I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travels in Western China

Xinjiang Province, Western China
I just wasn't sure what to write about this morning, since nothing special has been on my mind this past week, and one of the blogs I read this morning discussed how in her job as a public servant, everybody complains about everything in this country. She speculated about whether we should just go back to living without government in our lives. This reminded me of my travels in Western China, where things are very, very different from what I experience in my own country.

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.
The picture was actually taken in a train station on the other side of China, Harbin. I'll talk about my travels there in another post, but I didn't get a picture in Xinjiang Province that shows so perfectly how vastly different our languages are. The translation must have been done by an official, and that's as good as it got. Back to Xinjiang Province.

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.


Whitney Lee said...

Yes, we often take for granted all the aspects of our lives until we go somewhere that they aren't in evidence. Yes, there are many things here in our country that are broken but many more that are not. I don't know the answers. Still, I think the word Freedom is still synonymous with America in many people's minds.

Gigi said...

With all the turmoil & unrest we tend to forget - or take for granted - all that we have and enjoy as Americans. We are very, very lucky.

Grandmother Mary said...

Since in the last 5 years of my life I've lived outside of the USA in Antigua and Italy, I read your post with interest. The countries and cultures in which I've lived have helped me to expand my frame of reference and acknowledge the good in others but I haven't struggled with the things you described in China. Each place has its pros and cons and I try to stay open to what this place has to offer and teach me now? As you demonstrate, travel itself is good in opening our eyes to the bigger world and to the plight of so many of our fellow citizens in this world community.

Dee Ready said...

Dear DJan, thank you for introducing me to a part of the world that I'd never heard of. I'd truly like you to blog about the similarities you saw between those you met on your two trips and those of us who live here in the U.S. I think we so often forget our Oneness.

As to our country. We have many faults and sometimes I despair of Washington and its partisanship, but as you say, we have so much to be grateful for: roads, parks, libraries, health care, social security, food standards, work standards, public schools for all. The list seems endless to me.


Linda Myers said...

I recall traveling to the United Kingdom and noting there were no garbage cans in public places - even airports.

All of a sudden, I felt like I was really doing without.

Rita said...

I've never traveled outside of the US and Canada but when you read and watch documentaries on different countries you realize how much we take for granted. I remember my Italian pen pal coming over to Minneapolis, MN as a foreign exchange student senior year (1968) and how he couldn't get over our roads! He kept saying that being on the highway was like flying it was so smooth. And he couldn't get over bananas--wanted to eat them all the time. My eyes were opened in an odd way at a young age by my Italian pen pal and his talk of boys killing rats for fun, and not being able to look a girl in the eye or her brothers would beat you, etc. 1960s mini-skirted America was mind-blowing to him! It has always had me curious about other countries and cultures.

Mel said...

What an interesting post, and what an interesting life. I've have not yet left this continent, and I'm not sure I ever will, but I let my mind travel everywhere. I've always thought that if Americans paid more attention to the rest of the world, they would appreciate what we have here and realize how lucky and privileged we are. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us and for educating me about the Uyghurs, as I had never heard of their plight. It's amazing what I learn when I visit you here.
Have a great week.

Anonymous said...

Great post, DJan! I can't wait to see China for 10 days next September with hubby.

We Americans are not as free as we think we are. For example, a college student in Hawaii complained on Facebook about the crummy conditions in his dorm. The managing company of the dorm has sued him for libel and slander!!! Good Lord! Why can't people vent their feelings on Facebook???

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I love that photo. I think it's wonderful that you traveled in China and managed to meet some of the people. China is a strange phenomenon. Their government is pretty despicable, but we keep buying their products and selling them pieces of our country, bit by bit. Scary.

Sandi said...

This post reminded me of the old saying about "walking in another man's shoes". We truly don't know what other people are experiencing until we can step out of our comfort zone, and, in some way, step into theirs.

I also thought about how much we take for granted. I guess maybe we should think about those things when we're so quick to complain. (Speaking for myself especially!)

Thank you for a thought provoking post, DJan. I also appreciated your thoughtful comments on my recent post. I wish for those things you spoke of.

Sally Wessely said...

This was a very interesting post. I've read much about China because so many of my students have come from there. I appreciate your point of view. We have many freedoms here that we should be most grateful for having. Certainly, this is not the case in many countries.

Red said...

SAd that the people with power brutally dominate other weaker people.
We are very fortunate for many things. It's only when we go somewhere else that it sinks in. I always said if I had to live in the conditions the inuit lived in I wouldn't last a week.

gayle said...

This was a very interesting post! Reminds me to be very thankful I live in America!

Rubye Jack said...

I never do take what we have here in the U.S. for granted and love our freedom. I only hope we don't go the way of the Chinese and other countries in the years to come.

It surprised me to hear that all Chinese don't know English. I actually thought they did.

Linda Reeder said...

I remember there being some Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo that were to be released, but they refused to go home, and the US was having trouble finding a place to take them.
We know there is discrimination based on race, gender, religion and sexual preference in this country, but at least it is no longer sanctioned by our governments. Well, most of it anyway.
Our country is still a beacon of freedom and hope to many, and it's good to be reminded of that.

Trish said...

Love reading about your travels. Everyone should leave this country at least once to appreciate what we have - and how to improve what we have.

Stella Jones said...

It is very interesting to experience different cultures isn't it. I know from when I came to live in the U.S. how different life can be somewhere other than where you're familiar with. I like hearing about your travels. China is not on my list of places to visit.

Friko said...

It's only when you travel that you see the differences between cultures. In one week you may get an impression but there are people who live in foreign lands for years and still know nothing about their host country. One needs to speak the language to get an idea.

But even short trips can make you happy about and teach you appreciation of what you have at home. China is such a vast country with so many different cultures and peoples, it must be fascinating to get even such a tiny taste of it.

Soon we will all have to know a lot more about China, seeing that it is about to become the most populous and economically most powerful country in the world in a few years' time.

Bit scary, isn't it.

Nancy said...

Making sure that we continue to have freedoms is very important right now. Homeland Security is a force to be reckoned with. I did a post on James the WingMaker and had six Naval Intelligence bots on my blog for over twenty minutes. (One of the reasons I quit blogging for a while.) I'm sure they recorded every single word. While I agree with you in this post - we have so much to be grateful for - we also have to make sure our freedoms are not erroded.

Far Side of Fifty said...

You are very observant woman..I find China to be a bit scary..and would probably never want to go there. I am glad you had the experience..and can share your thoughts:)

CrazyCris said...

China is such a mysterious country, we really don't know all that much about it, do we? They keep a lot hidden behind their own version of the Iron Curtain... hopefully someday soon the people there will have freedom of expression and all else associate with it.