A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Ilegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 2 of 2)

Read Part One of This Story

The Urumqi Airport Aviation Hotel had a huge bug zapper behind the reception desk that gave off a piercing blue glow. I was handed a room key and a glossy brochure that brightened my mood considerably.

“Built in 1974, Airport Hotel locates in Urumqi ariartion airport that today is over 6000 meters! It joints the terminil building by a bridge. It is such a perfect hotel to choose if you traveling by air!..To have a tasteful meal here is dream here. According to your requirement, Airport Hotel restaurant might prepare you all kinds of local delicious…Other hotel services include beauty center, taxi, tour trip, Shopping, and complete checking in procedure arranging conference.”

My first meal in China was something of a blind man’s banquet. The Airport Hotel Restaurant had no English speakers or menu, so I had to resort to circling dishes listed in my Lonely Planet phrase book.I pointed to the Chinese characters next to five or six dishes but my waitresses kept shaking her head and eventually walked away. I was convinced that the warm Liquan beer I was drinking was all I was going to get, but just as I was about to get up to leave, she and two other servers arrived with five steaming entrees, a bowl of soup and a plate of cooked peanuts.

I was thoroughly confused but since Xinjiang Airlines was paying, I didn’t bother to send anything back. The Airport Hotel felt a bit like a very strange college dormitory in that most of the guests kept their doors open and had their television sets blaring. There were three channels – all showing a badminton match between Indonesia and Denmark.

My room had an assortment of odd signs, each containing various warnings. My favorite was one on top of the TV that read: “Don’t touch it yourself!”

How does one pass a weekend under de-facto house arrest in Xinjiang province? I decided to take a day trip to what the Chinese call Heavenly Lake – two hours to the east. Tianchi, (Heavenly Lake) is a majestically serene lake flanked by the 5,445-meter high Mt. Bogda, known as the Peak of God. The excursion and a relaxing Sunday spent chatting with novice English speakers at an Urumqi park helped me forget that I was a passport-less illegal immigrant, at least for the weekend.

On Monday morning, I rose early and sat in the lobby of the hotel, listening to the hum of the blue bug zapper as I waited for my parole hearing, which was scheduled for 9 a.m. I waited impatiently until about 10, when I received a call from a woman at Xinjiang Airlines who told me to call her Holly.

“Dayveed, we have problem” she said. “So sorry but we must come toomahwoaw. The cahmandeeng offisah not heya today, call back toomahwoaw.”

“Holly, I want my passport back TODAY!” I pleaded. “I want out of here, I’ve got to get to Shanghai! I’ll pay the damn fine! Please get me out of here.”

“Today is not paw-see-bull!” she said.

I slammed the phone down and went out to find a phone card to call the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Trying to find the number and figuring out the local phone system took some doing but the call produced immediate dividends when I got through to a local Chinese employee at the embassy who promised to look into the mater and then called me back a half hour later.

“Mee-stah Sem-eee-nah-rah, the Chinese said they’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.

I regretted that I hadn’t figured out how to call the embassy even sooner, and weeks later, I realized that the embassy’s intervention came less than 48 hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted on granting China permanent normal trade relations. The Chinese were on their best behavior once I got the embassy involved.

Ten minutes later “Holly” and a colleague of hers from the airline, Miss Yang, arrived and greeted me nonchalantly. And five minutes at that, two Chinese soldiers arrived at the hotel.

“You must pay 1,000 yuan now,” Holly instructed, before pausing to add, “please.”

My de-facto captors wrote up a myriad of reports on a “Fancy Lion” notebook that had a cute image of a kitty on it. I was given no less than 5 receipts to sign, so if the penalty was a bribe they were going to have a serious paper trail to cover up.

I paid the fine and before the soldiers left I showed them an article in that morning’s English language, China Daily, a state controlled newspaper, which stated that the government had set the poverty level at 635 yuan per year ($76).

“So you see,” I said, “you have fined me more than one year’s wages for a Chinese worker, all for arriving here one week late on a perfectly good visa.”

The group studied the article for a few moments and then Holly interpreted the response of one of the stern faced officials.

“Yes, but he says that you are not a Chinese peasant,” she said. “You are American, and you have much more money. We think this is not very expensive for you.”

They handed back my glorious looking passport, which had never looked so resplendent. I was granted a 24-hour visa, and the girls from Xinjiang Airline agreed to accompany me downtown to extend it.

