Archive for June 12th, 2008


The Perfume Bandit of the Chinese Western Frontier

The trip to Ürümqi, Xinjiang was a study in extremes. We met people who were incredibly cool, and certainly had great experiences that we’ll take with us for a lifetime. But we also had very ugly experiences with certain individuals, such that we’re even planning on writing the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide people to warn them about certain attractions.

As I write this, we are a mere two hours form perhaps the ugliest incident in the whole trip to China thus far. The victim, in this case, was Allison. As we arrived at the train station in Ürümqi for our return voyage, we were asked by the guards there to put all of our bags on the conveyor belt for X-ray scanning. Nothing too odd about that: we do that all the time in airports, after all. My bags got through without a hitch, but it was soon obvious to me that they were giving Allison grief for some reason.

What reason? It seems that Allison’s bottle of perfume was considered… contraband. For what possible reason would perfume be contraband? Other than the Elizabeth Arden Green Tea-scented perfume being a relatively expensive Bourgeois luxury, what could possibly be the problem? Well, that’s unclear. An English-speaking Uyghur guardwoman approached Allison and I, since the guards apparently didn’t speak any English and they didn’t realize that Allison actually already speaks pretty fluent Mandarin. She asked Allison, in English, if she was aware that perfume is 18% alcohol, and thus highly flammable?

Confused, Allison answered that this was a high-quality perfume, very unlikely to be flammable. As if in response, the male Chinese guard who seemed to be in charge took the perfume, and with a lighter, lit the burst of perfume spray that came forward, as if this proved something uniquely dangerous about perfume that wouldn’t likewise be true to the bottles of whiskey, vodka, moutai, and other hard liquors available for sale in the gift shops and convenience stores in the train station. (We later saw hard liquor for sale on the train itself as well as other train stations along the way to Beijing.)

We tried to argue over this issue with the guards. The perfume was expensive (around $50, I later learned), and a gift from her parents, and it was clearly safe. In retrospect, of course, mentioning that the perfume was expensive may not have been the wisest move. We even asked the guard if we could have some sort of receipt, or official write-up documenting that they had seized this perfume from us? No, of course not, don’t be silly. This is a police state!

Afterward, we could only speculate about this seemingly arbitrary search and seizure. Allison was, naturally, infuriated, and said this was like theft. I demurred: No, it’s not like theft, it is theft!

I mentioned the high grade alcoholic beverages already available for purchase inside that were presumably far more flammable and dangerous. But the other oddity was this: has there been a ban on all perfume in Chinese train stations? None was enforced against us in Beijing on our way to Ürümqi. And really, when you think about it, a lot of personal toiletries have alcohol, including the aftershave in my toiletry bag. And there was clearly no such global ban on such products, in the way that there’s a sort of ban on toiletries of a certain size on American flights. (Incidentally, I think that ban is idiotic and unjustifiable too, but that’s another story.)

We’ve thought of two explanations that make the most sense, and best fit our experience. They might both be true, to some degree, actually.

One: We were racially profiled on account of being American, or perhaps on account of Allison having features that many mistake for Middle Eastern or even Uyghur in nature. The seizure of the perfume was itself a kind of ex post facto justification for the extensive search taken of Allison’s bags, a kind of “See? We were justified in giving your bags a thorough search, because you were carrying around something dangerous!”

Two: Having spotted the expensive bottle of perfume, the guard boss guy might’ve decided that this perfume would’ve been a nice present for his wife, girlfriend, mother, etc. The stuff about perfume being flammable and dangerous was, again, an ex post facto sort of explanation. Even in a police state, it seems, the guards felt it necessary to at least offer one, even if it was an obviously false one, a kind of fig leaf for their thuggery.

It’s funny. We were just reading that as a matter of official policy, Chinese government officials have been told to try to emphasize allowing foreigners to have a good time in China, over traditional concerns over spurring sedition, the idea being that the Chinese government wants foreigners to get a positive impression of the country. Clearly, that policy shift hasn’t quite made its way out to Xinjiang.

So at this point, we’re out a $50 bottle of perfume. No apparent recourse, though it might be an interesting experiment to see what happens if we file an official complaint in Beijing or write letters to appropriate figures. The student I tutor, Nicole, has a mother who’s apparently a full-time Communist Party official, so conceivably we have contacts in high places. We could always bring up the matter with her. And of course, we’ll warn all potential travelers to China that the biggest thieves and pickpockets to watch out for aren’t on the streets or the bazaars, but rather in the security forces. For all of the warnings our Han friends in Beijing gave us about how dangerous the Uyghurs were, that, in the words of one woman, Uyghurs “don’t believe that theft is immoral” and their children are all pickpockets, we didn’t encounter any indications of street crime in Xinjiang. It was actually the biggest gang of all, the one with the most guns, that we actually had to worry about. Don’t bring anything to China you won’t mind guards seizing from you!


Orwell’s Museum

This museum is one of the few sites to see in Ürümqi itself, a massively rebuilt, modern museum dedicated to all-things Xinjiang – its ethnic diversity, its ancient history from the Paleolithic to the Silk Road to “Revolutionary” times, and is pretty comprehensive. Comprehensive, that is, within the strict limits permitted by Chinese censorship and control of information. There were, for example, no references to the various independent Uyghur political entities that existed, such as the Uyghur Empire, and the characterization of historical events was such that one would think that Xinjiang was “always” part of China, as if before the Qing Dynasty, people were already eagerly anticipating their absorption into the Chinese Empire. The references to peaceful cooperation between ethnic groups working toward the greater glory of China was, at best, condescending, and at worst, Orwellian.

