Urumqi

I tug at my grandmother’s hand gently as we push through the crowds of the morning market in Urumqi. The vendors’ cries hover at a certain pitch, blending with the aroma of fresh dim sum and spicy meat. I steer her toward my most anticipated destination—the naan stand.

“One yuan for two! Cheap naan!”

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Naan is a local specialty: flat, baked bread popular among Uyghurs, the largest ethnic minority of Xinjiang in Northwest China. Delicious plain or combined with spiced mutton, it is a staple for even the Chinese immigrants who live here. The Uyghur vendor bags four from the stacked naan on the stand and hands them to me. I hug the still-warm bread to my chest and smile. We begin walking home at a steady pace; grandmother’s bound feet fail to hinder her strength. The street is thick with people. Someone steps on my foot, and I jump.

But I am used to this lack of personal space.

We pass the skyscrapers. To my left, a building with hollow windows and missing bricks is still under construction. My friends and I, starved for adventure, climbed it a couple weeks ago, forgetting parents’ warnings. The city was our playground then, and we were drawn by our overactive imaginations to its towering promise. Standing on top of the building, I inhaled the stale air and saw my city stretched out before me. I loved it passionately, for its noise—the noise of open-air markets, frustrated traffic, and the children’s delighted screams as we pretended to be explorers and conquerors…it was then that I was again filled with a reoccurring desire to write of the crooked building’s hidden beauty. I longed to tell the world of the richness of life that I observed daily.

On my right, I can make out outlines of the elderly stretching and doing taichi at the park. I imitate the group of Uyghur girls dancing to middle-eastern music and flipping their braids. Urumqi is a city of contradictions. The Uyghur and the Chinese live on a delicate balance, with the two cultures overlapping and crossing each other’s thin boundaries. I grow up oblivious to the politics of the Chinese struggle for power in Xinjiang. I know only that I love walking home from school in knee-deep snow and hearing Turkish accordions play in the distance. I love finding that the Uyghur kids had the same rules for “Hide and Seek.”

One more block, and we enter the courtyard. It is already peppered with people milling about, chatting. The grandfather next door plays Chinese checkers with his daughter, and I join the cluster of onlookers and clamour to participate in the next round. I tear off a piece of the naan and pass the rest around to old and young hands. We are a family, sharing without hesitation. The adults speak of the homelands they left behind for Xinjiang, a land with a name that translates to “New Frontier.” In coming here, they have forged a new culture of Uyghur and Han traditions among neighbours who leave their doors open and chat under grapevine canopies while sipping tea. I am a part of that fusion of cultures, a child of pioneers. And when I leave behind a continent, I will always carry with me the richness of our differences and the courage of understanding them.

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