In the beginning of January, my Juniors who were sent to Hetian in Xinjiang for a semester to teach Chinese came back to our Lanzhou campus. I had dinner with a small group of them to catch up on their journey, and as expected they had unforgettable memories (and photos!) to share.
Let’s backtrack a bit to better understand the context of their teaching internship. Xinjiang is considered an autonomous region, and it is the westernmost province in China. It is culturally more similar to Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan) than to Han China, and roughly 10 million people living there identify as Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic-speaking group.
Uighurs also don’t look Chinese! This sounds incredibly racist coming from someone who is regularly told he doesn’t ‘look American’, but… it’s totally true! Many people in Xinjiang have blue-green eyes, light hair, and strong noses and jaws. They could pass for Russian, Persian, Mexican, Egyptian, or Greek… but definitely not Chinese in the Jackie Chan/ Mulan sense. Here’s an article from NPR about Uighur models, and a photo from Bing Images:
Throughout the centuries, the area has fallen in and out of control of various Chinese dynasties- sometimes completely independent from China, sometimes as a tributary state, sometimes a loose alliance of tribes – but by the end of the 19th century, Xinjiang was fully conquered by the Qing Dynasty (battle depicted below).
However, the Uighurs have been slow to assimilate to Han Chinese customs- everything from writing/ language to religion, holidays, customs, and dress/ attire, meals, etc has remained distinctly non-Han for the population. This has inevitably led to violent clashes in recent decades, as more and more Han Chinese permanently relocate to Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has been eager to send Chinese language teachers to Xinjiang as well, in an effort to help the Uighurs better integrate into their country and – in theory – obtain better work opportunities down the road. PC volunteers are banned from traveling to the region during service- there are many reasons for conflict in Xinjiang beyond what I write in my blog, and I encourage you can look this up independently.
Anyway, back in Lanzhou I was eager to see my students and recognized them one by one as they made their way to the North Gate of our campus.
William was the first to approach me – a student who feasibly could have passed for deaf-mute the first three months I taught him since he refused to participate in anything– grabbed me out of sheer exasperation and was entirely sympathetic to my plight this past year and a half.
“NOW… I KNOW… HOW YOU FEEL!!!”
It took a while for me to stop laughing. As it turns out, he was assigned to a large class of 70 third graders, who didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I can only imagine the wall of chaos he faced on a daily basis.
Other students came over and aired their grievances.
“William didn’t even learn their names. I memorized all of my students’ names! SOME HAD NAMES THAT WERE 12 HANZI CHARACTERS LONG! (12 syllables long, omg!!!)
“I had to teach from pinyin (foundations of Chinese language)… they didn’t even know the alphabet”
“…no one paid attention in class”
“I couldn’t understand a word of what they said to me”
“… they couldn’t write characters or memorize stroke order…”
“everyone wanted to take my picture”
This was starting to sound like the experience of every Peace Corps China Volunteer, except instead of teaching English to college kids who don’t care, they were teaching Chinese to elementary school kids who didn’t care… and quite honestly, I’m not sure which is worse (the stakes are higher for them though– these Uighur kids will very likely need Mandarin Chinese later in life, whereas my students can get by fine without English)
I asked if my students had played charades, telephone, or Pictionary in class, as we had done in our lessons. They immediately ruled that out, since any whiff of “game” or “fun” would cause the young students to explode into a mass of uncontrollable energy.
Overall they all appreciated the opportunity to live in a completely foreign culture, while still staying in China. Inevitably they became close with their students and fellow teachers. A couple of my students admitted to crying when they packed their bags and said goodbyes. A few said they would return to Xinjiang when they graduate, since salaries tend to be higher in desolate places that require strong survival skills.
Looking through the photos the juniors sent me, I can safely say our college campus is much nicer in comparison. It looks as if their rooms were heated with coal stoves, and there was next to no technology in class, apart from electric lights. While Gansu as a whole is quite poor, the incomes in HeTian might only be a fourth of what they are here in Lanzhou.
If anything, my students’ experiences in HeTian were much more similar to the typical yurt/ mud hut Peace Corps adventure than mine, and in some ways I’m a bit envious of them!