Friday, October 10, 2014

Grievances and mourning

After spending my last night in Hong Kong sleeping in a gutter with student protesters, I left the city where I had spent two and a half months to travel to my next destination—Urumqi. Urumqi is the capital of China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, which borders Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong, and so I took a late morning two-hour high speed train to Guangzhou, where I took the subway to the airport, crossed my fingers that the airline wouldn’t hassle me about checking my overweight bag and bringing two instruments and a carryon onboard (they didn’t), waited four hours for my flight, started to feel my separation from Hong Kong, and then got on the five hour, 7 pm flight to Urumqi. Thankfully it was exceedingly smooth, but as I looked out the window and didn’t see any lights for hundreds of miles, my sense of isolation began feeling more acute. I told myself that it was okay—my host, M, would be meeting me at the airport and I would soon be around people who cared about my survival again.

I arrived without fanfare after midnight at Urumqi’s Diwopu Airport and waited for M, who was arriving in the airport from vacation in another city in Xinjiang ten minutes after my flight landed. Ten minutes turned into thirty, and then an hour. Flight delays in China are a common occurrence, so I knew I just had to be patient and she would show up. As the number of people waiting to pick up friends and family at the airport dwindled and M was still not around, I began to worry—she was my point person here and the person I would be living with, and without her I was essentially clueless about Urumqi.

At 2 am all the flights had landed, the airport was shutting down, and M was nowhere to be seen. I was losing my shit. A few women advertising hotels had come up to me in the previous two hours; one came up to me as the gates started coming down, and I asked her how much the cheapest room would be, mentally calculating how long I could stretch the money I had with me (remember that I discovered a few days ago that my ATM card is expired). Seeing no other options, I consented to letting her arrange a room for me, and then was directed to the ‘free airport shuttle’—an unmarked black compact car ferried by a strange man. My brain was too haywire to do more than recognize my internal alarm bells going off, and I deliriously contemplated a life of sex slavery.

Luckily this particular shuttle did not take me to a life of destitution, but rather to a barebones Super 8 Motel outside the airport, where they let me lowball the room deposit because I couldn’t scrounge up the full amount. The internet worked long enough for me to send a telegram-like email to my family assuring them I was still alive, and re-read my email exchange with M, discovering she had mistook my arrival dates and would be arriving two days hence. I got in bed still disgusting from the day’s travel. I wondered what I would do, where I would stay, and how I would pay for the following nights, realizing that regardless I would need to come up with a plan before checkout at noon the next day.

I slept until 10 the next morning, and then realized I had one other number—the international student program director of the Xinjiang Arts Institute, with whom I had corresponded briefly in the weeks prior. I called her, explaining the situation as best I could, and asking if there was a hotel close to the Institute where I could stay. She gave me a recommendation for a place next door (“The rooms are not big, but they are cheap,” she said) and I haggled with a driver outside the Super 8 to take me across town to the Institute, which is firmly nestled in the part of town dominated by the Uyghur ethnic minority population.

I made it to the hotel and arranged a room, but needed to first change my Hong Kong currency to Chinese yuan to pay for it. The banks in the area were closed for the holiday of Qurban, so I used my remaining cash to take a taxi to the main Bank of China branch. I didn't even end up changing my money at the bank—a slew of ‘money peddlers’ lined up outside the bank, and I consented to let a very persistent one buy my Hong Kong dollars. I undoubtedly lost a few dollars in the process, but he took all of my loose change off my hands, which the bank would not have done (and remember I was physically and emotionally drained). I finally made it back to the hotel and checked in, and felt my bewilderment and seclusion swallow me up.

Just as I felt myself succumbing to utter sorrow and fatigue, I got a text from M: “Do you want me to introduce you to some of my English-speaking friends at the Institute?”

“Yes, that would be amazing!” I tried to text her back. My phone was out of minutes.

Half an hour and two China Mobile stores later, I was back in business. I got the number of some of her researcher friends at the Institute and called them, explaining my situation and asking if I could become a barnacle to their metaphorical ship. They told me they were at lunch with friends, but graciously invited me to go along with them to meet another friend in a few hours. I went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that thankfully only served one dish, and sat there contemplating all that had transpired in a mere twenty-four hours.

Meeting M’s friends was a godsend. They were incredibly kind and good-natured—taking me out to eat, doing my laundry (!) and telling me about their struggles and successes adjusting to life in Urumqi. Just having someone who could sympathize with my tremendous stress and culture shock made the next day and a half bearable. 

I am currently coming to terms with the fact that for now, and likely for a long time, it will be impossible for me to write freely about the things I see and hear on a daily basis. I will still, to the best of my ability, write about my own experience studying music and language in Urumqi. But until I can tell a more complete story myself, I urge you to learn what you can about current affairs in Xinjiang and know that there is so much more that remains unsaid.


There hasn’t been a day since my arrival when I haven't cried, when I haven't been overwhelmed by waves of acute emotional pain. There is much to look forward to in my time here, and I am safe. But I am in mourning—for the relationships I left behind in Hong Kong, for Hong Kong itself, for my current self-censorship, and for the reasons I have to do so for the foreseeable future.