2004.03.20 Urumqi, China

I'm not feeling so great about being here at the moment. I got into another physical confrontation with a couple locals this evening.

I took the bus to the Nan Men (South Gate) area of the city for dinner. I went along with three other foreign students to dine on boiling Chinese hot-pot. After eating, we strolled towards a billiards hall not far off.

Two guys were walking in the other direction along the sidewalk. I was lagging behind so don't think they initially realized we were all together. In passing, one deliberately bumped into me. As we turned towards each other he advised me in Uighur, "You should say, `Excuse me.'" I apologized to both of them, upon which the one who knocked himself into me shook my hand. When the other offered his hand, rather than shaking mine, he gripped it solidly, refusing to let go. He continued holding on and twisting me in closer. I was conscious of how close the wallet in my front pocket had become to his other hand. The first character continued saying something about apologizing, at which point I deliberately lapsed into English: "I don't understand you." (As with the previous fight, I was fairly sure these two hadn't recognized me as a foreigner.) I hoped that perhaps speaking in English might change the dynamic of the situation.

If their actions alone weren't a big enough hint, their odor indicated they'd been drinking heavily. If they were at all aware I was now speaking English, it didn't change their behavior. By that point my dinner companions had turned to see where I was and were coming back. Even as they approached, my hand remained firmly locked. It was only when we were all within speaking distance--somebody asked if these were friends of mine--that I felt confident enough to yank myself away and continue on. (During the last encounter it was when I pulled away that the pinching and shoving really began.)

We made our way on to the billiards hall and I explained the situation to the other students. It seems I'm having a unique experience: none of them had gotten into such an encounter. While one guy has only been here about as long as I, the other two have spent a considerable amount of time in Urumchi. "Never heard of this happening," said the one who's lived here the longest. Additionally, a Chinese classmate from Malaysia who's lived here for six years told me he was amazed that I had been in a fight. So, I'm presuming that men with Western or Han features aren't targeted for such direct confrontations.

I can only figure that there are a lot of young guys in this city who have nothing else to do than get drunk and pick fights with each other. I had previously thought that having similar facial features to the local population would help me blend in and make for an easier experience living in Xinjiang. Rather, it seems to identify me as some specific type of target.

I realize that these incidences in Urumchi are isolated. I'm trying to keep from extending my diminishing enthusiasm for the situation here to the rest of the region. Most of the big cities around the world have pockets where loser guys are looking to get into whatever trouble they can, right? Still, it's hard to keep from feeling jaded by these experiences. I've spent fair amounts of time in almost all of the world's biggest cities. Trouble never came this easily. Occasions it did, apologizing in the local language or walking away was enough to keep actions from escalating to a physical level.

I do have a schedule of courses I enjoy at X.U. now, but it won't take many more of these encounters for me to move on elsewhere. I chose to come to Xinjiang as it's the one place in the world I can easily study both Islamic and Chinese calligraphy. I just hope it doesn't happen to also be the one part of the world where everybody wants to beat me up.