Toward an Ethnographic Self


The following is an experimental sensory-poetic ethnographic form that takes the idea of reflexivity as its starting point. Here my short stories and poetry, written both while in China and the United States, are interspersed among ethnographic moments from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Here the self that is engaged in the representation of a place commingles with the self that is engaged in understanding the notion of love. Here multiple approaches to writing, and multiple expressions of the writer, intermix.

The underlying premise is that willful interjections of the self into ethnography, of emplacing the ‘scholar’ within the ‘field,’ while productive, are incomplete representations of the thing called the self. The self as it emerges in the process of writing about other selves and places is a particular self, one that still maintains its academic posture even when it attempts to do a non-scientific thing.

The person you are when you aren’t in the field, the writer you are writing when you aren’t writing about the field, or things academic, is fundamentally attached to that other thing, the finished ethnography. This then is a picture of a place that brings into conversation other places, other thoughts, and forms of expression, as a means of refracting more precision on the way the place as it is represented came to be what it was here.

Beijing to Buzkashi

2 February 2015

Trees of Eden

15 November 2014

Looking through the train window, he noticed a blur of fall color. The whirr of branches and leaves pulled in his gaze, and he slipped into a trance of yellow and orange. After several lost minutes, he realized that the sweep of the passing bouquet had stifled his ability to make out any of the individual trees that, collected together, called out to his spellbound eyes. So he leaned forward, picking out one tree on the horizon and tracing it with his eyes as it traveled along the length of the window frame. This way, he could see how the bark was a rugged cream color on one tree and a dark grey on another; how what looked like an old oak had pale green lichen draped over its torso; how a sapling of some species he couldn’t identify had decaying leaves that refused to fall off.

And then he thought that love is like a forest as a train rolls by. He felt regret that there were so many trees in a forest—trees that, had they been in his back yard, would have been affectionately ingrained in his memory. But these trees were not loved, not known. They just sat there, on the side of the tracks, and waited patiently to die—their existence meaning nothing to no-one. Perhaps one day they would be made into paper, and someone would write something down on what was left of them, and maybe, just maybe, that something would be important.

Love was like the trees that nobody came to look at. Love was mere chance; luck. Love was the way you would be forced to focus on one tree because the whole array of colors was too overwhelming for your senses. Love was the way you couldn’t focus on reading Nietzsche because that woman in the pink blouse to your right was telling her friend Carl about how her daughter Samantha had failed her Chemistry test.

There were countless other trees, other people out there that you would never meet; the fact that you chose this one to pay attention to—to love—was meaningless and random and stupid.

Love was like life, and life was like the shadows that moved around among the gaps in the trees of a forest that nobody came to look at.

Reflections on Sayram

19 July 2016

Each summer, Han families with new cars and expensive cameras travel to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for a momentary taste of its scenic grasslands and nomadic peoples. Within this collective exercise, avatars of vast discrepancies in resources and opportunities are brought directly to the grassland. At Sayram Lake, a crystalline blue alpine wilderness-come-tourist-park, many young Kazakhs spend their summer days in a dusty parking lot that abuts a glistening highway. Their task is twofold: convince passers-by to hand over cash for a photo on horseback, and wrangle whichever tourists might be lingering for the evening into a stay at their family’s yurt.

After a successful day in which he convinced a van-full of Han tourists from the eastern metropole of Wuhan to purchase an entire roasted sheep, Murat tells me a fantastical story. He is slightly drunk, having been invited to imbibe in the gratuitous libation-display that his guests take as an indispensable part of their tour through the western regions. The story begins. An emaciated but spunky Kazakh-Chinese girl of thirteen stands in a dusty August parking lot alongside an alpine grassland in northwestern-most China. Intermittently, Han-Chinese tourists pull off of the highway, electing to stay the night in a traditional nomadic yurt.

