One Night in Ürümqi – Ch. 6

We exited onto the street. The tepid night throbbed with all the unyielding life of Ürümqi: families, traders, bakers, butchers, Sufis, soothsayers, police, soldiers, musicians, the sick, the destitute, and others out on the town. With the sights came the smells: burning coal, baking bread, running blood, searing flesh. The smells left their marks on you. The uneasy mix of peoples—Uyghur, Han, Uzbek, Kazakh, Russian, and Hui—stretched the imagination and could only occur in phantasmagoric Ürümqi. The Han–Uyghur post-riot racial tension—another sort of maze—electrified the streets and ranged from subtle suspicion in shops and restaurants to open insults at markets and food stalls that could explode into brawls. Everyone seemed tied to a hair trigger.

It puzzled me that in New York, Rihangül and I had without fail gravitated toward Chinatown: she for the familiar, me for the local exotic. She was fluent in Mandarin, the language of the oppressor, and when she spoke it, because she didn’t look at all Chinese, heads turned—not with suspicion and hatred, but with admiration. Even if the Chinese were your rivals, their ambient cultural presence in your host country could still provide the comforts of home.

We found our vehicle and clambered in. Aziz fired the ignition and dialed up the U-pop to ear-splitting level. We drove out of the Uyghur sector and prowled for a private room. Aziz tacked across the gyres of evening traffic and accelerated onto a ramp feeding a suspiciously clear and unused arterial road. Within a few minutes we had driven into another sector. We parked in front of an installment of soot-coveredmilitary barracks protected by soldiers, gates, and razor wire. Ahmat, the new Xinjiang Postmaster General, cast a smile at us and stepped out of the car. I opened the window and peered out. An incongruously spotless brick-tiled plaza spread out beneath us. Rumor had it that the plazas and certain roads were so clean because they had been scrubbed of the blood spilled during the riots. Aziz kept his eyes on his friend, and I shifted in my seat so I could too.

Ahmat changed his trajectory and materialized behind us and across the street, making a beeline toward a dirty dice-roll of storefronts. Arrays of colored lights lazily adorned their entrances, giving them the gestalt of a faded jet-setter’s decaying yacht. It was a shipwreck of a building. Ahmat climbed onto the wreckage, swam through a kelp bed of red lights, and dove into a watery shadow. The thought drifted into my mind that he and his coiffed hair, perfect teeth, charming smile, and precious bottle might never return. No more Ahmat.

Rihangül craned around with the same fascinated dedication as Aziz and I, and we were all relieved when Ahmat reappeared through another array of lights. He turned and waved at us with both hands as if he were greeting a throng of fans. His incandescence shone even in the dark. He paused, scanned himself, perhaps embarrassed by his exertion in dress pants, secured the striped box under his arm, and ran up a stairway to a door stenciled black with bold Cyrillic script.

Rihangül channeled a blunt statement from Aziz. “Aziz says you look like you are in good shape.”

“I am in pretty good shape,” I said.

“Aziz says he was a champion boxer in the army.”

“So I heard.”

Aziz stopped my glance dead in the rear view mirror and smirked. It had occurred numerous times before with the first males I’d encountered in other foreign lands: persistent challenges to arm wrestle, grapple, box, spar, sprint, jump, and even dance.

I sized him up. Aziz, I’m afraid, despite his gnarly demeanor, had gone soft. Exhausted after raising a few disobedient brats (one of them illegal) with a depressed wife, the frustration built into the PLA taking its toll, his desk become a prison, I imagined that he sought comfort in food—at least I hoped so.

At King’s Palace I had noted the flab billowing over his belt. Unless he was an überlevel black belt, if push came to shove and my earlier delusion happened to materialize, I thought I could take him. It would never come to that, but from the beginning I had been curious about Aziz’s rank. Given his vehicle and his bearing, I assumed he was midway up the PLA totem pole.

“Rihangül,” I said. “Could you ask Aziz what his rank is in the army?”

Before she could answer, Aziz shocked me by answering in English. “I am army. I am army man,” he said, rubbing at his chest with his knuckles.

“What about your rank? Your rank,” I said in English.

The word fell flat. Aziz turned sharply to Rihangül for an explanation, then raised his chin. “Man shao xiao,” he said.

“He says he is a shao xiao in the People’s Liberation Army,” said Rihangül.

“Shao xiao?” I said.

“He’e. Aziz is a colonel,” she said.

The two of us pondered the ramifications of Aziz’s rank. Colonel Aziz started buzzing with his own questions: Did people drive in America? What did people eat? Was the meat fresh? Did everyone have a huge house? Did the police knock before they entered? Or did they just enter? How much did you have to pay before you could be admitted to the emergency room? Did it cost more if you were bleeding to death? Did you receive complimentary lifetime car washes for keeping a large balance in your bank account? Were there provinces between Hollywood and New York? Were women allowed to work? Were all forms of comedy permissible? Were there more Chinese than Uyghurs in America? Could you butcher and prepare sheep on the street? Was it legal to be Muslim? Could you go to a mosque without being searched? Could you sing and play guitar in public? Would you be questioned if you played a song about birds? How much did you have to pay for a visa? Who did you have to pay for a visa? Was it easy to arrange a marriage? How many wives could you have? What was voting ?

The Colonel’s tenacious curiosity surprised and impressed us, as Rihangül, eyes spinning, valiantly fielded his endless list of questions and translated two heaping earfuls of them so I could respond. I squelched my guilty amusement (and also the absurd idea he may have been sent to spy on me) and returned a set of cordial, if wobbly, replies.

The truth was I had no solid answers for him, because the answer to all of his questions was either a definitive yes or no. America was difficult to explain, I explained. We had a culture, and we had no culture. It was what it was at the moment. Even to me, one of its own, apart from some assorted, staple irritants and pleasures such as bills, taxes, births, deaths, graft, a free press, bureaucratic waste, junk mail, e-mail spam, addictions great and small, the right to vote, an excessive, widespread narcissism, and freedom of expression, it was always changing. Freedom.

Rihangül translated my contradictory answers back to Colonel

Aziz, who then leaned his chunky forearms against the steering wheel and let out an elongated sigh whose conclusion left the three of us treading in its wake. I couldn’t have thought of a more apt reaction, and the more I ruminated over my explanation, the less even I understood America.

Ahmat reappeared carside out of the murk, breathing hard in his suit and damp with effort. He bore good news: he thought he had found the perfect place to celebrate. He described it for us in Uyghur, deploying some angling of his hands. From what I could decipher from his rollercoaster speech and motions, the perfect spot was up the main stairway, around a corner of the second-floor walkway, and up another flight of stairs.

We abandoned the car and paraded toward the building. Colonel Aziz became our leader and led us. Ahmat turned around and showed his grin. Rihangül and I followed it like a beacon . . .