The visa office had a sign in English that was engraved on the wall, “strictly enforce the law – enthusiastically serve the people.” I was sold on the former but needed convincing on the latter as I plunked down another $40 for a month-long visa. As the three of us walked out into a steady rain, Holly tried to console me before saying goodbye.

“You know, we are trying to change but it takes long time,” she said. “Maybe the next time you come China, things will be easier for you.”

When my girlfriend arrived in Shanghai, I was there waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers and an outstretched fan with her name stenciled in Chinese characters on it. We were married the following year and shortly thereafter I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and found myself interviewing visa applicants on a daily basis. I never told anyone that I was once an illegal immigrant myself.

Read Part One of This Story Here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credit: Avixyx, Dayou X, on Flickr]

Xinjiang Journal: Sixteen hours in China’s Wild West

First part here.

6:20 pm. I ask Akbar how he was able to learn the game in just a few months. “Baseball is very hard,” he says, but explains that, like many of the Uighurs on the team, he grew up familiar with the mechanics of batting and fielding, having played shatop, a traditional sport much like cricket.

“And were you good?” I inquired.

“Very good,” he says, in complete seriousness.

After the game, I walk over to the catcher, 22-year-old Zheng. To him, baseball is more than just a game of athleticism. “I like it because you need to use your head,” he says.

He’s also enjoyed getting to know the Uighurs on the team, and says that they even “hang out” after practices, perhaps to shoot some hoops at the always-crowded courts nearby or watch a MLB game online back in their dorm. And if the conversation ever falls short, they have one bedrock bond in common: they’re all devoted followers of the New York Yankees.
7:15 pm.
Over generous bowls of lang mien, a spicy noodle dish popular here, a half dozen of the Uighur ballplayers, still in their white and blue uniforms, patiently explain the art of rabbit hunting to me.

Parhat Ablat, the 21-year-old captain of the team, snaps his wrist to illustrate how a wooden sling could hurl a whittled javelin at fatal speed; he began hunting rabbits-“a good afternoon snack”-when he was ten. It does not take much to deduce how he developed his pitcher’s arm.

We’re at Sister Naidu’s Restaurant, one of the unspoken Uighurs-only eateries on campus, where two other teammates are busy comparing tactics between baseball and popis, a Uighur sport akin to field hockey. Although Xinjiang, with its rural pace of life and cloistered culture, may be the last place you’ll expect baseball to turn up, the Uighurs’ outdoorsy upbringing-hunting rabbits, shepherding sheep, tending crop-have shaped them into nimble, if not polished, ballplayers.

Of course, many of the parents have yet to fully grasp their sons’ newfound life in the big city, let alone this curious game of wooden sticks, untranslatable terminology, and men in tight pants. Rufo says that when he visited Ablat’s village, 900 miles outside of Urumqi, his family treated Ablat like a “superstar,” just for making it out of the sleepy outpost which has only in the last few years become wired for electricity.

10:00 pm. The fluorescent glow of a 70′ flat-screen illuminates our booth here at Fubar. By chance, this sports bar, in one of the many Han districts, is broadcasting a Blue Jays – Yankees game. (There are no Uighurs here except for Ablat and a teammate.)

But I’m too busy listening to Rufo, the 24-year-old wunderkind filmmaker (he has his own travel show on PBS), and what he has to say about filming in notoriously sealed-off Xinjiang.

He recounts growing a mustache and traveling in disguise to villages strictly off-limits to foreigners, following players on dates and doctor’s visits, and waiting outside countless dorms and classrooms. “Doing a documentary in cinéma vérité style is an exercise in patience,” he says.

His documentary, Diamonds in the Dunes, traces the highs and lows of this Uighur-Han baseball team during the past season. “At the beginning, they were uncomfortable with each other,” he says. “There are still so many differences, but the game has brought them closer together than they’ve ever been in their life.”

3:30 am. We have the streets of Urumqi to ourselves. No honks, beeps, blares for a few more blissful hours. Flashes of lights interrupt our peaceful amble. A police cruiser pulls up to our group of four. The driver leans over, looks me in the eye, points to the two Uighurs, and says, “Are they causing trouble? What are they doing out now?”

Only when the policemen see their ID cards-a bit incredulous that these trouble-makers were in fact top students at Xinjiang’s best university-do they let us go.

Afterwards, Ablat shrugs it off. “If you’re Uighur, you cross bad things every day,” he says.

