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Some Chinese Think I’m A Uyghur from a Place that is “Not Very Good”

“No, American,” a Chinese friend of mine snapped at a group of young men sitting near us in a restaurant. “They said that you were from a place that is not very good,” she explained to me. The explanation was not needed, I understood what they where saying: they thought I was from Xinjiang province [...]

“No, American,” a Chinese friend of mine snapped at a group of young men sitting near us in a restaurant.

“They said that you were from a place that is not very good,” she explained to me.

The explanation was not needed, I understood what they where saying: they thought I was from Xinjiang province in the west of China, they thought I was a Uyghur.

The catcall “Xinjiangren, Xinjiangren” follows me nearly as much as laowai or waiguoren — two words that simply mean “foreigner.” This has been the case since I first set foot in China in 2005, and is something that has followed me in nearly all parts of the country. I once thought this was because I had a long, black beard, and could understand the association — Uyghurs, being Turkic speaking Muslims, often have long beards — but shaving it off has been to no avail: some Chinese still think I’m from Xinjiang.

This has always made me curious, as Xinjiang could not be farther from my home country, the USA — how could anyone so incorrectly provenience my place of origin? Then I took a long look in the mirror: hazel eyes, aquiline nose, a short scruff of jet black facial hair framing an oval face, a sharp jawline, a shaved head . . . Perhaps they’re on to something?

Uygurs are often described as looking like Mediterranean peasants. Very generally speaking, they are genetically a 50/50 mix of European and Asian ancestry. They are a genetic admixture of the various groups that have been crisscrossing Central Asia for the past two thousand years, and some even sport green eyes, red hair, and light skin.

Before China opened up to Western travelers in the 1980’s, the foreign looking people which the Han Chinese were use to seeing traveling in their country were often Uyghurs, and for some of the older generations and more backwoods cultures of China this association is still alive.

He’s not from around here, he looks strange, he has a beard, a big nose, speaks crusty Mandarin, he must be a Uyghur.   

In 2007 I was riding hard seat on a train from Guangzhou to Changsha in Hunan province. A hulk of a Han Chinese man squeezed into the seat in front of me. The seats were arranged to face each other in this train car, so his huge knees where vying for space with my own. This big guy seemed nervous, he refused to make any eye contact with me and was hesitant to make conversation. I did not think too much of it, I wrote him off as being a little weird. Then I flipped out a pocket knife to cut some fruit and the guy jumped out of his seat, heaved in fright, and nearly screamed.

“What!?! What’s wrong? What happened!?!” I asked.

After seeing my surprise to his reaction he calmed down and retook his seat.

“I thought you were a terrorist,” he admitted sheepishly.

He thought I was a Uyghur.

I sometimes notice older looking Han men giving me somewhat dirty looks as I walk down the street. This is not the rule of how I’m received but an occasional exception. I once thought this was because they thought my tattoos made me look strange, but now it has become clear that this is only part of the story: many also think that I’m an ethnic minority from Xinjiang. I have to tell them that I’m really just a white cracker American.

I do not mind occasionally being confused for a Uyghur in China. Most people here know me for my proper title: waiguoren. If I’m going to have a deeper connection with someone beyond them just staring at me in the street they will find out my nationality within a moment or two of speaking with me. But this is not the issue here, what is interesting is that I’m occasionally afforded a rare glimpse into what it’s like to travel as an ethnic minority in Han dominated China.

From hearing the tone of the Xinjiangren, Xinjiangren whispers, from scaring the shit out some people,  I must concluded that it’s not very good.

In a country with iron-wrought insider/ outsider dichotomies, where everyone is placed into nice and neat ethnic boxes, “otherness” is not often a very positive attribute.

Filed under: China, Uncategorized

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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20 comments… add one

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  • Steve-O May 16, 2012, 7:38 am

    How long do you think these perceptions of outsiders will last, given the more instantaneous connection people have through technology? How fast is China moving through the digital age?

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard May 16, 2012, 8:35 am

      It is my impression that one part of the society is moving real fast, another (the biggest part) not nearly as fast. It will be interesting to ponder what the next generation will hold.

      Link Reply
  • Jack May 16, 2012, 9:29 am

    Yes, you do look Uyghur. Even I look Uyghur at times. My kids look Uyghur. As a teacher in Xinjiang, I have students with blonde hair and blue eyes.

