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It took a Genocide for Me to Remember My Uighur Roots

Since 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has gradually established policies that threaten Uighur culture and identity. My family’s forced assimilation is a part of that story.

Leonardo Santamaria

The first time I truly realized I was Uighur was just three years ago, when I saw the now-infamous viral photo of rows of Turkic men in dark blue uniforms, sitting in a concentration camp in Hotan, Xinjiang, a so-called Uighur autonomous region in China. Scanning the prisoners’ despondent faces, I was startled by their familiar features. Prominent cheekbones, round eyes, aquiline noses. My face was in theirs.

This photo forced me to come to terms with an unsettling truth. Although I have lived in the United States my entire life, China’s forced assimilation policies still reached me. I’ve always known that my maternal grandmother was half Uighur, but my family has only ever identified as Chinese. The reason no one in my family speaks Uighur, or celebrates any Uighur holidays, is because we are the fruitful result of China’s decades-long forced assimilation campaigns to create what a Chinese official described as a single state-race.

Since 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has been gradually rolling out policies that threaten Uighur culture and identity. There are financial incentives for interethnic marriages between Uighur and Han Chinese couples. There are laws that ban schools from teaching in Uighur. And there is, well, racism. Turkic minorities suffer from high unemployment rates in China, as “Uighurs need not apply” signs frequently crop up at job fairs.

If a Uighur family wants a chance to survive, it has to become Chinese.

Hostile policies like these convinced my family that it was too risky to embrace our Central Asian background. But now it’s no longer a matter of risk: In recent years, identifying as Uighur has become a matter of life and death. What started as a cultural genocide has progressed into a literal one, as defined by the United Nations. Between 2015 and 2018, forced sterilizations and abortions contributed to an 84 percent decrease in the natural population growth rate in two of the largest Uighur prefectures, according to the researcher Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies.

And this drop was not steep enough for the Chinese state. The local government of one Uighur region set a “family planning” goal of lowering the birthrate to nearly zero in 2020.

Meanwhile, millions of Uighurs are languishing in concentration camps. In some of these facilities, the Muslim detainees are forced to make a range of products for American consumers: Covid-19 masks, baby pajamas and human hair extensions.

The U.S. government estimates that there are currently one million to three million Uighurs and other Turkic minorities in China’s camps. The Uighur population in Xinjiang is only around 11 million. There is a high probability that at least some of my distant full-blooded Uighur relatives, who could not fully assimilate, are in camps right now.

Fearing that my family members in Xinjiang might not have much longer to live, I began searching for my roots in 2019.

I asked my family if anyone knew our grandmother’s siblings and their descendants. But no one had ever visited Xinjiang apart from my mother and one aunt, and neither of them had stayed in touch with the relatives they met.

Searching for alternative ways to contact my family in Xinjiang, I consulted a Uighur human rights group. But I learned I was too late. If I did not already know their situations, I would only do more harm by reaching out now: Communicating with a person from abroad is one of 48 violations — along with abstaining from alcohol and telling people not to curse — that could land a Uighur in a concentration camp. If any of my relatives were not already in camps, my contact with them would surely fling them toward one.

To my Uighur family in Xinjiang, I’m sorry I never knew you. I’m sorry I never tried to search for you when I had the chance. I’m sorry it took a full-fledged genocide for me to remember I am Uighur.

Fueled by the realization that my family’s assimilation as Chinese is, by extension, complicity in ethnic cleansing, I tried to learn everything I could about Uighurs. I purchased books about our history and culture. I signed up for a language class online.

But it wasn’t until I met other Uighurs that I was able to really understand what it means to be Uighur.

In 2018, a Uighur immigrant named Gairatjan Rozi opened Marco & Polo, a Uighur restaurant near my hometown in Hyattsville, Md. I couldn’t believe my luck.

After living in Europe for 15 years, Mr. Rozi, 50, moved to America in 2015 to seek better economic opportunities.

The first time I went to his restaurant was with my mother. Seeing that we were part Han Chinese, he was friendly but guarded. He didn’t feel comfortable discussing the situation in China when we brought it up. So we limited the conversation to food. (He makes exquisite traditional hand-pulled laghman noodles steeped in aromatic sauces.)

From then on I visited him as often as I could, to practice speaking Uighur.

Yaxshimusiz? How are you?

“Mening chong apam Urumchide tughuluptiken.My grandmother is from Urumqi.

Slowly, Mr. Rozi let down his guard. I learned more about his painful past each time I saw him.

He told me about life in China — how taxi drivers do not stop to pick up Uighur passengers and hotel owners refuse to book Uighurs as guests.

Mr. Rozi once organized a handful of Uighurs to petition the Chinese government to enforce anti-discrimination laws. This landed him in prison for 10 months. It happened in 1994, long before China imposed draconian measures to detain Uighurs en masse. But in some sense, his experience was not so different from Uighurs in camps today.

In that Xinjiang prison, Mr. Rozi processed cotton without pay for more than 15 hours a day. When he grew so tired that he lost focus, the machinery ripped off two of his nails. Numb and depressed, he watched his blood splatter on the pristine cotton.

Mr. Rozi’s fingers eventually became so infected that it slowed down his work. That’s when the guards took him to see a doctor, who extracted the fragments of nails off Mr. Rozi’s swollen fingers without warning or anesthetics.

After the procedure, the prison gave him three days to heal before assigning him to load cotton onto freight trucks. Although Mr. Rozi did not know which manufacturers the trucks were heading to, he knew that the cotton he carried with his inflamed hands would very likely turn into fabrics for people around the world to wear. China is one of the world’s largest cotton producers.

It was painful for Mr. Rozi to revisit these memories.

It grew difficult for him to speak in English. Unable to find the right words, he reverted to Chinese to finish his thoughts.

I responded reluctantly in Mandarin; it was still the only language we could both speak fluently.

My heart dropped. Even in Hyattsville, the Communist Party’s forced assimilation policy still held an iron grip on Uighurs. As our heritage vanishes in the homeland, each laghman dish that Mr. Rozi makes is a small act of resistance.

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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