The China Exile

It’s been two and a half years (plus 5 days) since I left China, and I’m finally starting to miss it.

I was ready to leave – most people are after a while, be it 2 months or 2 decades.  Urumqi at the end rather sped up my desire for departure, as it was all the normal stress of China compacted with simmering ethnic tension, daily discrimination (of a sort far uglier – and violent – than in Bishkek), terrible pollution and traffic exacerbated by the city tearing up most main roads in rehauling all its water lines, and being under constant surveillance – not to mention having to walk past armored vehicles and soldiers armed to the teeth just to get to the bus stop.

8125461890_2a3abd5901_zUrumqi was stressful – as it was also beautiful, an ever-shifting cityscape to explore – dusty bazaars and the spice of steamed pumpkin dumplings, tea rooms and restaurants reminiscent of old caravans with floor cushions and stringed instruments, looking for a restroom and stumbling into an underground warren of shops filled with crystal and china to adorn Uyghur living rooms that even the French would envy, darting out into the biting winter cold to see the TianShan mountains glistening an ephemeral pink and blue above the city, wind sweeping down from the hills to shake the brilliant explosion of autumn leaves, running into a friend on the street and spending half a day in conversation.

And in Urumqi is the paradox of China: China is stressful, always.  There are too many people, too little trust by the government of the people, too little trust by the people of the government, too much traffic, too much pollution and worrying about the safety of almost everything you eat.  And yet it’s immensely rich and beautiful – always intense, always full of places to explore that you never imagined to exist.

Yesterday was cold, grey and drizzling. Walking through the park I felt like I was back in Chengdu – minus the bustle and quick chatter, and the savory-spicy food found in side street restaurants where the air steamed from soup broth and the laid-back line of hungry customers.

So – little things I’m missing today:

  • 8137190890_411a2297af_zDiscovery. The sense of exploration, of there always being something different beyond that next peak – or just down the next street
  • The pink dawn of desert winters, and desert bazaars just two steps away from old Central Asian caravans (sides of Kashgar, Aksu, and every town in Southern Xinjiang)
  • The quiet everdrizzle of Sichuan wrapped in mist and green mountains
  • Food. I have simmering a blog on 30 (or 50…) things you need to eat in China before you die, but until that’s here, just trust me – the food is delicious and different in every place. Except for rural Shanxi, where the food is plain terrible.
  • Crisp and clean mountain air cold from the passes, whether in Tashkurgan or up for the day in Lijiang
  • The people – always alive, always interacting.  Sometimes way too in-your-face or over-curious about everything, but always, always vivacious.
  • Humor.  There’s always something to laugh at in China.  Usually it’s Chinglish, though almost as often it’s some ridiculous dress or strange appropriation of public space. 
    UFO Flying *DESK*
  • where the food is plain terrible.



Korla and Xinjiang Chinese

When living in Xinjiang I had a dozen conversations with my Uyghur students and friends explaining to them that not all Chinese were like this. They just happened to get a particularly bad sampling. It’s like looking at American Army Recruits and determining that all Americans are from small towns, like pick-up trucks, own a gun, and have on average a vo-tech college education. The pool isn’t diverse and isn’t representative. I understand their distaste for Han Chinese having only seen Han residents of Xinjiang, especially if they are from a small Xinjiang town where the pool of Han immigrants is even more extreme and less diverse. The Han Chinese of Beijing and other Chinese cities find their speech and their manners a little strange or off-putting too. I did not spend five years in China because I disliked Chinese culture or Chinese people; I would have developed a very different opinion if I had started my journey in Xinjiang.

Like many southern Xinjiang cities, the Han immigrants into Korla arrived in three waves. The first came with the Army Construction Corps: landless, jobless, less-educated peasants who were secured employment for life providing food to the Xinjiang brigades. Their children and now their grandchildren have climbed up the social ladder through education, but the older generations are still often entitled and uneducated. In Kashgar I once saw a seventy-something Han Chinese women spend half an hour arguing in spitten broken Chinese that she could, she must, send two kilos of dates stuffed in only a pillowcase through the post across the country.

Following the opening of China’s economy and the discovery of oil came the experts, scientists and engineers assigned here by the state, or lured westward by the promise of greater economic incentives. Following in their footsteps came another flock of uneducated, rural-originated Han Chinese: people who came to set up shops and small restaurants; people who, due to low skills and education, would not have succeeded in running a profitable business back home. The educated and cultural creatives don’t migrate west, not nowadays.  They travel and take peeks off giant tour buses, marvel, flash their cameras, and are gone just as fast. 

Run into a restaurant and all the waitresses are older, with sagging faces and scruffy pony tails. Not the pep, demur and insouciance of slim waitresses, mandatory height 1.65m or taller, back in Eastern cities. They talk loud, in kitchen-couth brash voices; catch one thing and say it three times, four times, five. There was great audible excitement when I walked into a Sichuanese restaurant in a side of town so far from tourist tracks, a Sichuanese restaurant with fantastically cannibalistic English translations on their menu (tobacco shoots pork, acid radish old duck, more bacteria pot, soy fried blood skin dishes) and traditional scrolls hanging over laquered wood tables and a trash-strewn tile floor. The owner came over and greeted me three times in anxious ardent Chinese, then insisted that I try the tasteless tofu soup (豆花, douhua) for free. After a month of travelling in southern Xinjiang and staying with student’s families and friends I just wanted something that wasn’t mutton meat, wheat or rice. I ordered a southern standby – bitter gourd and scrambled egg. No oil, I requested. That’s impossible ; it cannot be done. The waitress looks askance at the crazy, unknowing foreigner – does she know what she’s ordering? Ok then, absolutely as little as possible, please I pleaded.

Thirty-five minutes later the dish arrives, fat and glistening under a sheen of pan-slick cooking oil. The owner came over a gushed forth apologetic hullabaloo. I told them I have a stomach problem and would get sick if I ate it – not true yet, but it would be if I did – and the cook was incredulous. Sichuanese food not dripping in oil? How could one gag it down?
Greens are poured over a table in the restaurant and a man separates stems from leaves, picks out the bad ones. A balding man with vacant stare mans a register backed by dozens of red and white bottles of expensive baijiu (white liquor that goes down like fire mix with the cooking grease to churn volcanoes in your gut). I wait, the clock ticking to count the dry winter sun outside. The owner assures me that they will use no oil. Or spices apparently. When it comes out again the omelet is dry and tastes like paper. Bitter, waxy paper.