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My Cultural Origins Confused in Xinjiang

I’m often confused for a Uyghur in Xinjiang. I suppose I can understand why.

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My flight landed in Urumqi and I went over to the layover counter of China Southern Airlines to claim my complementary hotel room. The Han guy behind the counter took one look at me and asked me something in Uighur.

I have a black beard, dark features, a skinny, pointy nose, a shaved head. It is not uncommon for me to be confused for being a Uighur wherever I go in China. When some random person begins treating me like shit I look at them and say simply, “I’m an American.” Admittedly, this is an odd thing to do, but nine out of ten times it elicits a response akin to, “Oh wow, you’re an American? I thought you were a Xinjiang person!” We then laugh about it for a moment and then start talking about something else. Invariably, I leave the conversation thinking, “Man, what if I really was a Xinjiang person?” Such interactions give me a taste of what people from this ethnic subset face in China, albeit a very fleeting one.

This misplacing of my cultural origins isn’t just reserved for the Han either, as many Uighurs have done it as well, asking me outright if we’re of the same ethnicity. When I walk by their barbecues and dried fruit carts they sometimes do the hand over the heart, slight bow Muslim greeting in my direction. Sometimes I look at Uyghurs and then look at myself. The error is understandable.

Now that I was in the heart of Xinjiang among the “Xinjiang people,” a place that has become very much militarized against the threat of extremist actions from Uighur separatists, I began wondering if this misinterpretation could potentially adversely impact my work in the region. I was there to begin working on my next book, which is about the New Silk Road project, and the last thing I needed was to be caught in the crossfire of security culture.


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Filed under: China, Xinjiang

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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