In recent years, domestic Chinese tourists have started flocking to Sayram. Sensing the commercial opportunity therein, a group of Hui-Chinese, a sedentary Muslim ethnic minority group, have begun renting yurts and horses from the local Kazakh herders, dressing in traditional Kazakh garb in order to feign nomadic heritage. Performances abound: the Hui perform Kazakh identity for the Han, and the Kazakhs perform ethnic solidarity with the Hui.

But opportunities for commerce have expanded, and entrepreneurial Kazakh families now send their children to the parking lot to cash in while they tend to their herds. One girl is particularly charismatic, and she has been stealing clientele from the Hui over the last two months. One day, a group of frustrated Hui men beat her and her brother. News travels back to the yurts, and her father spends the afternoon riding frantically across the grassland, shouting an ethnically charged Kazakh battle cry to every encampment he can reach, calling his brothers to arms.

As the sun fades west, nearly 100 Kazakh horsemen descend upon the parking lot, beating the Hui pretenders senseless. By morning, a battalion of Chinese police arrive in trucks, and the prefecture’s leading Communist Party official orders all Kazakhs in the vicinity to leave the lake pastures and permanently settle in a town down the valley.

Most of the Kazakhs reluctantly agree; they are outmanned and outgunned. As they begin to pack their belongings, one man, the father of that spirited young girl, begins shouting that the Chinese will never take him off this land; that this grassland is where he was born, and where he will die. A commotion ensues; in a rage, he pours gasoline across his family yurt, and then orders his wife and daughter and two sons inside. He lights the yurt ablaze, rushes inside, and barricades the entrance.

The policemen scramble around the yurt trying in vain to put out the inferno; ultimately they break through the entrance and pull everyone out. Aghast, the local official changes his mind: the Kazakhs may stay, and the Hui are forced to leave. “And so today, there are no Hui here, and the Chinese tourists are ours,” Murat concludes.

The actors in the story are undoubtedly real, but the scope of the events and the radical denouement seem to border on myth. The question of the tale’s verisimilitude is important, but of greater significance is the function of the story. In its telling and retelling, it is an act of placemaking—of making heroic the place of the transhumant within a region marked by an increasingly pronounced Han Chinese presence, and of giving agency to their ethnic group in triumphing over one other non-Kazakh contingent within that nation, the Hui.


An Afternoon at the Fogg Museum

23 February 2014

Measured footsteps echo across the grand hall

As polite patrons whisper interpretations

Standing at delicate distance from oil-stained canvases.

In the restroom, urine stains the slate floor,

And somebody forgot to lift the seat.

A Kazakh Lakesong

30 September 2016

John Wayne and China

19 May 2012

I used to watch a lot of Westerns as a child. As a six-year-old living in the Connecticut suburbs, I remember being captivated by the alluring, foreign world on screen—the land of gunfights and watering holes—that microcosm in which virtuous souls stood transfixed in an eternal battle with outlaws wearing black bandanas. The perils and customs of that open Western landscape were so different from my own fenced-in New England existence that, in essence, I had to learn a new language—to try and intuit, in the midst of a film, what was really happening on screen.

I remember being very confused about the concern many cowboys had with getting shot in the back. Why was it taken for granted to be a worse death than being shot in the front? Grasping for clarity, I concluded that being shot in the back must be more painful than being shot in the chest. In this way, I would form my own naïve notions about what was happening in the world out there, determining with my best guess the laws of that great Romantic world where John Wayne would ride for days across an open sea of stars and sunsets, passing wild horses that pummeled the earth with their native simplicity—running and flowing across the rugged yet nascent canvas like John Wayne; free.

The end result was that I began to feel like I was a part of a place that I still didn’t really understand. I experience this today, as a twenty-two-year-old living in China. Every day, I step outside of my apartment and find myself utilizing that familiar skill: interpreting the world around me. It is a rush; it is a rush that no longer excites me simply in terms of understanding the plot of a story or the reasons for one hero’s actions; rather, it fulfills me on a newfound, intellectual level—one that was never present in my early days with John Wayne. Every day, I see something new; every day, Chinese horses thunder along the avenues of my synapses and fire newfound cultural secrets and notions onto the forefront of my windswept, always roaming brain.

