Expats who have lived in China a long time, even those without very good Mandarin, can all recite a script of questions and answers—where you are from, why you are in China, where else in China you have travelled, and what you think of Chinese people and food. Every fifth person or so will ask something slightly more personal—what your favorite NBA team is, if you like the Backstreet Boys, whether or not you have a boyfriend.
I have lived in China for eight years; I know this routine well. Some days, I recite all the answers before the questions are even finished: I’m American, I’m studying Chinese, I’m from California, I don’t really watch the NBA, I have seen the Great Wall. It gets boring, reciting the same script all the time. Some days I lie, for a change of pace, making up answers to see how far my Mandarin will get me: I’m actually a Chinese minority; why else would someone who looks like me speak the same language that you do? When faced with skepticism, I speak Spanish to demonstrate my credibility. There are fifty-five minorities officially recognized by the Chinese government. Most Han—the majority race in China—have little to no contact with them, which means I can make up any story I want to.
Other expats do this too, I find out. One of them tells me he convinced a taxi driver that he was a Chinese national who had spent a fortune on plastic surgery to look like a white guy. He named the hospital, provided details. The taxi driver was eventually convinced.
Since moving to Xinjiang, one of China’s minority provinces, I’ve found that the question-and-answer script has changed slightly. Out here, the Han are more aware of the other ethnicities surrounding them. They have to be. The Uyghurs are the biggest single minority group in the province, with around ten million people. Kazakhs, Huis, Tatars, and other Central Asian Muslim groups make the list as well. There are too many of them to ignore. And not all of the minorities are happy with Chinese rule—in 2009, ethnic riots erupted between the Uyghurs and the Han, leaving 197 people dead and more than a thousand injured.
In minority land, the question topping the list is whether or not you eat pork. It is not a question of diet, but of loyalty—a question of whose side of the ongoing ethnic conflict you are on. The Han Chinese eat pork. Muslims minorities like the Uyghurs don’t. There are separate restaurants throughout the city, labeled. As you travel further north, to the Han part of the city, the halal labels that designate Muslim-friendly eating options become sparser; pork-free options are fewer. Pork is political in western China. But then, everything is political in western China. What you wear, where you go on vacation, where you shop, how you spend your free time, what foreign languages you speak. Uyghurs are Uyghur, first and foremost. Their loyalty is to their people and to their religion, before the Han government, and they differentiate themselves from the Han in a thousand little ways.
When I first moved to Xinjiang in 2008, I was still new to all of the different dimensions covered by asking about my diet. I invited several Uyghur women over to my house. I made sure that they knew in advance that I don’t eat pork, so that they would feel comfortable, even offering to let them teach me how to make Uyghur food if they didn’t trust my cooking. When they came to my house, they immediately went into my kitchen and began inspecting labels. The soy sauce, the vinegar, the milk—everything had to have the word qingzhen, the Chinese word for “halal,” stamped on it somewhere. There were several English labels they didn’t know, so they asked me to translate. I tried, but broke down at “riboflavin.” No pork, I kept repeating. And no pork products. They asked about the dishes, the pots and pans, the silverware. None of it has touched pork, I said. Never. We bought it all new.
My hard work was rewarded the second time I invited Uyghur friends over. I don’t eat pork, I told the one new guest in the group, preparing to go through the same inspection again so she would feel at ease. It’s true; she really doesn’t, one of my repeat visitors confirmed in a confident voice. And that was all it took.
Living in Xinjiang, where hospitality is a core value, I host dozens of parties. Everyone drinks my tea, eats my polo. At the request of friends, I make exotic foreign foods like fried chicken and pizza, from scratch, so they can watch and learn. Brownies are another favorite, although culturally, the idea of dessert isn’t common. I have to explain that no matter how much flour and milk they add, brownies will never be a main course appropriate to serve to foreign guests. I learn, and then teach, how to use microwaves, woks, and pans in place of ovens, which are not a local staple.