6:00 am. I’m back on the same plane; it is 8 am Beijing time, yet I, my fellow passengers, even the crew, do not seem ready for the new day. Before I drift off to a four-hour nap, I tell myself to reset my watch when we land.

Do-it-yourself Xinjing

  • Most importantly, give yourself more than 16 hours. Plan at least a week, preferably two. Even better is if this is part of a Silk Road itinerary
  • Flight from Beijing will take four hours and cost about $200 one-way.
  • Hotels are easy to book in Urumqi; high season is in late summer with snow starting in October (and winters are tough out here)
  • Traveling within Xinjiang is often by bus; prepare to spend 20 hours at a stretch. Flights are possible, but expensive and far apart.

Xinjiang Journal: Sixteen hours in China’s Wild West

3:05 pm. The plane from Beijing has barely landed, and I’m already on my phone. The screen flashes 5:05 pm, and for a moment, I fear I’ve missed the ballgame, that I’ve flown 2,400 miles to the heart of China’s wild west-roughly the distance between New York and San Francisco-for empty bleachers and discarded foam fingers.

Then, I remember that there are two worlds here in Xinjiang, each with its own definition of time. The Han Chinese run this hardscrabble autonomous province on official Beijing time while the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, prefer unofficial Xinjiang time. Getting by on two different time zones is easier than you would think, for the Hans and Uighurs live in different neighborhoods, speak different languages, practice different religions, and attend different classes.

When these two worlds clash, violence often erupts. In August, 33 policemen and Uighur rebels were killed around Xinjiang, and with the end of the Olympics, many human rights activists fear an even greater crackdown on the Uighurs.

But there is one place where these two worlds still coexist peacefully: on the baseball field.
3:50 pm. I’ve made it to the skirmish (score one for Xinjiang time), but two problems arise. The first is that it’s raining. The second is more alarming. I’m standing on a soccer field, and the baseball players-college students from Xinjiang University-are not batting or catching or throwing: they’re kicking around a soccer ball.

Christopher Rufo, a 24-year-old Sacramento filmmaker who has been following this team for the past eight months, sees my confusion, and explains that the nearest baseball field lies 1,400 miles east of Urumqi, in Xian. “Baseball is an outlier here,” he says. “Few people play the game, and that’s why it’s considered so cool.”

Even though they must make do with a soccer field (with one corner as home plate), and their gear-worn gloves, stitch-frayed balls, rough bats-would not be fit for the Little League, these players have beaten the odds. On the field, they’ve transformed, in four years, from a skinny group of mostly freshmen (none of whom had ever seen a baseball game on television) into a cohesive team that has held their own against bigger, better equipped opponents from the coast. Off the field, their tale of overcoming bitter racial divides-there weren’t enough players to have separate Han and Uighur teams-begs to be baseball’s answer to Remember the Titans.

6:35 pm. It’s the fourth (and last) inning, and while I’d like to say it was a close game, no one was keeping score. Nonetheless, Akbar, a Uighur freshman and material physics major, dashes from second base in a full sprint, off a hard grounder into left field.

He rounds third and continues his mad dash to home, arriving in a tangle of legs and arms. I hear yells of “out-ta” (out). There’s no umpire, so the catcher, Zheng Siming, a Han junior and computer science major, makes the call. He had inadvertently dropped the catch, and rightfully declares, “Say-foo” (safe).

Their coach, Jai Kuk Rue, a stocky Korean who never fulfilled his dream of making the pros, watches approvingly from the sideline. “Baseball to us is not about points or winning,” he says. “Most important is our teamwork. The Uighur and Han players are always in close contact, so their relations have improved.”

He’s in the middle of retracing the team’s ascent in fortunes-the discovery of a cachet of gloves left by Japanese exchange students in the 1990s; his chance vacation to Xinjiang five years ago with his family, and the subsequent decision to stay and coach the team; the recent organization of a middle school and four elementary school training camps by team alums-when Akbar bounds over, all grins and still breathing hard.
Second part tomorrow.

Photo of the Day (04/15/06)

With Easter weekend
here the snow begins to thaw a little and even disappear in most places. I’m not sure if such is the case in this
amazing panorama taken by Alby in Urumqi, China, but it was too beautiful to pass up. The red
lanterns look almost as if they are popping off the photo, bursting away from the freezing snow.  Everything from
the person in red strolling towards the lifeless brown tree to the temple to the right makes this a stellar photograph.