Of course, it is only retrospectively that I am capable of recognizing my youthful misconceptions. Upon an older—more rational—inquiry, it turns out that I was wrong about being shot in the back. It isn’t more painful; rather, it is more disgraceful. It means that you didn’t go out fighting, didn’t fulfill your Homeric honor-duty to the gods of the Old Prairie.

Which means that I’m wrong about many things happening around me in China, too. I’m older; I possess more knowledge; I know that being shot in the back is, in utilitarian terms, no worse than being shot in the front; in short, I know a lot of things. But to fully understand a culture—its multivariable nuances and complexities—you can’t merely rely on that same spirit of discovery you cherished as a boy. That’s just not feasible.

Efficacious or not, I wouldn’t trade my suppositions about life in China for anything. It seems that I prefer the unknown—the guessed, the intangible—to any precise understanding. The colors of the prairie—lambent greens and hot, flowing stones of red—linger in my memory: infinite, and beautiful. I call them to me; I ask nothing of them; I care not for their accuracy; and, in turn, they fuel my infantine soul.

Reflections on Sayram

08 August 2015

On my second afternoon in Sayram I meandered my way through the main parking lot that stands between the crater lake and Xinjiang’s major highway, the G30. This impressive road is the conduit that drives summer travel between Xinjiang’s northern cities, specifically Urumqi and Yili.

Every minute or so I was approached by a Kazakh on horseback asking if I wanted to 骑马照个相 (have a photo taken on horseback), for just a small fee of 10RMB ($1.50). Where most of these Kazakhs’ (ranging in age from 8-40) forebears would have spent their afternoons herding or helping with housework, most of this generation in places like Sayram spends its summer days in tourist lots like this one, working from 10AM to 9PM. According to a rough estimate, the average daily take-in can range from 100-300 RMB, all of which goes to the family.

The effervescent girl pictured in these photos is eight years old. She is incredibly charming and thus persuasive. Each morning she goes to 干活 (work) and only comes back as the sun begins to set. She asked me what life was like in America, and then followed up her question by asking if I’d heard that America was helping Japan’s military.

“Japan is our enemy,” she said with the confidence of a diplomat.

Surprised that a Kazakh girl reared in the middle of nowhere in China hated a country that had never inflicted any direct harm on the Kazakh people, I asked why she hated Japan.

“Of course we hate Japan. Have you heard about what they did to our country? Haven’t you heard of the Nanjing Massacre?”

But that was a long time ago, I countered.

“Japanese people are evil. Have you seen the movie _____?”

Suddenly it all made sense. In this China, all you need is a television and you have access to the hundreds of 抗日 (Anti-Japanese) films that are broadcast daily on every province’s network in every minority language of the PRC, Kazakh included.

“So you learned about Japan from movies?”

“No, not just from movies but from history books too. We read about it in school– what they did is a fact,” she countered, confident of the foundations upon which her bias was based.

If there is any indicator of the extent to which many minorities in China have adopted the Chinese nation as their mother, it is moments like these. To hate the Japanese for what they did to the Han people is to show your communal bonds with a group of people simply connected to you because you both partake in the same national heritage. While of course it is also a reflection of basic human empathy– these bad people did bad things to good people and I hate them for that– the difference lies in the intangible subtle way that this animus was expressed: “they did these things to US” to “OUR country.”

The reach of this animus is not limited to this younger, more intellectually pliable generation. My Kazakh friend’s mother, in her 50s, also hates Japan. She also has watched countless 抗日 films. The only difference lies in the extent to which each group has been educated. My friend’s mother didn’t receive an education, so her antipathy toward Japan stems solely from the films she has seen and the propaganda that has been broadcast in her lifetime. These are not vague, hollow processes but robust, corporeal forces.

Water and Tea

14 June 2012

It was a blur.

