2004.03.16 Urumqi, China

I had a different topic in mind when I sat down to compose this entry. Since then, I got into my first fight since middle school, so will write about that instead.

An hour ago I strolled over to one of the Internet cafes near the X.U. campus to begin composing. When I entered, a boy of perhaps nineteen eagerly offered up the only free terminal. At first I thought he was trying to be gracious about giving up his seat, recognizing me as a foreigner. In Pakistan Internet cafe owners refused to accept payment on several occasions, even after I had used their computers for hours. I presumed this was to be a similar display of hospitality. However, he didn't dissuade me when I stepped over and paid at the counter. (Internet cafes are on a pre-payment basis in China.) I then noticed that the machine wasn't even on, so he couldn't have been giving up a computer he was using.

Once I sat down; he wouldn't go away. His breath reeked of alcohol. He spoke at me non-stop in Uighur, only the smallest amount of which I was able to follow. I could understand when he said "we're Muslims", which came out many times. I think at the beginning he said something about speaking Uzbek and studying somewhere in Urumqi other than Xinjiang University. He went on to rave about "Saddam in Iraq" and "Osama bin Laden". I couldn't quite tell what his position was, but as "we're Muslims" was frequently uttered, I presumed he felt some connection.

I said very little in response. When he first started talking about being a Muslim, I replied, also in Uighur, "Oh, you're Muslim." I largely ignored his other ramblings, but occasionally told him, "I don't understand." His voice grew louder, until he was finally yelling at me. I stood to leave, he grabbed my coat. I pulled it back from him, he pinched my biceps. I turned to the counter and asked for my money back. The staff first kept a fraction of what I'd pre-paid to cover the time I'd been there, but I insisted they return my money in full.

An older Chinese woman who ran the drink stall at the entryway reminded me to grab my scarf while encouraging me to run quickly. I made for the door, but the drunk boy wouldn't let me pass. I actually weighed the odds of my throwing a first punch, catching him off-guard. Even though he was smaller than I and completely smashed, I figured it couldn't work. If I did take him out that would set any friends he might have against me. If he had no supporters, there might still be the police to deal with. So, I tried several other tactics: I offered to shake his hand. I politely said "goodbye". I held my hand to my breast, which I've seen men do upon greeting each other formally in Muslim countries. He continued raving and blocking the exit, pushing me back when I tried to step out.

Another young Uighur got up to hold him back. Even then the wild fool leapt around, shoving me back inside when I tried to walk past. Eventually enough others rose up to fend him off, giving me the chance to stroll away.

From his ramblings and hostility it might be easy to jump to the conclusion of "extremist unleashes pent-up bitterness on Westerner". I really don't think that was it. Neither of us spoke a word of English (or Chinese). He never mentioned "America". Most importantly, all of the Uighurs I've met (with the exception of one girl I'll describe in my next entry) have expressed astonishment upon finding I'm not from Xinjiang myself: my facial features blend in perfectly here. So, I'm writing the story as "drunken dummy acts a fool".

In retrospect, I think slipping into English would have been a better strategy. Most of the Uighurs I've met have spoken admiringly of the USA: everybody in this country is learning English, and the Uighurs are no exception. Even if whatever I said made no difference to my adversary, I think it would have drawn attention and brought the others in sooner. There's pride in being Uighur and in being Muslim. My sense is that treating a guest so rudely would be extremely shameful, and had he been made aware who I was, this story might've had a neater ending.