When Anar Sabit was in her twenties and living in Vancouver, she liked to tell her friends that people could control their own destinies. Her experience, she was sure, was proof enough.
She had come to Canada in 2014, a bright, confident immigrant from Kuytun, a small city west of the Gobi Desert, in a part of China that is tucked between Kazakhstan, Siberia, and Mongolia. “Kuytun” means “cold” in Mongolian; legend has it that Genghis Khan’s men, stationed there one frigid winter, shouted the word as they shivered. During Sabit’s childhood, the city was an underdeveloped colonial outpost in a contested region that locals called East Turkestan. The territory had been annexed by imperial China in the eighteenth century, but on two occasions it broke away, before Mao retook it, in the nineteen-forties. In Beijing, it was called New Frontier, or Xinjiang: an untamed borderland.
她2014年移民加拿大。这位聪明而自信的移民，来自戈壁沙漠以西的一个小城市--奎屯，它位于中国的一个夹在哈萨克斯坦、西伯利亚和蒙古之间的地区。"奎屯"在蒙古语中是 "寒冷 "的意思；传说成吉思汗的部下在一个寒冷的冬天驻扎在那里，他们一边发抖一边喊着这个词。这座位于被当地人称为东突厥斯坦的争议地区的城市，在萨比特的童年时代是一个欠发达的殖民前哨站。这块领土在十八世纪被大清吞并，但此后两次独立，直到十九世纪四十年代被毛泽东政权重新接管。在北京，它被称为"新疆"也就是“新的边疆”——一个未被驯化的边境地区。
Growing up in this remote part of Asia, a child like Sabit, an ethnic Kazakh, could find the legacy of conquest all around her. Xinjiang is the size of Alaska, its borders spanning eight countries. Its population was originally dominated by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other indigenous Turkic peoples. But, by the time Sabit was born, Kuytun, like other parts of Xinjiang’s north, had dramatically changed. For decades, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps—a state-run paramilitary development organization, known as the bingtuan—had helped usher in millions of Han Chinese migrants, many of them former revolutionary soldiers, to work on enormous farms. In southern Xinjiang, indigenous peoples were still prevalent, but in Kuytun they had become a vestigial presence.
As a child, Sabit imbibed Communist Party teachings and considered herself a committed Chinese citizen, even as the bingtuan maintained a colonialist attitude toward people like her. Han residents of Kuytun often called Kazakhs and Uyghurs “ethnic persons,” as if their specific culture made no difference. Sabit accepted this as normal. Her parents, a doctor and a chemistry professor, never spoke of their experiences of discrimination; they enrolled her in schools where classes were held in Mandarin, and they taught her to embrace what she learned there. When Sabit was in elementary school, she and her classmates picked tomatoes for the bingtuan. In middle school, she picked cotton, which she hated: you had to spend hours bent over, or else with your knees ground into the dirt. Her mother told her that the work built character.
Sabit excelled as a student, and after graduating from high school, in 2004, she moved to Shanghai, to study Russian, hoping that it would open up career opportunities in other parts of the world. She loved Shanghai, which thrummed with the promise of glamorous, fast-paced living. But she was still an “ethnic person.” If she told a new acquaintance where she was from, it usually derailed the conversation. Some people, believing that “barbarians” lived in Xinjiang, expressed surprise that she spoke Mandarin fluently. Just before she completed her degree, the tech company Huawei hosted a job fair, and Sabit and her friends applied. She was the only one not offered an interview—because of her origins, she was sure.
Sabit brushed off this kind of prejudice, and became adept at eliding her background; when circumstances allowed, she fibbed and said that she was from some other region. She found a well-paying job with an investment company. The work was exciting—involving travel to places like Russia, Laos, and Hong Kong—and she liked her boss and her colleagues.
While Sabit was in Shanghai, her parents immigrated to Kazakhstan. They urged her to move there, too, but she resisted their pleas, believing that China was a more powerful country, more forward-leaning. She had spent most of her life striving to be a model citizen, and was convinced that her future lay with China—even as the politics of her homeland grew more fraught.
In 2009, a fight broke out in a toy factory in the southern province of Guangdong. Amid the melee, two Uyghur employees were killed by a Han mob. The next month, hundreds of Uyghurs took to the streets of Xinjiang’s capital city, Ürümqi, waving Chinese flags and chanting “Uyghur”—a call to be seen by the country’s leadership. The police cracked down, and riots erupted. Hundreds of people were injured or killed, and hundreds were arrested. More than forty Uyghurs were presumed disappeared. Dozens were later sentenced to death.
A year after the riots, Sabit was travelling to Kyrgyzstan with a group of co-workers. While trying to catch a connecting flight in Ürümqi, she was pulled aside by the authorities and told that, because she was from Xinjiang, she needed special permission to proceed. As her colleagues went ahead, she had to spend a day at a bureau for ethnic and religious affairs, getting the papers that she needed.
Having absorbed the Party’s propaganda, she believed that such measures were necessary. Still, she began to feel a deep alienation. No matter where she went in China, she remained an outsider. One day, back in Shanghai, she looked up at the city’s towering apartment buildings and asked herself, “What do they have to do with me?”
Not long afterward, she talked with a friend who had moved to Vancouver. Sabit flew over for a visit and was drawn to the openness and opportunity that she found; whenever she told a Canadian that she was from Xinjiang, the response was warm curiosity. She enrolled in a business-diploma program, and that summer she returned and found an apartment and a roommate. She landed a job as a junior accountant in a Vancouver company. She fell in with a circle of friends. She had met a man whom she loved. Her life was on a course that she had set, and it was good.