Once I am established as a non-pork-eater, I have the ability to relax and pay attention. I hear, from my Uyghur friends, that the reason it is important to pay attention to the qingzhen label on milk is that the Han, clever moneymakers that they are, have figured out how to milk pigs. Given the melamine milk scandal that is raging on my English news feed at the time, I don’t bother to debate this. I am also instructed to watch out for hot sauce at restaurants, since the Han put AIDS in it to infect the Uyghurs. Questioning this quickly gets me into a discussion of how transmission of HIV/AIDS actually works, and I find that I am quickly out of my language depth.
Not eating pork, I learn, means not even entering an establishment that serves pork. I am also instructed to stay away from Hui food, even though their restaurants serve no pork and have a qingzhen sign outside. The Hui are Muslims, but they look just like the Han. How do you know the Hui cook isn’t just a Han wearing a Muslim hat? my Uyghur friends ask.
There is an interracial couple—a Uyghur girl and a Han boy—at the school where I take language classes. She kisses lips that have touched pork, a Uyghur friend tells me, in disgust. What if he gave pork up, for her? I ask. She shakes her head. He is still Han. Ethnicity is a stain that can’t be washed away.
The Pizza Hut in town has two sets of trays—one for pork-product pizzas (sausage, pepperoni, bacon), and one for non-pork-products—but no official qingzhen label. The dual-tray system is enough for the Pakistani exchange students who eat there, but not for the Uyghurs. I find all this out through connections—I have spent too much time establishing my credibility as a non-pork eater to go there myself. If I were Pakistani, no one would question my diet, but as an American, I have to make an extra effort. When I hear about the different sets of trays, I am reminded of the separate refrigerators for meat and dairy that some of my more observant Jewish friends have. I wonder if they wash and store the trays separately. I wonder if the Han workers get tired of carrying out the dictates of someone else’s religion. I wonder if they ever cheat.
The KFC doesn’t have a qingzhen label either, but I see Uyghurs go in from time to time. The staff behind the counter are Uyghur. The staff overseeing the food preparation are Uyghur. There is no pork anywhere on the menu, just chicken, shrimp, and some weird egg tart things that I’m sure are unique to China. My friends warn me not to eat there—there is no such thing as qingzhen mayonnaise—and I nod and smile and go anyway. I see one of them there, eating a drumstick. We both smile sheepishly and never mention it again.
People in the countryside, in the south, will break a teacup that a Han person drinks out of. Because of the pork, my Uyghur friends say. I don’t believe this excuse. Neither does my language teacher, a northerner. Southerners take everything too seriously, she tells me. In other words, it’s not really the pork they have a problem with. It’s the Han.
People are not as easy to separate as pork and non-pork, dairy and meat. So there are other rules and distinctions so that everyone will know which group you belong to, whose side you are on. Religion is one of the biggest lines of separation, although it is rarely treated as subject to personal choice in the way that it is in the States. Religion in Xinjiang is about bloodlines. If your father is a Muslim, you are a Muslim. Period. If you are a Han, you are a kafir. It doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters who your family is. Christian converts are often laughed off by their families, at first. You cannot change religions, they say. You were born a Muslim, so you are a Muslim. It is the insistence on that word, “Christian,” at the expense of the other one, “Muslim,” that gets them into trouble, if they stick with their new choice of religions. Rejection of the word “Muslim” means rejection of family, culture. It is a deep betrayal, almost as bad as joining with the Han. I learn that, once upon a time, missionaries in Xinjiang asked their new Christian converts to eat pork, as a test of faith. As a marker of loyalty, of breaking with their bloodlines and joining a new religious affiliation. They saw it as an act of freedom, of liberation.
Religious boxes are difficult for me as well. My father’s father is a Jew, which according to Muslim bloodlines, makes me one too. However, by Jewish standards, it’s the mother’s bloodline that matters, and my mother’s family is Catholic. And by the liberal American standards I was raised with, blood makes no difference at all; I choose to attend Protestant church, but don’t agree with many of the things I see Protestants doing. Not to mention that in the Muslim world, “Christian” usually means polytheistic, sexually loose, corruptible, and without honor, and “Jewish” is, well… not a label that would be smart to willingly take on without good reasons. The only categories among Uyghurs are Muslim, and non-Muslim; for the Han, the categories are religious and non-religious. So whose system of labeling do I choose? Or is it better to throw out labels altogether?