    People tend to think that China is homogeneous like Japan or Korea but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are 56 different minorities groups in China and Uyghur is just one of them.

    Maybe it’s time to make a trip out to Xinjiang and see what it’s all about. 🙂

    Link Reply
  • Félixxx May 17, 2012, 5:10 am

    There sure is some (oftentimes not even thinly-veiled) racism in this country. Sadly. I got the Uyghur calls several times myself, and Russian too.

    Taxi driver (in Russian): Where to?
    Me (in Chinese): I’m not Russian!
    Taxi driver: Good! I hate Russians.
    Me: Why’s that?
    Taxi driver: They’re bad!

    Similar things with their opinions of Uyghurs. The good thing is that way more often than not, it is based on ignorance more than hatred and thus can be changed by raising a bit of awareness. A question such as “Why do you say that? Why? Have you even met a single Uyghur in your life?” usually does the trick. The key is the tone of voice, showing that you are (rightfully, let’s not sugar-coat the hell out of things) upset, yet do not want to be condescending in a “I am from a country where racism is viewed as wrong so I’m better than you” way.

    And I second the guy who says you should go and check it out yourself… a train to Urumqi is only a few hundred yuan!

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard May 17, 2012, 7:59 am

      You hit on a key point here: ignorance not hatred. There is a huge difference. China has an interesting culture in that the people will believe wholehearted in the stereotypes that they hear until they have a contrary experience. Many seem to be able to adapt their perspectives a little. Unfortunately, the society is often set up so that people will rarely have deep interactions with people of other cultures/ races.

      Will surely head out to Xingjiang soon.

      Link Reply
      • Jack May 17, 2012, 10:40 am

        Good my friend, my house is your house. Just let me know ahead of time because this summer we are hitting the road for about a month. Gonna do a southeast Asia trip, train to Hong Kong, plane to Manila and ferry from the Philippines to Malaysia and then make our way to Bangkok and then Hong Kong once again.

        Link Reply
        • Wade Shepard May 17, 2012, 11:09 am

          Will do. That sounds like an excellent trip there.

          Link Reply
  • Drakis April 17, 2013, 11:15 am

    “This has always made me curious, as Xinjiang could not be farther from my home country, the USA — how could anyone so incorrectly provenience my place of origin?”

    This, of course, ignores the fact that the United States is not a homogeneous nation-state but a country built on diverse immigrants from all over the world. There are even people of Uyghur origin or ancestry living in the United States. It would be more helpful to compare your ancestral heritage than your place of birth, and I’m assuming it’s some kind of Western European.

    I’m an American of Scottish and German heritage and I’ve been mistaken for a Uyghur many times in China as well.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney April 17, 2013, 11:35 am

      Perhaps you’re nitpicking this a little?

      Link Reply
      • Drakis April 18, 2013, 4:27 am

        Suppose an American of Japanese heritage travels to Belarus. The locals there confuse him for a (Han) Chinese person. Of course, the United States (his actual homeland) and China (his presumed homeland) are very far away from each other, but would this misidentification really be out of the ordinary? I’m just saying, the assumption that you’re a Uyghur is based on your ancestral background, not your citizenship. Similarly, many people of Western European heritage who travel to northeastern China (around Harbin) get mistaken for Russians. Westerners with blonde hair are sometimes assumed to be Russian in South Korea as well.

        Link Reply
        • VagabondJourney April 18, 2013, 6:22 am

          Hello Drakis,

          Of course, the examples you state are true, though I disagree with your position. The location of the breeding population that someone comes from will influence their ethnicity. I’m Caucasian and Native American which is an ethnic combination that is most likely to occur in the USA or Canada. Someone who is a Hispanic and US Indian will have a greater chance of coming from the US southwest rather than say, Bulgaria. You can take the minority view and say that anybody can come from anywhere, which is true, but the fact of the matter is that people tend to look certain ways in certain places in the world. The Uighurs, themselves are a good example of this. They are a very mixed ethnic group that has interbreed for an extended amount of time in a certain region of the world and have eventually come to share similar physical characteristics.

          Ethnic lines are not clearly and neatly drawn between black/ white/ whatever. A huge amount of people are of mixed races, and what the particular mix happens to be is a direct result of the breeding pool in the place where they are from.

