1.4 Listening Room
The Alien Citizen
Narrated by a member of the Uighur community
Written by Stuti Sareen
The Alien Citizen has been inspired by conversations with a friend from the Uighur community. Her story is about finding a home while growing up in a country that controls perception, choice, dissent and movement.
Illustration by Jishnnu B
In my family, no one talked about politics or history. It was not considered a good thing. Every time my older cousin started talking about our ancestral homeland close to the Roof of the World at dinner, he would be sent to his room. The rest of my family would continue eating while watching the news about the great progress being made by our country under the leadership of the new president. My father would watch with an almost angry expression, which would soften to an amused one while watching me gobble down an extra portion of dapanji.
I was around eight when I was made to fill up a document with a lot of questions about everyone I knew and every place I had been. Some questions were even on the number of times I prayed during the day. Based on my response, I was categorised as “type of person - average”. My cousin was “type of person - unsafe”. He said it was because he went to the dome-shaped building to pray twice a day or maybe because he had friends living in countries on the “No-visit list”.
About a year after becoming “type of person - average”, I read about the killing of my neighbours in a nearby city. They had been killed in a toy factory by their co-workers. The newspaper said they had gotten into a drunken quarrel but my cousin said they had been killed because they belonged to our community. He said that the teddies in the toy factory would reek of more gore in the coming months.
My parents’ small retail shop started getting fewer customers and they decided to send me off to a new school where the tuition was almost free. All I had to do in return was learn Mandarin, a language I did not speak at home, which would give me a better chance of getting into a good university. The other kids at my new school made fun of me when I spoke to them in my mother tongue; it was not considered cool and posh enough. So I chose to not speak at all. My parents were too worried about their shop to listen to my complaints and I did not want to worry them more than they already did. I gained the reputation of being ‘the voiceless student’ in my class – opposite of the reputation I was proud of at home.
By the time I was fifteen years old, the president announced a new education program, in which ninety students from my community would be selected to travel to the capital city and graduate from the best school in the nation – they called it the host school.
The train ride to the capital city was fun, we played board games and charades. The two teachers who accompanied us were not a part of any of it though, they looked worried and seemed to be on the lookout for something, the entire duration of the two-day long train journey. On reaching the crowded train station, we lined up and held each other’s hands to form a human chain, just like our teachers made us do every time we got off the school bus. We started hopping down the coach to walk towards the exit gate and heard people shout, ‘Go back to your place’. We continued walking, now with our heads down and hands clenched tighter. The short-lived excitement I had for attending a new school faded into the familiar feeling of being unwanted, this time it was stronger and I could taste the feeling rise into my throat. Or maybe it was all the junk food I had eaten on the train.
In the months that followed, me and the eighty-nine people from my place were looked at with suspicion by the hosts. They did not sit with us in class, share food at the cafeteria, or hang out in the dorms after school. With news about the progress being made by the great president, there was also news about people from my place stealing things owned by the hosts. My teachers told me to continue being the voiceless student and focus on graduating, the new education program was my ticket to a good university after all. I was going to get a great job and make my kind proud. We would not need to steal things taken from us then.
After graduating from school, I was handed a list of universities and courses my kind qualified to apply for, while the hosts got a thick booklet with better options. For me, getting into a university was a game of luck, for the hosts it was based on their choice – a contrast I had gotten used to but was beginning to question more. I had worked as hard as them, maybe even more. I had learned the language of the hosts, allowed them to make me feel unwanted and left my place for the promise of a brighter future. It was beginning to feel like a trap crafted by the hosts to keep me voiceless forever.
I got into a university and a course I did not want. I started skipping classes to organise study groups for tutoring classmates from my place. Most of the time, the study groups would turn into storytelling sessions about our imaginary homeland close to the Roof of the World. Everyone seemed to have a different picture of it – some said there were sheep and some said there were camels, others said we were in colourful clothes and some said we were in brown robes. Some even said there were no Red Dragons. At the study groups, I felt like I did on the train ride to the capital city – carefree and connected. On finding out about this, my university banned the group sessions and made me attend special talks about acceptable culture instead – to work hard, live long, and follow the rules made by the hosts. The speaker at the talks would be someone from my place – a brainwashed propagandist bred by the hosts to turn my kind against our identity. I was not going to become another victim of this normalised oppression.