These are difficult questions. Americans feel free to throw out labels, or to subvert and transform them, because of our culture’s emphasis on individuality. But in China, a collectivist society, labels are positive. They are a way of belonging, of understanding, of being a part of something. People like me, in overthinking the social justice of every possible communication step, often miss the bigger picture of just trying to be perceived as a nice person in another culture. Sometimes, in a culture that communicates indirectly, allowing the other person to be right (even when they are missing a few details) is simply the most polite thing to do. I wonder if my clarifying and equivocating about religion isn’t seen as rude and nit-picky. I wonder whose boxes are more important. And I know that, no matter how much I hem and haw, the people around me will still slap a label on me according to what they have seen and heard me do.
On one occasion, I try explaining my strange parentage from another angle, trying to avoid both the words “Jewish” and “Christian.” My father’s people are children of Abraham, I say to a friend, knowing that she is familiar with this particular prophet. They read the Taurat and Zabur, and so do I. And my mother’s people also read the Injil, in addition to the previous books. My friend is confused. She is not interested in this distinction, about differentiating between Holy Books that aren’t hers. But I am. I want her to understand, I want her to make room for them in her head and her heart, to understand part of where I come from. They are children of Abraham, of David, I repeat. She laughs and grabs my hand. We are all children of Abraham, she says.
I think a lot about cultural boxes, living out here. About who fits in and who doesn’t and why. About what our American boxes are and how they compare to Han and Uyghur boxes. About whether or not my discomfort with boxes in general is legitimate. My grandmother, my dad’s mother, was extremely upset when she found out I was planning on moving to Muslim China. Muslims kill Jews, she told me. They pray five times a day for the destruction of Israel. Her boxes were just as deeply ingrained as my Muslim friends’ boxes are, but the labels on them read pro-Israel and anti-Israel. It is an important distinction, and given that my grandfather served in WWII and my grandmother worked with Jewish immigrants to the States, I understand why it is a highly emotional question for her—why she might choose to separate the world in that way. I remember arguing back a little, but not much. She had her facts wrong about the purpose of the five-times-a-day prayers, but her real argument wasn’t logical, it was emotional. She was not interested in hearing a different version of the story.
Back in college, as an undergrad in Religious Studies, I remember having conversations about different Judaisms, different Christianities, different Islams. That idea—that religion is invariably attached to the people who believe it, and that no two people believe exactly the same things—is so far removed from Xinjiang, that it seems laughable. And again, it is a system of categorization and analysis that assumes individualism as a core value, which I have begun to question. Asking an American how their individualism affects the way they perceive life is like asking a fish how it perceives water. And yet, questioning that same individualism makes me feel unstable and rootless. If that isn’t true, what is? I feel like I can adjust my life pretty well in the face of trying to overcome racial, religious, and gender biases, but this is one I don’t know what to do with. Then again, perhaps the desire for neutrality, to be influenced by reason alone, is another Western construct that I’m fighting too hard against.
After a while, I start to pick up on other ways pork is used as a rhetorical device. In Kazakhstan, my friends tell me, the pork is right next to the lamb. I wonder if this is a way of subtly putting down Kazakhs as lesser Muslims, and follow up with more questions about Kazakh diet and halal laws. My friends, a mixed group of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and one Tatar, get into a debate about whether or not horsemeat is halal. It’s not, says my Uyghur friend in an undertone, but we accept them anyway. We are all Muslims, after all. My Tatar friend pulls me aside to tell me that horsemeat is acceptable. The Prophet, peace be upon him, rode on a horse, she reminds me. But we accept them anyway, even though they don’t understand. I go to several Kazakh restaurants in town. I try the horse polo. It is surprisingly good.
