“Uyghurs challenged by life in Beijing”

The Asia Times has a good article about one more aspect of minority life in China- living far from your homeland, in an enormous Han city where people know very little, and respect even less, about your people or culture:

Lack of official registration makes it difficult to obtain reliable figures, but a few thousand Uyghurs – mostly students, artists and entrepreneurs seeking their fortune – are estimated to live in Beijing today. For most of them, integration and life in the capital is far from easy.

At the bar where he plays guitar every evening, located in the touristic area of Houhai, foreigners often approach him to ask where he’s from. When he says, “China”, they often stare at him in disbelief. When he adds, “Xinjiang”, some don’t even know Xinjiang is a part of China, or have trouble reconciling his looks with their stereotype of a Chinese.

He is used to it, he says. “Sometimes, even Chinese find it hard to believe that I am from Xinjiang. They say I don’t look Uyghur.” The majority of Uyghurs claim there is little knowledge and understanding about their culture and complain of a marginalization at national and international level.

There is in fact little international news coverage of Xinjiang and the representation of Uyghur ethnicity has been largely controlled by the Chinese authorities. The national media usually offers an idealized portrayal of ethnic minorities, emphasizing their exoticism and folklore and stressing the fact that they live in harmony and unity with the Han majority.

This is regarded by most Uyghurs as a distortion and simplification of their culture and social reality, and as a strategy to undermine the threat that their difference or “otherness” represents.

Ailkam soon found a job as an English teacher in a school, but received a call, a few days after the job interview, with the news that the school principal had changed his mind and would not give him the job anymore. Only because he was a Uyghur. He got his second job, also as an English teacher, under one condition: the need to conceal his ethnic origins. Given the current political climate, his employer said apologetically, parents would never accept a Uyghur as a teacher for their children. Ailkam was jolted.
“They told me I should tell the students I was a foreigner”, he explained. With his Caucasian looks, he would have easily got away with it, but he turned down the offer. Nurtay (a pseudonym), a Law student in Beijing, travelled – also in 2009 – to the United Kingdom to visit his sister.

Upon his return, when he and his family reached passport control, they were asked not to stand either behind the foreign passport line or behind the line reserved for Chinese nationals. Uyghurs, they were told, had “a special line of their own”. In recent years, the treatment of Uyghurs in Beijing has steadily worsened with fear and resentment rising over riots in Xinjiang.

Today, the police still pay a visit to Uyghurs and Tibetans who check into a hotel in Beijing, and many have reported the difficulty of renting an apartment, as they are often subject to suspicion. Large numbers of Uyghurs started to migrate to Beijing in the late 1980s, several years after the introduction of a free market economy. Most of them came to Beijing in search of better opportunities, and concentrated in the areas of Ganjiakou and Weigongcun, located in west Beijing, and also known as the “Xinjiang Villages”.

The majority of Uyghurs living in Beijing has experienced some form of overt or covert discrimination and as a result feel a sharp antagonism towards Beijing’s rule, and by extension, towards Han Chinese. The overall sense of resentment is so pervasive that even trivial cultural differences have become the target of criticism, standing in the way of unbiased communication and contributing to further segregation.

“Han Chinese have the habit of using their own chopsticks to put food in their guests’ plates. This is just cultural, but we Uyghurs regard it as dirty”, explains Nurtay, who acknowledges the existence of a cultural bias. In fact, many Uyghurs admit having few or no Han Chinese friends. It is not uncommon to see Uyghurs drinking and eating together, and chatting in their language. Like other migrants, they have formed exclusive communities in Beijing, in which frequent gathering creates a sense of belonging which they otherwise find hardly available in the capital.

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Filed under ethnic conflict, Xinjiang

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