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      1. China
        How stories from ordinary people hold extraordinary social value
        By Frieda Li  ·  2024-01-08  ·   Source: NO.2 JANUARY 11, 2024
        Tourists at a scenic site in Fukang City, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on December 22, 2023 (XINHUA)

        During a two-week trip to my native Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China, I contemplated the following question: Born and raised in the region until the age of 18, how can I tell the stories that unfold here to people on the outside? The stories of ordinary locals are very simple, to the point that many people feel they hold no real "news value."

        But for those who have lived through Xinjiang's difficult times, the present is hard-won.

        One topic that never received much attention in international media is how the region suffered terrorist activities, and how that tension influenced daily life.

        From my childhood to early adulthood, under the influence of ethnic secessionist forces and violent religious extremism, communication between ethnic groups was discouraged in parts of the region. Uygur children were, in certain cases, not allowed to make friends with Han Chinese children—the Han being China's largest ethnic group.

        And with the Uygur being a largely Muslim ethnic group, many Uygur women were required to wear burqas that exposed only their eyes. They were also not allowed to work and were expected to have more than five children. Even in the 2010s, a Uygur friend of mine received death threats on the spot just for wearing a short skirt and walking down the street with a Han man.

        What is even more frightening is that from 1990 to late 2016, violent terrorist incidents took place in Xinjiang, according to a 2019 government white paper. The victims were not only Han people, but also Uygurs who were brutally killed because they refused to be controlled by extremist forces.

        China Global Television Network once released a four-part documentary on the subject, and the bloody scenes in it were chilling.

        There has not been a single terrorist incident in Xinjiang for more than seven years now. Every time I go back to my hometown, I see how things have changed. The barriers of fear between people are on the wane. Residents are beginning to believe that they are entitled to pursue what they love and believe in, and that no one and no force can stop them.

        After graduating from university in Beijing, I became a reporter for Beijing Review. Over the 10-plus years that have followed, I have returned to my hometown on many occasions to record local stories.

        During those trips, I have encountered numerous individuals, some of whom can be deemed successful. But during this most recent trip to south Xinjiang, I focused my attention on those who might be considered the most "ordinary" of people.

        A stranger passing through their lives, I feel incredibly privileged that they opened up to me, generously sharing their stories, dreams and aspirations.

        Their authenticity and willingness to connect have profoundly impacted me.

        Without further ado, here are a handful of their touching, personal accounts.

        Arman Turhong (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Arman, a man with an unexpected profession 

        Arman Turhong, born in 2001, is currently the youngest male caregiver at a nursing home in the city of Tumxuk that claims to be one of the best facilities in southern Xinjiang and has a total investment of 75 million yuan ($10 million). Arman is, in his coworkers' words, "a little curious," because there is a stereotype that Uygur men are often reluctant to work in the service industry, preferring to become soldiers, police officers or businessmen—aka professions perceived as with more masculine connotations.?

        Arman graduated from Changsha Social Work College in Hunan Province in 2022, majoring in aged-care services and management. He began working at a social welfare institution in Tianjin, a municipality in north China, while his girlfriend, who was also his college classmate, landed a job at a Beijing nursing home.

        He could have chosen to work with his girlfriend in Beijing, where his monthly salary would have been at least double his current income, but he instead chose to return to his hometown bringing with him valuable work experience. Arman said because his parents moved to other places to work when he was young and he was raised by grandmother, he hopes to look after her in her later years.

        The senior care industry is a field with great potential in China, but younger and better trained employees like Arman are currently very scarce in Xinjiang. He firmly believes that he and his girlfriend, after gaining work experience in big cities, have access to more opportunities back home.

        Arman's career target is to become the manager of a nursing home. "I have to work hard and be recognized by as many people as possible so that I can get a promotion," Arman said.

        Subinur Tursunbako (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Subinur, seeking more knowledge 

        Twenty-year-old Subinur Tursunbako currently works at a textile factory in Moyu County of Hotan Prefecture. After two years of working there, she has saved up approximately 70,000 yuan ($9,788). Her parents run a small shop in town, and her two younger brothers are in middle and elementary school, respectively. She doesn't need to share financial responsibilities for her family. In other words, her income is at her own disposal.

        Subinur was unable to attend high school, due to narrowly missing the entrance exam cutoff, and consequently attended vocational school instead. Not being able to attend university given that she has no high school degree remains her greatest disappointment. In light of this, she said she hopes to marry someone with higher educational qualifications.

