Urumqi mon amour
I came to Xinjiang to see someone from before whom I anticipated I wouldn’t find. I’d read in a gawking travel publication that there was a single gay bar in Urumqi where the drag queens dress as Uyghur women in traditional outfits and spin like dervishes to poppy Central Asian music. Maybe he’d be there. But it wasn’t likely.
I stood at the hotel front desk, travel weary, my slow mind cooling itself from the dry heat outside. For a regional capital city, Urumqi was a small and slow place relative to Beijing, where I lived at the time. I was already taken aback by the absence of people. I felt, on arrival, as though I were on the edges of civilization in a way that scared me, although now I often find myself in similar places—in the outermost suburbs of Cairo, in the hills of Tijuana. I had come at the height of summer and of Ramadan. At the end of a day’s fast, store and homeowners put watermelon and sliced naan bread out on the roadside for the fasters.
I fasted, in those days, regardless of time and place and filial piety. I fasted because I thought I was becoming more beautiful than I’d ever been destined to be in this life. The horrible parts of me—my wide, flat North African ass and my ill-fitting merguez fingers—seemed to vanish along with the rest of my body. The photos of me from the late 2000s reveal larger-than-usual facial features. Everything but my eyes, nose, and mouth shrank until I was barely visible. And that felt sleek, not taking up too much space. It seems paradoxical to me, now, that I vanished my body in order to have more sex—often internationally, collecting men like stamps from other countries. I had sex in order to feel alive and present.
The lobby of the hotel was modest, clean enough, and the building was very centrally located in what was once the more Han Chinese part of Urumqi, not too far from what had been described to me as the Uyghur zone. The lights were out for some reason—either a power outage or for the cool of the shade. The clerk was looking up my reservation when the elevator opened behind me and a middle-aged policeman, not unhandsome, and a dry-looking woman
approached the front desk. Perhaps the arid climate had made her so dry, perhaps age. Bright lipstick, a cheap perm, ruffled chiffon, and little left to the
imagination. I envisioned they’d agreed, in a sort of verbal contract, that she was beautiful enough. That’s all that matters, I suppose.
I stepped back, reflexively, so that the clerk could help the officer, who produced a couple of hundred yuan bills, Mao’s Mona Lisa smile upside down in disapproval, and then the two left. The clerk and I looked at each other knowingly, and the conversation turned to tours. There were none for non-Chinese at that time of year, he said, flipping through a catalogue, so if he booked me a tour with Chinese nationals, it might happen that they’d turn me away and I’d have to eat the loss of a few dollars. I agreed to this, wondering how else I’d pass the time here—worrying that I’d fall into some painful realization and never emerge from Urumqi.
I made two friends on the tours. A military man on furlough, visiting from Henan with his mother as a belated birthday present to her. The mother mothered me. The son asked about everything outside of China. For them, to go to Xinjiang was the most exotic domestic vacation conceivable. They appeared on my first trip to a large, picturesque lake called Tianchi and then we found ourselves on the same bus to Turpan the following day. We ate together and took photos of each other and browsed the hokey Uyghur-themed gifts that people sold at all the gift shops of Xinjiang monuments. But by the tail end of that final tour we had exhausted all possible conversation. The long-haul bus rides to more traditional and scenic parts of the region had taken a toll. At the last stop I staggered behind on a tour of a traditional medicine factory and wandered into a vineyard. Chatting with the locals, I explained that my parents were from North Africa, and, excited to meet an Arab visitor, the farmworkers gifted me with a shopping bag full of their inimitable sweet and tart grapes and refused to be paid. I was delighted to receive such a precious gift, especially since I was, of course, quite hungry.
Back on the bus, we passed large expanses of arid land. Small canyons looked more desolate in the periwinkle of dusk, occasionally punctuated by clusters of windmills. I ate some grapes. As the dusk fell to night, I felt a sinking in me. Looking out the window into the dark, I wondered if I had come to this place that seemed to me to be on the fringe of humanity because my life, too, had arrived at its furthest borders. I finished the grapes.