It was a blur that reached out onto our restaurant table and wove itself into the napkins and our glasses of tea and water. It was very clear.

It was very clear that this blur that existed in the space between our sips of water and our vocal chords was what I had tasted on many occasions. I wondered if its opacity was mutually transparent.

I smiled. We’d been friends for the year, my year in China. We’d been friends for this, my first year in China—abroad—and we went to meals together once or twice a week. In typical Chinese fashion, we alternated between who treated whom to dinner. This time it was my treat. The last time it had been his.

We were friends for the extent of a year. A year was a long time. We knew each other well, and this was my treat.

I was not merely taking my friend out to eat spicy chicken with noodles (the chicken came on a big plate with flat white noodles); thestakes were higher: I was taking the possibility for interconnectedness between people from disparate cultures out to dinner as well.

I sat there awkwardly and consumed this heavy serving of clarity—that we had had so many dinners like this very one and that our meals had always come with a side order of the same, dull dinner-table conversations. And then I wanted to leave the table, wanted to escape the haze of in-between and its rich hoisin (hoisinreally? was it?) sauce. It was a dark brown; it was a bright red; it was spicy.

It was spicy and it stung my nose and confused me. It was dark and rich and beautiful indescribable and yet here it was, asking me to describe it.

The best I could do was to say that we weren’t friends—that our year together had been spent playing with our forks, gently pushing the food around our plates without really knowing what it was or why we continued eating it. We were posturing at being full.

And then it appeared that we had continued eating it because we believed that eventually the cultural issues would break away and we would find each other truly interesting. So I kept asking him to lunch, or dinner. We continued eating that chicken with wide noodles and the rich hoisin sauce because there was nothing else to do; because we had forgotten how to order anything else; because Will the intercultural interloper was looking for some savory dish of an experience to bring home with him after his year abroad and serve piping hot to my friends and family and potential colleagues. Internationalism was social currency.

I took another bite; the dish was cold. We put our napkins down, said our goodbyes, and went to our separate apartments where we would listen to different music sung in tones that were linguistically comprehensible but emotionally unintelligible.

We walked out, leaving behind the tea in our glasses; it tasted like water but called itself tea.

Reflections on Sayram

09 August 2015

I spent much of the morning and afternoon of my third day in Sayram assiduously acquiring a sunburn as I sat and read Tolstoy outside of Murat’s family yurt. The extent of this sunburn owes itself to two facts peculiar to my present situation in China. Proximately, I was sitting under the sun at an altitude of 2000 meters. More generally, I spent the last eight weeks in a Beijing that provided, gratis, ample UV protection on the few occasions in which I actually spent protracted amounts of time outdoors. In addition, Tolstoy has a knack for plot; thus I was wholly doomed to be burned.

In the late afternoon I wandered down to the parking lot to observe the rapport between tourists and locals. In part to avoid the sun and dust that was being kicked up by cars that sped through the dirt and gravel lot, I ducked into Sayram’s sole convenience shop to buy a bottle of water. I began chatting with the Kazakh shopkeeper, a pleasant man in his late 60s, when suddenly I was approached by a Han tourist in his 40s.

He interjected his way into my conversation with the shopkeeper by speaking a few phrases of what sounded like perfect Russian. He smiled confidently, clearly expecting that I would be impressed with his ability to communicate in what he had assumed was my native language.

“I’m American,” I told him in Chinese.

We exchanged a few meaningless remarks, and he walked off. I began again to speak with the shopkeeper about how his business had changed over the years. Less than two minutes after he’d initially walked off, the Russian speaker returned to the shop and looked at me with an expression playful yet austere.

“Let me tell you something: what you only have to think about once before comprehending–” he paused, pointing to the Kazakh shopkeeper, “–these people can think about a thousand times and they still won’t get it. Remember that.”

He turned abruptly and walked off. I looked at the shopkeeper; he smiled awkwardly and shrugged his shoulders. We continued talking for a few more minutes, after which point I returned to the sun and the swarm of tourists. It was there that I found Nalatar, the grandson of my host family.