        Living in Xinjiang, the region of China farthest from the ocean, Subinur wants to go on vacation to the seaside. The farthest place she has visited is the regional capital of Urumqi, which is about 1,800 km away from where she lives. But she is planning a trip to Sanya City in Hainan, the southernmost province. The city is one of the most popular travel destinations for Xinjiang residents.

        Marmar Harken (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Marmar and sympathetic 

        Marmar Harken was busy collecting donations in December 2023, hoping the campaign would help ensure food supplies for the four stray cats on the campus of the college she attends during the harsh winter. The donations from her classmates far exceeded her expectations. Marmar is planning to use the extra money to help more stray animals outside the campus.

        The 20-year-old Kazak student was born in the city of Altay in north Xinjiang. She studies at the College of Xinjiang Uygur Medicine in Hotan. In addition to her studies, she serves as the leader of the school's volunteer service team. She said that in addition to volunteering to help doctors to provide medical services in villages, she is very willing to help others solve problems in daily life and also wants to contribute to protecting animals.

        During school breaks, Marmar typically takes road trips with her parents. She has traveled all over Xinjiang and the place she now most wants to visit is Xizang Autonomous Region in southwest China because she wants to see the unique customs of Tibetans, another ethnic minority in China.

        After completing her associate's degree, an academic program taken at the undergraduate level—the first stage after secondary school, Marmar plans to pursue a bachelor's degree and eventually complete a master's degree in medicine. What she hopes to do is to continue volunteering and help more people and animals in need.

        Turhong Maiti (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Turhong, the power driving one man 

        Many Uygur men have a strong passion for driving. This is especially true of Turhong Maiti's family. Turhong works as a coach driver in Hotan, his father was a truck driver, and his son has followed in their footsteps, becoming a bus driver.

        Turhong never uses smartphone navigation app because he said he's been driving all his life, and there's no street in Hotan he doesn't know.

        From 2007 to 2009, he transported workers from Hotan to their homes in the southwestern province of Sichuan ahead of the Spring Festival, China's largest annual holiday and a time for family reunion that is celebrated somewhere between late January and mid-February.

        In those years, many people had difficulties in getting train tickets because they sold out like hotcakes and flights were expensive, so they had no choice but to take the bus back home. Turhong and his colleague took turns driving day and night, making a round trip of more than 9,000 km. In recent years, with improved transportation infrastructure, he hasn't had to drive such long distances. His main job now is to receive tourist groups visiting Hotan.

        After retiring at 55, he still felt young and decided to return to the workforce with a different company. In addition to his pension, he now earns an extra 7,000 yuan ($978) per month. He has two sons and cares most about his four grandchildren, giving them extra pocket money and buying them gifts.

        He plans to completely retire in a few years. On that day, he said he will buy a recreational vehicle and take his wife to travel around China. Also, if possible, he hopes to get together with his comrades with whom he served in the People's Liberation Army some 40 years ago in Beijing, and watch the national flag being raised in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

        Bilili Eni (left) and Li Bohua (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Bilili and Li 

        Bilili Eni, aged 16, and Li Bohua, aged 17, are members of the same high school soccer team in the city of Artux, a city considered to have the most ardent soccer fans in all of China. Bilili is a center back, a

        central defense position, while Li is an attacking midfielder, whose primary role is to assist in the offense. Both are convinced that they outshine the other on the field.

        The two good friends come from completely different backgrounds. Bilili's father is a soccer coach, who has invested a lot of experience into training his son. Li plays soccer purely for fun. And Li happens to be the first Han player to be on the team since it was formed.

        Both teenagers consider soccer a passion that truly resonates with them, but neither aspires to become a professional player. While Bilili hopes to become a gym teacher, Li has yet to make a firm decision—but certainly prioritizes attending university.

        Nurziba Yilam (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Nurziba, navigating her way to university 

        Seventeen-year-old Nurziba Yilam is about to graduate after two years studying unmanned aerial vehicle operation and maintenance at a polytechnic college in Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture. What she is learning to operate are not the small drones commonly used for aerial photography and performances, but those used for seeding and pesticide spraying, weighing approximately 50 kg.

        The unmanned aerial vehicle program is one of the newest majors at the college, with over 70 students enrolled across two classes, including 11 women. Nurziba chose this major after watching a female Uygur influencer on Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), who frequently shared short videos of herself operating agricultural drones. The two-year program leads to promising job prospects, with many graduates from the college securing monthly salaries exceeding $1,000.