I’d waited to go to the gay bar. I was twenty-three and already allergic to gay bars—and simultaneously found it impossible to avoid them. Even in far-flung Urumqi, even with drag queens dancing to whatever music was popular with young Uyghur gays, I imagined it would be the same shit as in Beijing and West Hollywood. The same mediocrity masked as debauchery. The same reassertion of the alcohol industry’s ownership of the Queer agora. Drugs and misdeeds in the bathroom. In Chelsea, it was some dude offering me a bump off his keys. In China in the early 2000s, it was MDMA, 摇头, head-shaking pills.
I had to go that night, I’d decided on the bus, since that was why I had come and because I felt a need to be surrounded by a great many people in what, so far as I’d experienced, was a stark place. And a gay bar, for all its darkness, is almost forcibly a Petri dish of human activity. I rushed home, changed, and went out.
I had some trouble finding the place. There was no signage and I had to ask passersby. It was on the second floor of a building with a large, heavy black metal door. It was rather dark at the entrance. A young female hostess smiled and asked in Mandarin if I was alone. She scanned the room and finally sat me at a small table in the middle of a large rectangle surrounding the stage. On one side of me were what appeared to be Han majority, and possibly Hui minority, Chinese. On the other side were Uyghurs. The middle, where I sat, was miscellaneous, it seemed.
It was eleven p.m. I was early. I ordered a whisky sour, because that’s what I thought wasn’t disgusting at the time, and it came with a basket of popcorn.
In another hour the club filled with people—the more resolutely Chinese-looking Chinese remaining on one side of me, and Uyghurs on the other. A series of young men emerged onto the stage, some wearing Western dress and performing Chinese pop songs. A single young man in a Uyghur frock twirling to Rayhon, an Uzbek pop singer. And then the dance floor filled with fog from a machine and the dancing commenced.
I smoked at my table, alone, observing, letting my mind wander. I’d started smoking not long before because of Brigette Lin Qingxia’s character in Chunking Express—a character born of the sorrow of bad men, and who remains the image of coolness in my head. She says, in between pink Lady cigarettes and dodging henchmen, I don’t know when it started that I became a very careful person; whenever I put on a raincoat, I always wear sunglasses. You never know when it will rain, and when the sun will come out.
These were my role models: Lin Qingxia, my mother, and black cats. Lin Qingxia’s character was her own sexual act. She was all the cooing poetry she needed. All the modulated slow and fast motions she needed. She was a sexless ideal that exuded sex in all ways. My mother never had another man after I was born, but she continued to maintain her looks in the way that even a fixed black cat licks its fur into place and strides such that it celebrates the grace of each step—back muscles contracting slowly, elegantly.
I recalled the dry woman from earlier, another sort of role model. What she and the cop shared seemed so much closer to my reality. There’s less room for falsehoods when an encounter is quantified and transactional.
My ashtray was full. I was drunk and uncertain what I was doing. I raised my hand, ash raining down on me, and ordered another whisky sour. A young man from among the Uyghurs, beautiful but with auburn Flock of Seagulls hair that had come and gone in style in Beijing years before, looked at me, laughed, and whispered to his friend. I’ve forgotten so many of the faces I’ve seen in my life, and that scares me, but I can conjure his very easily. He had skin the color of red clay and looked like a young Charlie Sheen.
I went to the bathroom for a break from the sight of the twist-and-shout dancing. When I emerged from the stall, Young Sheen was applying eyeliner in the mirror. Want some? he asked in Mandarin. He inquired where I was from. I told him the US. Why do you look so upset? he asked.
Why shouldn’t I look upset? I asked, thinking of the sort of men who tell women to smile on the streets of most American cities. But looking at his face, I noticed how impossibly pretty he was. A drunk moment passed as I admired him. He invited me to join him and his friends. I nodded and followed along, my prickliness undone by his face.