My kind were now being called separatists. But were they treating me like a separatist or was I being compelled to behave like one? The lines were blurred between the two. At hotels, my family was refused reservations. At malls, we were refused entry. At the airport, we had to stand in longer lines for stricter checks while the hosts sailed past. Many like my cousin had lost their jobs and joined radical groups for looting grocery stores to feed the increasing number of homeless members of my kind. My place was now called the “police state”, where we were stopped without reason and asked for our identity cards; an identity I could feel getting distorted every year. To me, it did not feel like a police state but an open prison. The hosts had always found a reason to punish us – from treating us as invaders, separatists, and now criminals. I was beginning to feel like an alien in my place.
I had started playing out scenarios of leading my kind to a better place in the mirror now. I decided to apply for the maroon passport to get out of the country, a basic right that my kind was often denied. I skipped one meal every day for six months to save up for the processing fees, but the passport office gave me no guarantees, only longer waiting lines. What took the hosts two weeks, took me one whole year and triple the amount of money. Finally I got it and hid it in my closet. Soon after, there was more news about thefts and killings in my place. The president had demolished the dome-shaped building where my cousin used to pray and replaced it with public toilets. The hosts had started collecting passports of my kind and there were rumours about how they might never give them back. When they came to me, I said I did not have one because my passport was none of their business. It was not just a maroon booklet, it held my identity which could free me. And I wanted this freedom to remain in the secret corner of my closet, always.
I decided to leave the country while I still could – without being sure for how long. A few like my cousin who had left before me talked about places where they did not feel like unwanted guests and criminals. My parents wished for me to stay but understood that I could never live life in an open prison like they had. They gave me all their savings, which would last for about three months in the new place I was going to. Hopefully, I could find a job after that. My friends deleted me from their social media in fear of being marked as “type of person – unsafe” for talking to someone from abroad. I understood.
Ten immigration checks, three flights, one ship and twenty cab rides later, I reached my new place. I pretended to be confident. No, I was confident – maybe for the first time in a long time. People here were not looking at me with suspicion. It had just been two days, but I already felt like I belonged. Walking around the wide streets of my new place, I watched parades and protests – people with colourful wigs on their heads and paint on their faces. People with different identities, marching but dancing in a rhythm. I joined one of the parades and felt like I was part of something I had craved for my entire life – the ability to express and the freedom to voice it. I do not remember what I said that day at the parade, all I remember is my voice joining the sound of unison. I felt like I was home for a few minutes – happy, free and valued.
Back in my place, the hosts had taken the passports of everyone I knew. My cousin and I were the only ones left with the maroon booklets in our family. Every phone call back home had to be carefully scripted now. The hosts were listening and watching everything at all times. Over time, contact with my place became less frequent and I found a job I was overqualified for but happy with. I was going to be a caretaker at a community centre where I would meet more of my kind. I felt like I was organising study groups again, except this time everyone had a fainter picture of our homeland and there was less trust amongst the group members. I felt responsible for reminding them about the sheep, camels, the Red Dragons, colourful gowns and brown robes - everything that had always thrived together in the imaginary homeland in my mind. I reminded them about everything that had made me happy - my family’s dining table, the dome-shaped building and songs in my mother tongue I had sung while playing charades on the train ride. We would sing them together in the community centre’s hall on some days. Sometimes, strangers would join us.
A few months passed without any contact from my family. I learned that my father had been taken to the “re-education camp”. There was no reason, no trial and no contact. According to the news, some of the people who were taken to the camps went missing, a few escaped to new places and the ones who stayed voiceless were returned to their families. According to the news at my new place, the camps were a place for training and education. My father was released a year later. It has been impossible for us to get him to speak up about what happened in the camp. He keeps repeating that he wants to work hard, live long and not cause any more trouble. I wonder if my father had been forced to listen to brainwashed propagandists bred by the hosts in the camp, or something far worse.
By now the choice of people from my place to love was also being controlled. We were being paid to marry the hosts. We were being paid to move out of our place. There were an increasing number of homeless people joining the brainwashed breed in exchange for money. We were being separated through solidarity. Our solidarity was being weakened by growing mistrust between our kind. Our freedom and identity was now in the hands of other and more powerful enemies of the host.
The one thing the hosts had done right, or wrong, was to make me feel unwanted since I was ten years old, maybe earlier. This made me find ways to form a community where everyone belonged. As long as I had this newfound free expression with its terms and conditions, I was going to get my family to my new place. Maybe together we would rebuild a homeland that I had never lived in.
When we do have a place on the map, I will cook and share dapanji again, like we used to in the north-west part of the country I was born in. This time, there would be no news about thefts and killings, and everyone would get an extra portion.
The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group, native to the north-western region of Xinjiang. They form the largest minority ethnic community in China.
A few ways to help the Uighur community:
About Mysticeti's friends:
The narrator wishes to remain anonymous.
Jishnnu B creates visualization, illustrations and immersive narratives.