We’re in Turpan, our first stop in the Xinjiang Uigher Autonomous Region. Well, it sure is different out here. For one thing, we suddenly don’t draw much attention anymore: Uighurs, who make up
more than half45% of the population (and declining, as more and more Chinese roll in), have brown eyes and big noses like ours. This is not to say that anyone is mistaking us for Central Asians, necessarily (our dorky travel clothes probably give us away), but we aren’t such a spectacle on the street here as we are in the rest of China.
Uighurs also seem to, um, mind their own business a bit better than the Chinese do. This translates to some blessed peace and anonymity; we walk down the street free of high-octane observations, parenting admonitions, and baby-grabbers. We respond to a very occasional “Hello” from a kid, but other than that we just do our big-nosed thing.
The lanuage is more of a challenge than we hoped it would be: we knew that many Uighurs cannot or will not speak Mandarin (though it is compulsory in schools), but we figured the cab drivers would understand words like “museum.” Well, some do, and many don’t. I (Bayley) like being in a place where everyone else is bad at speaking Chinese, too, but it does make getting around tough. It also means we can’t just chat up anyone we want to talk to. It’s a gamble: sometimes they speak great Mandarin, sometimes they start their sentences in Mandarin but switch to Uighur halfway through, and sometimes there are just stares all around because we have no words in common. After so long travelling in China, not being able to speak a common language can frustrate us. And unfortunately, it can make us wary of talking to the very people who are the reason for coming out here, and more likely to cling to the relative familiarity of Chinese areas and establishments.
The Chinese, for their part, remain distinct and separated from the locals, even ones whose families moved here with the first big waves of migrants in the 1980s and early 1990s. Back in Hangzhou, I’ve noted the ingrained Chinese sense of cultural superiority, which combines with an obsessive focus on comparing China’s position with America’s to produce alternating bouts of triumphal arrogance and hand-wringing insecurity. But here, where the hierarchy is clearly in China’s favor (and made quite visible sometimes by well-armed soldiers on street corners), there is no need felt by the average Chinese to learn much about the colonized.
Also unable to reliably communicate, we are doing more listening now, more watching. There is almost nothing in Xinjiang that is the same as the rest of China, but one thing that has particularly struck me is the way kids are treated here. Notably, they aren’t micromanaged, made to recite back their parents’ opinions on things, or constantly teased. They don’t stare blankly; they smile and giggle and play energetically, normally, without adult direction. They don’t hit Owen. And they don’t just stand and stare at him, either, waiting for their mom’s command to “SHAKE HIS HAND!” (These are the two most common interactions with Chinese kids). Here they’re just kids, and seeing them interact with their parents playfully and spiritedly and in a way I consider normal is hugely refreshing. They certainly don’t have better toys or cleaner places to play, but they seem a lot happier and more childlike and not at all like the little automatons we’re used to meeting.
In sum, we like it here. Perhaps it’s just some unexpected feelings of Indo-European affinity–we won’t deny that after so long in China, looking like outsiders for the first time in our lives, race could be powerful, subconscious factor in our preferences. Perhaps it’s our own sense of cultural superiority, and recognition of something more closely “Western” out here in Muslim Central Asia than in still-somewhat Confucian China. Perhaps it’s just that any annoyances out here, whatever they are, are at least different. Or, perhaps we just don’t understand when they tell us, “Your child is underdressed!”