Pioneers This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

I gently tug at my grandmother’s hand as we push through the crowds of the morning market in Urumqi. The vendors’ cries hover at a certain pitch, blending with the aroma of fresh dim sum and spicy meat. I steer her toward my most anticipated destination – the naan stand.

“One yuan for two! Cheap naan!”

Naan is a local specialty: flatbread popular among Uyghurs, the largest ethnic minority of Xinjiang in northwest China. Delicious plain or with spiced mutton, it is a staple for even the Chinese immigrants who live here. The Uyghur vendor bags four from the stack of naan on the stand and hands them to me. I hug the still-warm bread to my chest and smile. We begin walking home; grandmother’s bound feet fail to hinder her strength. The street is thick with people. Someone steps on my foot and I jump even though I am used to this lack of personal space.

We pass the skyscrapers. To my left, a building with hollow windows and missing bricks is still under construction. My friends and I, starved for adventure, climbed it a couple weeks ago, forgetting our parents’ warnings. The city was our playground, and we were drawn to its towering promise by our overactive imaginations.

Standing on top of the building, I inhaled deeply and saw my city stretched out before me. I love it passionately, for its noise – the noise of open-air markets, frustrated traffic, and the children’s delighted screams as we pretended to be explorers and conquerors. I was filled with a desire to write of the crooked building’s hidden beauty. I longed to tell the world of the richness of life that I observed daily.

On my right, I can make out the outlines of elderly people stretching and doing tai chi in the park. I imitate the group of Uyghur girls dancing to Middle Eastern music and flipping their braids.

Urumqi is a city of contradictions. The Uyghur and the Chinese live in a delicate balance, with the two cultures crossing each other’s thin boundaries. I grew up oblivious to the politics of China’s struggle for power in Xinjiang. I knew only that I loved walking home from school in knee-deep snow and hearing Turkish accordions playing in the distance. I loved finding out that the Uyghur kids had the same rules for hide-and-seek.

One more block, and we enter the courtyard, already peppered with people milling about, chatting. The grandfather next door plays Chinese checkers with his daughter, and I join the cluster of onlookers and clamor to participate in the next round. I tear
off a piece of naan and pass the rest around to old and young hands. We are a family, sharing without hesitation.

The adults speak of the homelands they left behind for Xinjiang, a land with a name that translates to “new frontier.” In coming here, they have forged a new culture of Uyghur and Han traditions among neighbors who leave their doors open and chat under grapevine canopies while sipping tea.

I am a part of that fusion of cultures, a child of pioneers. And when I leave behind this continent, I will always carry with me the richness of our differences and the courage of understanding them.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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