As I ask more about diet, I get a variety of responses. Han people smell like garlic, another Uyghur friend tells me. Uyghurs smell like lamb. I mention this comment to a Han cab driver, and he confirms it, but with a different inflection. The more I talk with people, the more I think that Han and Uyghur boxes line up pretty well, but with the “us” and “them” labels reversed. But the constant evaluating, the pulling toward one side or the other, is wearying. I speak both languages. I have friends on both sides. The Han government controls my visa situation, but I don’t want to turn my back on my Muslim friends, so I try to appease and build bridges on both sides.
The tension I feel from resisting the boxes begins to affect my health. I lie awake at nights. I dream of secret police, asking me whose side I’m on. It’s not an unreasonable dream—two of my closest expat friends were interrogated shortly after the July riots, and asked exactly that question, in various forms, for several hours. One was sent home. Americans were blamed for starting the riots, for stirring up unrest against the government. My American side says I should be free to agree or disagree with whomever I want, but the side of me that has managed to keep a Chinese visa for eight years knows that in Xinjiang, this is not a practical desire. Everything is political.
The police make a show of putting up cameras just outside our apartment complex, up and down our street. There are now more cameras in our city than there are people, I am told. At night, as cars drive by, the cameras flash constantly, recording who was talking with whom, who was buying lamb kebabs, who was doing something suspicious. I am assured that the new surveillance system will keep us safer. I wonder what percentage of the new cameras are being put up in the Han part of town, further north, where people eat pork and speak Chinese.
Marshmallows, I read online, are not halal. I email my mom not to send any Peeps for Easter.
A Singaporean friend, a missionary, tells me he has all of his Chinese short-term missionary teams abstain from eating pork for a month before entering Xinjiang. The Uyghurs can smell pork on you, he tells me, by way of explanation. I’ve heard them saying, ‘he smells like pork’ about my short-termers, and then they don’t trust us. So I tell them to go on a no-pork diet. I am interested in the biological aspects of this question, so I go to a close Uyghur friend of mine and retell the story. She thinks this claim is hilarious. No, Han people smell like garlic, she reminds me. But when we say something smells like pork, we mean that it feels like the Han people, not like the Uyghur people. I assume that this is the equivalent of the English “something smells fishy” and change the subject.
My expat roommate and I discover that some genius marketer has invented beef bacon. It’s even packaged like real bacon, slices and lined up in thick plastic coating, ready to be fried in a pan. We feel guilty explaining what it is to our Uyghur roommate, so we just tell her it was another form of American beef, the kind we eat for breakfast. When we cook it, it smells like salted, smoked amazingness. Our whole house smells like bacon. The words of my Singaporean friend come back to me. What if this is really offensive, I wonder, what if she moves out because of our food choices? It is a non-issue. Our Uyghur roommate has never smelled pork before; she doesn’t know why we are so happy with our newfound breakfast meat.
I travel to another part of the country where the ethnic divide is along Han-Hui lines rather than Han-Uyghur lines. When I arrive in town, my taxi driver runs through the usual list of questions, and I tell him I don’t eat pork. But you don’t look Hui, he says, staring at me in the mirror.
In my hotel, when I have to register, the check-in personnel ask me my ethnicity. I laugh. Americans are from a lot of places, I say. Yes, but what is your ethnicity? they ask again, checking my passport. They assume it is written there, like it is on their ID cards, that I can be categorized as either Han or one of the official fifty-five minority groups. After equivocating for a while, I invent a word, combining the beginning of the word for “American” and tacking on the “minority group” ending. They are not satisfied. There is a box to be checked, and I don’t fit. Not checking boxes leads to inspections and lost jobs.
The two men argue. Clearly I’m not Han, but they think I am being coy with them by not answering. Are you Tibetan? they ask. No, I say. They argue some more. Finally, they get around to their watershed question, which I have been anticipating for some time. No I don’t eat pork, I tell them. Ah, then she’s Hui, says the manager. He checks a box. I laugh. I’m not Hui, I tell them. Look at me. But they wave their hands at me, dismissing me. Not eating pork means “Muslim,” “Muslim” means “Hui,” at least in this province. All they wanted was a box to check. I am the whitest, least-Asian Hui anyone has ever seen.