While I was mostly just interested in taking photos of he and his uncle, his uncle insisted that I be included in one of the photos. Nalatar’s exuberant charm is tangible. Though only eight years old, his Mandarin is excellent. Each morning he rides off with a smile to go 拉客人 (find customers) to stay in his family’s yurt. However in two weeks he’ll return to his village to start the new school year; his horse will be a memory, and he won’t return to this pastoral life until next summer.

Later that evening, as we all sat around the hearth in the yurt, Nalatar’s uncle asked me directly: “Do you like our lifestyle?”

I responded that I loved living with them and that I was really enamored with the flow of life at Sayram. I am still trying to process what he said next: “When compared to other ethnic groups, our lifestyle is the most simple. A lot of people say that this life we live is antiquated, that we’re less civilized and cultured.”

I recalled the man in the convenience store. I tried to imagine how many countless examples of such biased thought there must be in Xinjiang. I thought of all the instances in which the Kazakhs  must have faced discrimination in their lifetime– not at the hands of the government on some macro policy level, but on the ground, in every day interactions, in the micro moments that slowly built up into an emaciated identity.

An idea of inferiority based on an imbalanced power structure. An idea of inferiority not truly believed but nonetheless present, alive. The existence of self-doubt– a consciousness of one’s inadequacy– these notions, however incorrect, seem to pervade the interrelations between herders and Han in much of Xinjiang province.

As I lay in bed that night, I kept returning to that moment: the low light that glimmered across his eyes and the searching look as he relayed the common perceptions of his people. It was as though he was looking to me for an answer. To what extent have these common perceptions been internalized? As I tossed and turned in the warmth of the yurt, the pain from my sunburn– the product of my body’s inability to acclimatize between Beijing and Xinjiang– increased in intensity.

Nantucket Fast Ferry

05 September 2013

It was a pristine morning. The harbor and the docks opened themselves into the ripening bouquet of autumn—when the colors swayed and vibrated between reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. The caffeine smell of early morning issued from the silent hull of the ship while harbor waves treaded delicately. Passengers shuffled onboard and took their seats: the Nantucket Fast Ferry was guaranteed to arrive in Hyannis Port within two hours.

Some minutes passed, and the doors of the ferry closed. Everyone was inside, sitting calmly in the rows of nylon. Next to the front row window sat a man. He was complaining about something, and in the reflection of the window his withered hands trembled, subdued by the cold iron voice of his once bewitching bride, who sat next to him—a sweet looking woman in her early eighties, wearing a pale gray sweater and chic blue foulard. She had on dazzling pearl earrings.

She began to shout as she stood up and Why don’t you quit whining! made the room swell with bitter feeling and Jesus, just STOP it already! words that pounded against his wilted ears. She walked off.

The solitary profile of his once handsome face was barely visible from behind the tall ferry seats, but the hands—they stood out in the light against the tinted windowpane. Slowly, they worked at the muffin and tried to make the pieces drag themselves up to his mouth. They were hands that betrayed themselves—now scraggy and pale but clearly once muscular and commanding. The thin glass veins struggled to lift the wrapping from the baked treat that was his breakfast. It seemed that somewhere behind the back of the chair, a mind was pulsating intense decrees to make even the most basic movements possible. Deliberately, the pieces began to disappear. The ferry pushed off from shore; it would be only two hours until it reached Hyannis, and no more.

His wife came back and, bending over him, forced a coffee into his hand. As it spilled out he gasped and cursed her Well good JOB! in his own emaciated way. Furious, she ripped the cup out of his hand and You can take care of yourself, all right! threw it into the trash bin. What should have been a moment of sympathy—an old shell of what had once been a tall rugged man now unable to even hold his own coffee—deteriorated quickly into GET UP, it isn’t a big DEAL! something pitiful as he looked up at her and with a crack in his voice begged her Please don’t, you’re embarrassing me… for just one moment of understanding, of unconditional love.

