FINDING MYSELF IN CHINA

“Eger siz girim qilip yasingiz, teximu chirayliq bop qalidikensiz! Siz oghul bala bilen qaraghanda opoxshesh.”

If only you wore make-up and got dressed up, you would be so much prettier! You look exactly like a boy. 

Comments like these filled my ears on a daily basis, comments that were strange to me partially because they were spoken in a new foreign language that I was learning, Uyghur. 

Uyghur is the language of the Turkic minority peoples living in Xinjiang, the region of Far West China bordering Kazakhstan where I was conducting doctoral dissertation fieldwork. 

I was immersing myself in a Muslim community for the first time. I was still learning the basics of what it meant to eat Halal and fast during Ramadan. I soon learned what people were saying. Like never before in my life, my gender was a cornerstone in most social interactions. 

I soon began to build close friendships with Uyghurs around me patient enough to listen to my stumbling grammar and awkward accent. I slowly became fluent in the Uyghur language as I continued to hear more comments that were strange at first, and then became normal. 

I was told: “Because you’re a girl, don’t walk around with your legs uncovered.” 

I learned: “The word ‘strong’ (kuchluk) is only used to describe men.”

I tried to fit in. I covered my legs with black tights underneath long, loose skirts. I covered my feelings for girls under words, switching out boyfriend when I meant girlfriend. 

I didn’t hide the fact that I might not get married. They reacted with howls of giggling.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” people always told me in response. 

I covered my past with secrecy and silence. For example, when things like my virginity suddenly became a topic of conversation, I lied and just pretended that I was. 

I was hiding in shame a lot during my first several months in Xinjiang. 

My bisexuality was something I had denied for a long time. I had kept it closeted for so long—from my friends, family, and myself—that at first I found it easier to keep that part of myself a secret while in the field, at least for a time. 

My non-conforming gender, however, was not so easy to hide. I like keeping my hair short. I train boxing and jiujitsu and other sports. I dress like a boy and wear boy’s underwear. Uyghur people in Xinjiang made comments all the time.

“You look exactly like a boy,” they echoed on an almost daily basis.

I desperately wanted to blend in. 

“If I’m going to do research in Xinjiang about the Uyghur people, I need to present like them as chaste and feminine,” I thought to myself at the beginning.

I conformed to dressing like Uyghur women. I even grew my hair out to my shoulders for a time. I wore earrings and covered my chest with colorful scarves. I wore makeup. 

And it worked. I found acceptance in the Uyghur community. I got compliments all the time about how beautiful I was. I didn’t feel beautiful though. I felt ugly on the inside and the outside, like eating a sour grape and pretending that it was sweet. And I could feel my mouth frowning more often than it was smiling as I felt that I had to continue eating the sour grapes. I felt like a fake and a fraud for presenting myself in a way that didn’t reflect who I really was.

One summer night in 2015, the air warm and the breeze cool, three Uyghur friends and I climbed up onto the roof of my apartment complex. We looked out at the twinkling lights of the skyline and pretended we were in New York City. We sat on a blanket and passed around plastic cups filled with tart red wine. The happy tunes of a trumpet blasted from my phone’s speakers playing Uyghur pop songs. We swayed to the music and giggled with inebriation.

“Have you ever slept with a girl?” one friend asked me directly. The others looked at me expectantly, giggling softly. Perhaps my masculine-of-center appearance meant that they suspected this about me already.

Despite being with close friends, I pretended that I didn’t understand the question and changed the subject. I was still in the closet. My fear of being ostracized from my only source of support while abroad kept me silent. 

One day, several months after the wine night on the rooftop, a female Uyghur friend Merhaba and I went to a public gathering held in a park near downtown. We approached the large cement square, which was enclosed on all ends with a metal fence. The gated entrances were guarded and patrolled by security officers with helmets and anti-riot gear. Inside the wire fence enclosure, Uyghur music blasted on the speakers. Uyghur and Han people danced Uyghur dance inside the fence. 

Merhaba whispered in my ear before we entered the gates.

“I should first tell you that a lot of the people who come to places like this to dance are girls who have been broken if you know what I mean,” she said giggling. The term “broken” (buzulghan in Uyghur) was often used to describe unmarried girls who were not virgins. The word used in this context was a euphemism for promiscuous or divorced women. 

When we entered the gates, a Uyghur male dancer immediately caught my eye. The dancer was performing the part traditionally reserved for women in Uyghur dance. The person was leading a dance troop of Han women. 

“You see that man,” she said. “The one dancing like a woman? He is both a man and a woman at the same time. We call that hem jinisy. That’s what I meant when I told you that the people who come here are not good people. They are like that.” 

But I couldn’t take my eyes off of them because I was intrigued. There were Uyghurs in the city who were non-conforming in their gender, like me. 

If they can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself.

I ended up seeking out a queer community through a network of lesbian bars, which is a blog post for another day. After meeting many Han Chinese and Uyghur queer people both inside and outside of the closet, I eventually found the courage to come out to myself, my parents, and my community. I haven’t looked back. 

To read more about my adventures being queer while living in China, check out my blog at sbtynen.blogspot.com

– Sarah Tynen

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