Over time, I get tired of trying to dodge boxes, of edging my way around delicate questions. I am tired of losing my complexity, my individuality. Even if it puts me solidly in an unanalyzed Western box, I want my individuality, my right to be more complex than my associations. I remember how, long ago in a cultural briefing, someone shared with me a diagram of cultural adaptation explained in shapes. If Americans are triangles, and the Chinese are rectangles, then expats who have lived in China a long time become some strange hybrid of the two; a complex polygon that shares characteristics of both. I am tired of being a polygon; I want my acute angles back.
I start writing, in fits and starts, at night. Descriptions of life, cultural mistakes. Things that the Qur’an says, positive things, that most Protestants and Catholics and Jews don’t know. Things that make me smile, things that make me cry. I send them out, from time to time, to friends in the States. I try to explain the connections I see—how fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians share so much of the same rhetoric, the same passions. How secularized university students from both cultures are so similar. How one-upsmanship happens regardless of religious or political affiliation, how people play the same ridiculous games of trying to get ahead no matter where they were born.
I get back vaguely positive comments from these emails. Every once in a while, I get letter complimenting me on my personal strength in persevering in such a difficult culture. It’s not the culture that is difficult, I want to scream. We’re difficult. People are difficult. All of the boxes that we create and redefine and jump in and out of, all the various degrees of separation that we put between “us” and “them,” however those terms are defined, that’s what is difficult. Because as frustrated as I get with being misunderstood and boxed in, I love my friends here. I have become a complex polygon, whether I wanted to or not.
As a foreigner, I find myself reflecting on the various ways that the Uyghurs, the Han, and the westerners (including myself) chose to identify themselves, and how those identifications are often misread along ethnic and cultural lines. When my Uyghur friends in school wear elbow-length sleeves on a hot summer day, I know that it was usually in place of wearing a headscarf (which is forbidden by the Chinese government). Those sleeves are a nod to a personal and religious standard that they are unable to keep. The Han Chinese usually read the same sleeves as “shy,” “modest,” or “backward,” depending on their take on fashion. Westerners read the same sleeves as “uncomfortable,” “sacrificing comfort for fashion,” or “impractical.” Other Uyghur students label the same sleeves as belonging to “a more tradition girl,” “someone whose religion is important to them,” or “someone who is from the countryside (and therefore hasn’t given up religious practice yet).” When I want to learn about Uyghur prayer rituals, I look for girls in elbow-length sleeves to talk with.
The ethnic conflict wears me down. I am tired of being put in boxes, tired of explaining why I don’t fit. I sleep less and less. I look at jobs online, at night, on my VPN where the government isn’t watching. The worse I feel, the more ridiculous options seem plausible. I could be an astronaut, I tell myself. It’s just math and training. I’ve learned two languages; I’m good at that. There are CIA postings for Uyghur language translators. Fabulous, I think. I can help the American government come take advantage of these people who I love. That’s just what we need. I realize later that the “we” in my head groups me with the Uyghurs.
In the end, I decide to move back to the States for grad school, to escape the boxes.
A year later, living in Colorado, I realize that the boxes have followed me back to the States. Their labels are different, but they’re still there. People want to know if I took my husband’s last name, if I was enraged at the pro-life exhibition on campus, if I’m recycling. No one ever asks me if I eat pork anymore. I begin to wonder, in a culture that champions individualism—the same individualism that I have been clinging to for eight years—why do I feel so much pressure to conform? Why are there so many groups, so many molds, so many cultural markers?
I choose to not eat pork anyway. It’s my own resolution, an unseen tie to my friends in Xinjiang.
My diet leads to awkward questions. Again. Oh, are you Jewish? Someone will ask, with a polite inflection and raised eyebrows. I want to laugh. I eat meat and dairy together all the time, but I know that in Fort Collins, my current residence, most people aren’t familiar with kosher laws. I lived in a Muslim part of the world, I usually say. That’s what I got used to.