Interestingly enough, I was reading José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses on the train on my way back, and he made a point about this kind of thinking, albeit in reference to European nations. He writes:

As always happens, in this case a plain acceptance of facts gives us the key. What is it that is clearly seen when we study the evolution of any “modern nation,” France, Spain, Germany? Simply this: what at one period seemed to constitute nationality appears to be denied at a later date. First, the nation seems to be the tribe, and the no-nation the tribe beside it. Then the nation is made up of the two tribes, later it is a region, and later still a county, a duchy or a kingdom. Leon is a nation but Castile not; then it is Leon and Castile, but not Aragon. The presence of two principles is evident: one, variable and continually superseded- tribe, region, duchy, kingdom, with its language or dialect; the other, permanent, which leaps freely over all those boundaries and postulates as being in union precisely what the first considered as in radical opposition.

The philologues – this is my name for the people who today claim the title of “historians” – play a most delightful bit of foolery when, starting from what in our fleeting epoch, the last two or three centuries, the Western nations have been, they go on to suppose that Vercingetorix or the Cid Campeador was already struggling for a France to extend from Saint-Malo to Strasburg, or a Spain to reach from Finisterre to Gibraltar. These philologues – like the ingenuous playwright- almost always show their heroes starting out for the Thirty Years’ War. To explain to us how France and Spain were formed, they suppose that France and Spain pre-existed as unities in the depths of the French and Spanish soul. As if there were any French or any Spaniards before France and Spain came into being! As if the Frenchman and the Spaniard were not simply things that had to be hammered out in two thousand years of toil!

So while the gaps in its history were significant, the Xinjiang Museum is interesting if only for its omissions. What the Chinese government chose to leave out is at least as interesting, if not more so, than what it chose to allow. Just don’t use the resources of the Museum as your only or primary source of knowledge about the area.

Also worth seeing is its impressive collections of mummies, among them the Tarim Mummies, which include the now-infamous and controversial Loulan Beauty. Though given the controversy over whether the mummies conclusively illustrate that the Uyghur civilization was in Xinjiang longer than the Chinese, and whether it is, in fact, older than the Chinese civilization, it’s perhaps not surprising that directly next to the Loulan Beauty they have another mummy of a Chinese general. Though this seems to me to be a big mistake, if they want to emphasize their claim that the mummies contain a mixture of Turkic, European and Chinese genetic features, because while the Loulan Beauty dates from 2000 BC, the Chinese general positioned next her dates from AD 600.

In any event, a visit to this museum also illustrates that the Chinese government still holds a starkly condescending view of its non-Han minorities. One of the two major exhibits at the museum was of wax figures dressed in clothes “traditional” to the groups, with photos and artifacts of “traditional” homes, dances, lifestyles and so forth. It fit snuggly with what seems to be the major narrative that the government pushes about its ethnic minorities, particularly those in Xinjiang and Tibet, that they are unsophisticated, primitive peoples who benefit from the civilization brought in by ethnic Hans and the Chinese government in particular.

Imagine if there were a museum in the United States were non-white minorities were presented in just such a way, with African-Americans represented as banjo-playing cotton sharecroppers in the South wearing 19th century clothing, or Mexican-Americans represented as sombrero-wearing farm workers in California or the Rio Grande valley. Or Irish people shown as potato-farmers during the Potato Famine, with clothing consistent from that era. Or better still – Han Chinese people depicted as dressing in 19th century style, with long ponytails (queues) and silk robes, working on a farm in the countryside. That’s about what this is like – presented as fundamentally primitive, as if these people had never been educated or encountered anything resembling modernity. This is all, perhaps, what is to be expected in a museum in which these ethnic groups themselves had no part in planning or organizing. This is the Other as seen through Han eyes, presented to a mostly-Han audience. It’s a shame, because such a museum could conceivably be used to break down ethnic and cultural stereotypes, but instead it merely reinforces them.

Finally, there was one portion of the museum where none of the tags going with the displayed artifacts were in English. The rest of the museum presents things in Chinese, Uyghur, and English, but this portion was only in Chinese and Uyghur, so I had to rely on Allison to translate. This was the portion dedicated to Revolutionary History in Xinjiang, on the role that Chinese Communists played in the area from the 1930’s up through the triumph of Mao Zedong’s forces in 1949, up through the “positive” relations between the local peoples and the Beijing government in modern times. In what was effectively a shrine to Communist activity in the region, where even things like silverware, radios, newspapers, and so forth are preserved as artifacts of the era, should I be surprised that nothing there is translated into English? One oddity – a book given as a gift to a major Communist leader in Xinjiang, where the tag indicates it as a book written in Russian, but what is obvious to any English speaker as an American textbook on paleontology published in the ’00s. Curiouser and curiouser.

Well, more soon. Possibly the oddest experience of the entire trip – the encounter with the Perfume Bandit! The identity of the Perfume Bandit may shock you – unless, that is, you’ve ever been to China.


Publicity for the Fiancée

Actually, I just returned to the US two days ago. But I have a backlog of posts I’ve written for the blog that haven’t been, well, posted yet. So I should get those up over the next few days to week. Beginning with…

This is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time. It seems that the LaFollette School has taken notice of my fiancée, and published a cover story about her in the school newspaper, used a photo of her from the border of China and North Korea. I’ve provided the links here if you’d like to read all about her project.