, and I guess they raided his in Kashgar and arrested him.
Aliya hasn’t heard from him since Tuesday. She said his father is in jail as well and that when these kinds of arrests happen, it’s common for the whole family to get put away. She’s worried about being connected to him. He may have had a bank card with her name on it. They may look through his phone. They may be looking through her phone.
She was telling me about the prisons and – of course – they sound like hell on earth, completely medieval. Bread and water. Hard labor. Rampant sickness. They let you out whenever they want. A year, three years, five years.
Aliya says she’s worried about how her parents would take this news. They didn’t know she was dating anyone, much less a guy without a college degree who has a history with protests and police.
I feel for this girl. I feel for those people.
I went to dinner and the weather was windy and gray. All these Chinese people. Immigrant workers with wild hair, bad teeth and bottles of cheap booze. Students. Princesses with puffy skirts. Lanky nerds with glasses. Cafeteria workers sweating over vats of boiling noodles.
How does this whole thing come together?
Chinese love using family metaphors to explain government affairs. This is the family government metaphor I’ve heard twice before:
Imagine you have a family and your family has problems. Your dad is an alcoholic and fights with your mother. You know it. Your siblings know it. The neighborhood knows it.
You go to school and kids make fun of your family. They pick on you.
Who are they to talk about your family? What do they know about your family’s problems?
I have my own impression of a Chinese government mother and father. Always over your shoulder. Always uncomfortable silences. Don’t ask them how their day was. It’s better that you don’t know. You go shopping with them and they lie to everyone they meet. You have to play along. Save face.
I don’t understand how this whole place functions.
Foreigners love big cities like Shanghai. Places where you can forget you’re in China and then remember when you want to. Get an apartment in a high-rise. Buy a nice car. Go to foreigner restaurants. Drink foreigner beer.
I wonder how many Chinese are looking for the same out. Looking for a car luxurious enough to separate them from the rabble or a high-rise tall enough to not see the street, their third-world hometown past, the riots in Xinjiang.
I want to see if I can help my friend tomorrow. Maybe take her out for lunch. Treat her to Korean food. I wish there was a place where we could break a bunch of dishes. Throw them into a concrete wall. Tea cups and saucers and plates. Paint some graffiti. Yell.
It might end up having to be the video game arcade. After all, there’s new research from Japan that Dance Dance Revolution can lift anyone’s spirits. Scientifically proven. Who’s going to say no to that?