This isn’t entirely true. I feel revulsion when I see bacon in the stores now. Or on plates. Conditioning, left over from my careful identity construction in Xinjiang. My boxes have changed. I imagine I feel the way about pork that anorexics feel about food in general—it both attracts and repels me at once. I can’t bring myself to eat it, or touch it again. My husband conforms to my pork-free lifestyle at home, but eats bacon when we’re out of the house. I try not to think about it too much. I know that I am kissing lips that have touched pork. I know that the dishes I am eating off of, when we eat out, are dishes that have touched pork. It is all around me, inescapable.
But no one notices, or cares. Not anymore. I am no longer living in a place where eating pork, or not eating pork, is an important cultural marker. I have to make a point of saying something, if I want to avoid it.
I discover that it is hard to live a pork-free lifestyle in the States. No marshmallows. No Jell-O. Vegetarian refried beans only. Asking questions of waiters that they are not accustomed to answering. Learning that most meatballs are a mixture of beef and pork. Learning which foods are made with lard. Being asked if I’m a vegetarian. Looking for kosher options. I think about how hard it would be to do this as an international student, how unfriendly American food is to this particular lifestyle. I am conscious of the bacon that goes on everything.
The Muslim teaching, or at least the Uyghur version of it, is that if you eat pork accidentally—if you don’t know that you’re eating it—then it doesn’t count. I try to do as little research as possible, but unfortunately I already know enough to restrict my diet quite a bit. When I go to friend’s houses, I make my preferences known ahead of time, but then I don’t ask. They don’t know all the rules I do, but I feel guilty making my diet the rule of theirs. It’s my American side coming back—freedom. They should have freedom to eat what they want, I think. And I should have freedom to not eat, my inner voice says. But don’t make a fuss, my Chinese side adds, you are a guest.
I wonder how my observant Jewish friends get by, if they eat at other people’s houses. It is embarrassing, in a way, to point out that “freedom” in eating might cause your guest to sin according to the laws of their God. “God” is not talked about in that way, in most of the circles I am a part of. Religion is something on the fringe, a personal preference, like ketchup or mustard on a sandwich. It’s not central, not a governing force in life.
And yet, as I get more involved in grad school, I become more aware of American boxes, or unspoken and often unrecognized rules and taboos. Secularism, in particular. Academia is neutral, I was told growing up. But living in Xinjiang has made me think differently. Academia is not neutral—academia is secular. I don’t care all that much, personally; I just want someone to acknowledge what is such an obvious bias, to me at least. “God,” “Bible,” “missionary,” “convert,” and many other religious terms are all loaded words—I’m cringing even as I write this, knowing the kinds of people that might read it, and then judge me. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are not the same thing, although many Americans take them as equivalent statements in practice, if not in theory. My academic friends are all a little put off by any serious talk of religion, of “God” in an actual sense. My Muslim friends were not.
It bothers me, this blind spot in American society. Shouldn’t I be free to worship in my own way, without losing respect from others? And yet, admitting to belief in a god, goddess, or higher power, much less a specific God, who has expectations of people and how they should behave, is not something I feel comfortable doing in an academic setting.
Maybe I am just used to being an outsider. Maybe not eating pork is a way of keeping myself on the outside, even though I’m back in the States. A way of expressing, through dietary choices, the way I feel on the inside. I find myself arguing on the minority side of issues I don’t care about, just because I hate bullies. I wonder how much “freedom” I really have, even back in my own culture.
I don’t know. None of these are easy questions for me to consider. “Freedom,” “justice,” and individual rights are heavy words, heavy topics, not given to the kind of fast food debates I see played out on campus every day. Maybe all of my answers—all of our answers, as a culture—are a little true and a little false. Maybe we live in a culture that values specifics about true and false more than it values understanding the gray spaces in between.
From time to time, I still dream of secret police. The dreams are vivid. I know the apartment I am standing in. I know the people around me. I speak to them in Uyghur, in Chinese, even in English, pleading for someone to understand. No one ever does.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.