|Xinjiang Province, Western China|
The sign behind these ladies is in Arabic, Chinese, and perhaps another language I don't recognize right off. The two ladies in front are sitting down for lunch. The people behind the tables are serving them, with face masks for cleanliness, but you might notice, no gloves of any kind. Since the thin woman in front is not wearing a head scarf, she is probably Chinese while the others are Uyghurs. If you aren't aware of the conflicts going on in this part of China, it's because the Chinese don't allow you to know. I fully expect that one day, perhaps during my lifetime, the Uyghurs will rise up against the Han Chinese. They don't call themselves Chinese, but of course the Chinese government says they are. For more information about this part of the world, you can read about it here (Wikipedia of course).
I was there for a week while we held an international conference in the capital city of Urumqi. Because we had our evenings and the weekend free, we were taken on excursions to other parts of the area so we could appreciate the sights. The market where you see these women was actually considered to be off limits to us, but my old boss Mickey never let something like that stop him. However, I did notice that we were scrutinized by several people and I got the strong feeling that our presence was not welcome. Certainly my camera was not. But when I had the chance to interact with any of the people, they were kind and inquisitive. The language barrier was huge. Although you might hear that the Chinese people study English for years in school, they are never exposed to it. This sign might give you an idea of what I'm talking about.
I was actually able to visit there twice, since we held two conferences at the university in Urumqi. Perhaps five years separated the first visit from the last, and the tension in the countryside was even stronger. We were last there in 2003, and in July 2009, there were riots in the city. When I read about the situation, I could picture the people and knew that it was inevitable. The Chinese government executed many Uyghurs who were suspected of being involved, but there's no way to know for sure. In China, there is no such thing as a real trial. Within a week of being accused, these people were executed by the government. I was appalled and wondered how many of these men were innocent of anything other than having been born Uyghurs.
There are many things that could be improved in my own country, but when I visit a place like Xinjiang Province and come back home, I am always struck by two things: one, I can say what I please and nobody is going to come to my home and arrest me; and two, my government provides me with many things, such as libraries, roads, and food safety standards, which I take for granted until they are suddenly not there.
As is true everywhere, our home has a special place in our hearts, because we know it so well. I am sure that many of the people in Xinjiang Province feel the same way. They showed me many kindnesses and were curious and inquisitive about my own way of life. I wish them all well. Given the chance to visit there again, I don't think I would go, because the tensions can only grow, as much as the Chinese government might want them to go away.