          Link Reply
          • Drakis April 19, 2013, 12:48 am

            Well, yes, what you’re saying is very true, but my point is that it would be more useful for you to state your ethnic background in the article so the viewer has a frame of reference for why you’re confused with a Uyghur. One wouldn’t expect an African American in China to ever be misidentified as a Uyghur, but someone exhibiting predominantly European features, or a mix of European and Asian/Polynesian/Native American (including many Latino people), would make sense from a historical perspective. I’m also confused for a Uyghur, but not because my passport says I’m a US citizen. It’s because my nose, my eyes, and my cheekbones are more typical of the western side of Eurasia than the Eastern half, yet my hair is dark, my eyes are dark, and I don’t tower over everyone else the way many Chinese expect Westerners to.

            Link Reply
  • Drakis April 17, 2013, 10:15 am

    “This has always made me curious, as Xinjiang could not be farther from my home country, the USA — how could anyone so incorrectly provenience my place of origin?”

    This, of course, ignores the fact that the United States is not a homogeneous nation-state but a country built on diverse immigrants from all over the world. There are even people of Uyghur origin or ancestry living in the United States. It would be more helpful to compare your ancestral heritage than your place of birth, and I’m assuming it’s some kind of Western European.

    I’m an American of Scottish and German heritage and I’ve been mistaken for a Uyghur many times in China as well.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney April 17, 2013, 10:30 am

      Are there any homogeneous nation states?

      Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney April 17, 2013, 10:35 am

      Perhaps you’re nitpicking this a little?

      Link Reply
      • Drakis April 18, 2013, 3:27 am

        Suppose an American of Japanese heritage travels to Belarus. The locals there confuse him for a (Han) Chinese person. Of course, the United States (his actual homeland) and China (his presumed homeland) are very far away from each other, but would this misidentification really be out of the ordinary? I’m just saying, the assumption that you’re a Uyghur is based on your ancestral background, not your citizenship. Similarly, many people of Western European heritage who travel to northeastern China (around Harbin) get mistaken for Russians. Westerners with blonde hair are sometimes assumed to be Russian in South Korea as well.

        Link Reply
        • VagabondJourney April 18, 2013, 5:22 am

          Hello Drakis,

          Of course, the examples you state are true, though I disagree with your position. The location of the breeding population that someone comes from will influence their ethnicity. I’m Caucasian and Native American which is an ethnic combination that is most likely to occur in the USA or Canada. Someone who is a Hispanic and US Indian will have a greater chance of coming from the US southwest rather than say, Bulgaria. You can take the minority view and say that anybody can come from anywhere, which is true, but the fact of the matter is that people tend to look certain ways in certain places in the world. The Uighurs, themselves are a good example of this. They are a very mixed ethnic group that has interbreed for an extended amount of time in a certain region of the world and have eventually come to share similar physical characteristics.

          Ethnic lines are not clearly and neatly drawn between black/ white/ whatever. A huge amount of people are of mixed races, and what the particular mix happens to be is a direct result of the breeding pool in the place where they are from.

          Link Reply
          • Drakis April 18, 2013, 11:48 pm

            Well, yes, what you’re saying is very true, but my point is that it would be more useful for you to state your ethnic background in the article so the viewer has a frame of reference for why you’re confused with a Uyghur. One wouldn’t expect an African American in China to ever be misidentified as a Uyghur, but someone exhibiting predominantly European features, or a mix of European and Asian/Polynesian/Native American (including many Latino people), would make sense from a historical perspective. I’m also confused for a Uyghur, but not because my passport says I’m a US citizen. It’s because my nose, my eyes, and my cheekbones are more typical of the western side of Eurasia than the Eastern half, yet my hair is dark, my eyes are dark, and I don’t tower over everyone else the way many Chinese expect Westerners to.

            Link Reply
  • Phil Mahboobeh March 10, 2014, 6:10 am

    Dude, you’re bald and sporting a long-ass goatee, you look like the nephew of those guys in the pic. Embrace your adoptive ‘Uyghurness’, haha! Just don’t be making shifty eyes in public places, seriously…..

    Link Reply
  • Tanbabe January 27, 2017, 11:21 pm

    Hey, ran into your article. I also have run into the same situation as you. I have even been mistaken by Ughurs themselves. Nice to see it happens to someone else.

    Link Reply