– By Nuria Khasim Yu | May 09, 2017
Baby Nuria holding a photograph of her great-grandfather and Uyghur freedom fighter, Ahmetjan
In the aftermath of the 2009 Urumqi Riots in Xinjiang, I realised at the age of 10 what the Chinese label of the event meant; merely four simple characters: ‘hit, smash, snatch, burn’. Yet I could not fathom what would possess Uyghurs, my people, to harm Hansu (Chinese) civilians on the basis of their ethnicity. For a part of me is also Hansu. That was when I began to realise that not all Hansus and Uyghurs could coexist like my parents do.
‘Yurt’ means ‘homeland’ in my mother’s language. My yurt is burrowed in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. The region is one plagued with ethnic tension between the indigenous Muslim people, the Uyghurs, and the Chinese occupiers of the land, the Han. I have always felt an intense connection to Xinjiang as my homeland, but since my father is Han and my mother is Uyghur, I cannot ignore the conflict that gnaws at my very core.
Pinched eyes, sparse eyebrows, stubby nose. After my birth, Mum made Dad check all the other rooms in the private Melbournian hospital; she didn’t believe I was her own until dad assured her that the all other babies born there in the early morning of November 8th 1998 flaunted white skin and blond hair. This didn’t change the fact that I looked nothing like I was supposed to. My dad’s Chinese genes were obviously dominant — how fitting.
So I grew up feeling like a walking, caught-red-handed contradiction. Despite an idiosyncratic longing for everything related to my mother’s culture, from devouring glorious kawap (mutton skewers) oozing cumin sweat, to waddling through traditional dances as soon as I was old enough to walk, I still always knew that I was different. I’d wander through the bazaars (markets) of Urumqi, with the acidic stains of traditional pomegranate juice still on my prepubescent face, and vendors’ eyes almost always locked mine without joy, recognition, or fellowship — I was foreign to them, a literal outsider, and they’d always address me in Mandarin. Despite my efforts, my Hansu face never failed to give me away.
I would cram into the living room of malem (teacher), who taught at a local primary school in Xinjiang, to learn from her what is supposed to be my ‘mother’ tongue. I was daunted by the squiggly Uyghur syllables strenuously arranged from right to left before me, yet still luckier than some in my homeland, who are fed Mandarin rather than Uyghur in an attempt to ‘breed’ the culture out of them. I hated my hunger for the familiarity of the self-contained, rectangular Hanzi (Chinese characters) because I was skilled in the language of the invader (and of my father), whereas I still dwelled on ‘Ah for Alma’ (A for Apple) in that of my mother’s, that of my own.
I used to spend countless afternoons in Muma’s (great-grandmother) summer garden in Xinjiang, burying myself in her wide chest and disappearing in the folds of her skin. I loved how she always smelt of soured khaymak, the thick layer of pallid film that gurgles on the greasy surface when you boil milk. She would tell me a story to help me fall asleep, yet it took me a decade to realise the oddity of its subject matter — the story of my great grandfather’s death.
At the age of 16, with two thick, oily plaits draped on her broad shoulders, Muma married Ahmetjan Khasim — my great grandfather. Ahmetjan was a pro-soviet activist in Eastern Turkistan who would go on to become the leader of the Eastern Turkistan Republic. But this is not what Muma would tell me about. Even in the most politically ravaged lands, it is still the personal tales that are most heartfelt. So what she would remember was one August morning when the man upon whom she depended simply left to board a flight, and never returned. The unexpected and inexplicable death left my 20 year old Muma widowed, cooing their baby and gripping the hand of their toddler.
During story-time she would stroke my hair with her leathery fingers, and I couldn’t help but surrender to the sense of lost. Not the loss of Ahmetjan’s life — he is a stranger to me after all — instead I mourned for the vulnerability and fear that had to be shed that day, replaced by the hardened husk of the woman before me.
I inherited Ahmetjan’s name from my mother, who chose her grandfather’s family name over her own father’s. ‘Khasim’ is my middle name, and it constantly links me to my people and their struggle, I will always carry with me this piece of my homeland, printed onto my Australian passport.
I never realised how little I knew about my own people, until I tried to write about it. Somehow I have a better grasp on European history and American politics than the stories of the Uyghur — I guess that’s just the paradox of being ripped from your own motherland for the sake of your survival. My mother couldn’t bear the idea of me growing up in China, becoming a vessel to be filled to the rim with communist propaganda, yet in that very process, she has also severed a chance at my yurt.
These days, the thought of my homeland conjures up the image of protestors’ protruding veins and brawls and bloodshed at every breath. I remember the swinging silhouettes of oil derricks punctuating the horizon as we drove through Karamay (an oil-rich province of Xinjiang) and the malnourished children knocking at our car window at every red light, clenching in their bony hands the Q-tips that they sell for a living. I belong to a generation of Uyghur teenagers who have been evacuated abroad, who share well-rehearsed responses in a myriad of languages to the question,‘So, where are you from?’ We fear to face our homeland because we no longer understand it, because it has become alien to us, or maybe we are the ones who have become alien.
I do feel out of touch with my yurt, but I constantly yearn for it at the same time. It’s like how I always tell people that my favourite smell is the scent of pine trees in the southern mountains of Urumqi after the summer rain. Except I don’t even know what that smells like anymore. I haven’t been there in years; I only remember liking it very much.
Nuria Khasim Yu is a Year 12 student. Born in Australia, she completed primary school in Beijing before moving back to Melbourne in 2011.