Where were his children? They had probably dropped the two of them off at the ferry and fallen back into their own circuit, their own youthful life filled with its own host of first-world problems and just enough good health never to really notice how good it all was. But the circuit would again come round, and in twenty or thirty or some number of years they too would be dropped off on some ferry by their own children and face the cold unforgiving Atlantic, alone.

That was the way of Nantucket—of countless other islands that catered to the wealthy—where fathers’ houses were bought by children at good rates and then updated and redone in ways that were fashionable and modern. The parents then became strangers in their own homes, no longer movers and shakers but now pushed aside to make room for fast-paced dinner parties. Gradually, the children began making more and more money and the parents stopped earning anything, relying on the image of what used to be—the oh-so-important appearances of manifold wealth and importance. Draped over their threadbare bodies rested expensive suits of impeccable cloth—articles from a bygone era when they triumphantly swarmed upon the islands and felt like they were somebody.

Unsure of what else to do, his hands—sufficiently greased from the ferry-bought breakfast—began to search for something to clean themselves with. They looked this way and that, one finger haphazardly prodding the blue blazer lapel before deciding not to further sully the wardrobe. The jacket was as traditional as they come: navy with gold buttons, probably bought at Brooks Brothers some ten years earlier. It hung loose, with pockets of fabric sagging across the shoulders of his frame.

Unable to bear this slow, unproductive effort, his wife shoved some napkins his way. After several seconds, his hands grasped the old crumpled paper, now brown and worn with the refuse of the blueberry muffin. He worked diligently, as if the one thing he had left, the one quantum of control that he still possessed, was his ability to keep his hands clean and civilized.

Finished with their work, they fell back into place at his sides, gone from the light of the windowpane. The ferry continued onward: the engines humming, steady, consistent.

Reflections on Sayram

10 August 2015

It was difficult to say goodbye to my adoptive Kazakh family, especially knowing that I may not be able to return next summer. Though it seems like my research is heading in their direction, there are countless variables that could stand in the way of my return next summer. We sat around the yurt and sipped mare’s milk as Murat’s father joked that he’d miss his 美国儿子 (American son) over the next year.

“Before you leave, will you go see if you can get us some new customers?” he asked playfully.

I was more than happy to oblige. I rode down to the parking lot and began to do my best at convincing tourists to stay the night in my “Kazakh family’s yurt.” Most people were shocked at the fact that a foreigner was asking them if they had a place to stay here in this remote part of China.

Either I wasn’t very good at it, or none of the people I talked to happened to be staying the night– regardless, I was unsuccessful. Luckily Murat, ever persuasive and clever, was able to corral a large group of tourists.

I followed them back to the yurt so I could say goodbye to the members of the family that didn’t spend their day in the parking lot adjacent to the crater lake.

“Are you married?” The Han woman in charge of the negotiation asked Murat.

“Not yet,” he responded, a flirtatious twinkle in his eye.

“Why not? There must be plenty of Kazakh women in this part of China.”

“Plenty of Han, too,” he responded, doing his best to hide the irritation that would sour the guest-host relationship. “I could marry a Han women, couldn’t I?”

There was an awkward pause that seemed to pervade the length of the grassland. The wind was blowing in from Kazakhstan; in the cold late morning we stood and assessed one another– Kazakh, Han, American– each wearing the clothes of our profession. The young American on a motorcycle adventure was wearing an Arc’teryx midlayer, a borrowed motorcycle jacket, and hiking pants that had the potential to unzip into shorts. The Han woman was wearing a smart yellow windbreaker, pants that looked like they’d been purchased specifically for this trip, and hiking boots. The Kazakh man wore patent leather shoes that were clearly meant for urban life, a pair of fraying jeans, and a sun-parched track jacket. On his head was the hat that did little to protect his face from the high-altitude sun.

For a moment the wind ceased.

“Of course you could; I just didn’t think your father would be okay with that,” she clarified.