        Her teachers consider Nurziba a diligent student, one who even outperforms the majority of her male classmates in skill.

        She plans to go to Hangzhou, capital of the eastern province of Zhejiang, whether it be for further educational or professional purposes, given she sees it as a beautiful city with tremendous potential. "If possible, I would like to settle down there. However, my education is insufficient to secure ideal professions, so I must find a way to attend university," she said.

        Nurbiye Abdubako (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Nurbiye, a rose by any other name... 

        Nurbiye Abdubako, a flower shop owner in a small town of Kunyu City, was busy doing the makeup of two young women set to attend a wedding. This flower shop seems a little different from the ones in Beijing; it resembles more of a wedding planning company, offering comprehensive services for Uygur-style weddings, including wedding dress rentals, bridal makeup, and wedding car decorations. The shop turned a profit of roughly 70,000 yuan in 2023, according to Nurbiye.

        A single rose is priced at a little over 7 yuan ($0.97) at the shop, which is double the price in Beijing. Nurbiye explained that due to climate and limited demand, the Xinjiang area does not feature flower nurseries for ornamental flowers. Therefore, all the flowers are air-freighted from Yunnan Province and other places, resulting in high costs. She added that plastic artificial flowers were used in weddings here in the past, but now, more and more newlyweds prefer using fresh flowers to decorate their weddings, even if that means spending much more.

        Nurbiye, 35, has two boys, with the elder one in seventh grade and the younger in second grade. Her primary focus right now is to make every effort to afford her sons' education. She also plans to take her 68-year-old mother to visit other provinces, as the latter has never left Xinjiang.

        Xu Han (COURTESY PHOTO)

        Xu, X-raying the region 

        Xu Han, a 42-year-old general surgeon from Beijing currently works in the People's Hospital of Kunyu City under a program to leverage resources from more developed regions to assist Xinjiang's development. He said the most challenging aspect of his role is the responsibility of being an "all-round doctor." He is responsible for handling a wide range of emergency cases, including pediatrics, ophthalmology, orthopedics and unexpected situations.

        On his first day of work in Kunyu last May, an unexpected incident caught Xu off guard. A female patient arrived suffering seizures. Although an experienced doctor, Xu is not an expert in this particular field. Fortunately, after a thorough diagnosis, it was determined that the patient was experiencing temporary shock due to emotional stress.

        Prior to the establishment of the hospital in Kunyu where Xu works, local residents had to travel long distances to Hotan for medical treatment, often resulting in delayed diagnoses. The presence of the hospital in the city has brought much-needed convenience. However, the facility, which was newly established in 2019, lacks highly skilled doctors. As a result, experienced doctors from Shihezi, a city in northern Xinjiang, and Beijing have become the backbone of the hospital, including Xu.

        Over the past six months, Xu has traveled to nearly every village in Kunyu as a volunteer, offering medical services to local communities. His demanding workload has prevented him from exploring other cities in Xinjiang. When asked if he plans to travel around Xinjiang, a popular tourist destination in China, he said he would like to do so after his assistance mission ends in May this year. But his greatest longing is to return home and be reunited with his family. The separation has been challenging as he misses them dearly.

        Epilogue 

        I once visited the old night market in Hotan late every night for three consecutive nights. Even at 1 a.m., the place was still crowded with tourists. There was a Uygur woman selling fried stinky tofu, a Han Chinese snack. Other stall owners called her "Guli," a typical name for Uygur women. Guli is never shy to share her love story.

        She and her Han husband met through social media in 2021. A few months later, the man came to Hotan from Sichuan. It was love at first sight and the couple soon got married. In 2023, they welcomed their first child. Guli's in-laws also came over to Xinjiang to help them care for their newborn and taught her the techniques of making Han Chinese snacks.

        Guli is very happy with her current life because she feels deeply loved.

        Many people ask her what kind of work her husband does, and she is happy to call him over from another stall not far away, where he sells freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, a traditional drink in Hotan.

        Guli's customers in turn often go to his stall to buy some drinks.

        Many tourists have been moved by this story of inter-ethnic love, but as a native of Xinjiang, I know that their happiness is a result of the significant efforts and achievements made in terms of social and economic development.

        (Reporting from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. For more Xinjiang stories, please follow @FriedaLi3 on X) 

        (Print Edition Title: Short and Simple) 

        Copyedited by G.P. Wilson & Elsbeth van Paridon 

        Comments to ffli@cicgamericas.com 

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