Year: 2017

Singing Back to the Steppe: Kazakh Poetry Battles in Contemporary Xinjiang

  On a summer evening in 2015, when I was attending a friend’s wedding after-party in a small village in Mori in Northern Xinjiang, a professional aqin – an oral poet who improvises while performing – sat next to me playing his dombra (a Kazakh two-stringed instrument). He was singing a song with the refrain: “ahaw sar qiz, pisqan darbiz, darbizingning qizilin maghan jarghiz” (Hey, fair-haired girl, you are like a ripe melon, let me cut your red ripe melon). It was clear he was directing the song at me. I felt my face begin to turn red. I was tongue-tied. I didn’t know what to say or do. How do you respond to lyrics like that from a poet? A Kazakh girl sitting nearby tried to sooth my discomfort by making excuses for him. She said he was just joking around and that the lyrics were supposed to be funny. That is just the manner of a poet. A while later, the poet received a phone call from his leader to go entertain some visiting officials who would attend …

Ablajan and the Subtle Politics of Uyghur Pop

The pop star Ablajan hates it when people refer to him as the “Uyghur Justin Bieber.” When I interviewed him in 2015 he said: “People just have a certain image of who I am but actually I built my image out of my own style.” He said that it was just happenstance that he and Bieber share the same aesthetic: black leather jackets, chains, a perfectly quaffed high fade. Ablajan said “Actually I cut my hair short like this before Bieber. When I saw him doing it, I was surprised. We all joked that he was copying me. Actually I haven’t seen any of his work for over two years.” To Ablajan’s thinking, it was an older icon that drew him (and perhaps Bieber) to the style of glamorous pop he tries to emulate in his work. That icon was Michael Jackson. He still remembers the day in 1999 when he saw the Michael Jackson video “Thriller” for the first time. It was on a big screen TV in a restaurant in Turpan. He had …

An Introduction to The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia

I first came to Xinjiang in 2001. At the time I was in the second year of an undergraduate program in photojournalism in my home state of Ohio. As part of my training I had the opportunity to travel throughout China, from Shenyang to Lhasa. It gave me a chance to try to understand the breadth and diversity of the space and get a feel for a profession and a country that would have a large impact on my life. Eventually I ended up in Kashgar. I had never seen anything like it: vibrant street life, warm and embracing friendships, a vibrant folk music scene, desert landscapes and Sufi shrines. The history of the place felt alive and vivid, but also fragile. It was also the only place in China where Han taxi drivers, shop keepers and hotel clerks assumed I, a white German-American, was a local Uyghur. That misrecognition, like the built environment, was also instructive. It taught me something about privilege and passing; and what the racial politics of Xinjiang might feel like …

Salvage Freedom

It is hard to know what to start thinking with in a book as rich with ideas as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. What struck me the most though, was a middle section on “Freedom . . .” Here and in the pages that surround it, Tsing writes that the way Southeast Asian refugee immigrants and white Vietnam War vets pick mushrooms in Oregon might be conceptualized as a practice of salvage accumulation. Tsing argues that such a practice produces sites of life that are “simultaneously inside and outside of capitalism” (Tsing 2015, 63). In these pericapitalist worlds, people produce irregular forms of freedom. Importantly, she notes, this is not the liberal freedom of rational individual choice; rather, it is a form of freedom haunted by forms of power “held in abeyance” (Tsing 2015, 76). When mushroom pickers in Oregon speak of freedom, they are speaking of freedom from the drudgery of wage labor, apartment life, property restrictions, and the violence of urban policing. The freedom of salvage accumulation …