“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.
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