October 2015. Turpan, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
Things slowed down at the hostel and we went to check out the fresh Uyghur naan stand across the street
I decided to use my Uyghur food ordering vocabulary that I had diligently practiced all afternoon. As I took a few deep breaths to calm my nerves, my Han Chinese colleague jumped in speaking Mandarin:
大叔， 你们几点关门？Sir, what time do you guys close?
The Uyghur man, who didn’t speak much Mandarin, seemed confused. So she started repeating (几点 ji dian). She didn’t mean it, but perhaps to the Uyghur men she sounded a bit rude. The three Uyghur men who were smiling just a moment ago frowned and looked at us angrily:
Eggs? Ji Dan? No eggs!
Aha! Apparently, Ji dian (what time) sounds a lot like Ji dan (eggs) in Mandarin. The Uyghur man probably got confused and thought we were asking for eggs, at a naan stand! What were they thinking of us now? Again, now I see why they’re angry. Who comes to a naan stand to ask for eggs?
My goodness! What did we just do? With my adrenaline rushing, I blurted out in my basic Uyghur:
Kechürüng, apandim. Biz tuxumlar almaymiz, nandin üch alimiz. (Sorry, sir. We’re not buying eggs. We want to buy three naan bread).
The man who was screaming at us just a moment ago suddenly smiled! The other naan makers all stopped what they were doing and look at us with surprise. The tense atmosphere cleared up. They became super friendly and started asking me where I’m from and why I’m learning their language. I pretty much exhausted all my basic Uyghur in that conversation. (I’m American of Han Chinese origins, I love Uyghur language and culture, but Uyghur is very beautiful, Turpan is beautiful, Uyghur food is delicious, etc.) He was impressed with my efforts and introduced us to his son and daughter, who are fraternal twins! His son was super adorable and is bilingual in Uyghur and Mandarin.
He gave me a huge thumbs up and told me that I’m the first Han Chinese he had met who bothered to learn his language, and not just bad words.
Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” As I walked away biting away on that hot, crispy green onion naan, I couldn’t help but think- what can we do, as ordinary citizens, to promote mutual understanding between groups of people who, for whatever historical/political reason, have developed a deep distrust with each other? How can we disassociate ourselves from all that chauvinist, racist nationalism , and defend for our neighbors’ rights and well-being, just as we would defend our own?