The young Uyghur drag queen from the night’s performance was among the group. She secured a round of Chivas mixed with a sweet red tea soft drink for all of us. The cocktail of queens in those times.
Why are you in Urumqi? Young Sheen asked, his arm around my shoulders. He looked into me. His eyes were like Billy Idol’s, the light eyeliner enhanced a God-given intensity.
I’m searching for someone. Maybe you know him. My first boyfriend was from here. I explained how we’d met when I’d been a study abroad student coming out and of age in Beijing. I was a teen living in a dorm. We’d found each other on a website. For two weeks, the Uyghur man came to my room and we studied together. He slept over several times, and when he could not, he had me put my phone beside my ear and we’d talk until I fell asleep. He said he wanted his to be the last voice I heard.
He was short. He spoke Mandarin with the accent—an absence of tones that almost sounds like yodeling—that more standard speakers of that language mock. When Han Chinese friends learned I was dating a Uyghur, they would replicate the sound they heard when Uyghurs, eking out a living on the streets of Beijing, like other Chinese migrants, sold Beijingers lamb kebabs and naan bread. Ni hao peng you. Hello, friend. Gei ni mai yang rou chuan yi chuan yi kuai. I’m selling lamb kebabs, a yuan per kebab. In the US, there was The Simpsons’ Apu thanking people and wishing that they’d come again.
My Uyghur boyfriend was a son of privilege, though, born to an influential family in his town. He went to a Beijing university as one of a handful of token minorities. He was failing math.
You remind me of Phoebe from Friends, he said more than once. It made me feel lame at the time, but in retrospect, I think Phoebe was the least insufferable of all those thoroughly obnoxious characters. What he likely meant was that I was relatively out there. Phoebe is my favorite one, he said, as a consolation.
There was little, in actuality, that made us more than sleepover buddies. Neither of us cared to have sex. Both of us had only just given in to being gay. As soon as we’d come out of the closet to ourselves, together, he’d go back in. We were passing each other on trajectories that would take him back to straightness and me deeper and deeper into the darkness of gay clubs, until, I’d imagined, at age fifty, I would fade into the walls and cease to be.
One morning, the springtime heat creeping in through the window above my bed, he told me he would very certainly go back to Xinjiang and marry a woman, even if I found a way to stay in Beijing permanently. I remember I was wearing my best multicolored underwear from a clothing bazaar near campus. He was wearing an oversized shirt and drawstring shorts.
I had anticipated a very different outcome. I’d been willing to drop out of undergrad for him. I would teach English or something else that unwittingly advanced a colonial politic. He’d get a good job for Party members. We would live in a decent apartment in Chaoyang District and tell conservative people we were long-time roommates or very good friends. I’m not sure we would have ever had sex. At that juncture in my life sex was unimportant, somehow. I had successfully repressed all desire. I conjured the Virgin Mary. In my head, I was her, without breasts or wayward thoughts. Of course, that was untenable. By the time I arrived in Xinjiang, looking up something I’d lost, the dam had broken.
What if I told you I know him? Young Sheen said. Not very well, but I think I know him. He yelled over the din in Uyghur to a friend who presented to me a flip phone with a picture of my first man, now very large.
He went back to his village, the friend told me. He has two children.
You liked him? Young Sheen asked, amused.
My ex had become unattractive. I felt sorry for him then. He was living in deference to his parents and his past, and I had the convenience of moving forward, miserable as I patently was. Now, I only feel sorry for his wife. I would like, if there were a way to do so without hurting her, to ask if she’s experienced love, and if not, to do my best—insofar as I can, asexually—to show it to her. Like her, I have also perhaps never known love.
銌当时觉‘很膧扺觉, I said. I had a lot of feeling at the time.
How do you know him? I asked the friend.
The friend smiled. It was too loud and hot in the club to bother to state the obvious. I wanted to hear him say it though. I wanted him to say that he’d had something cheap with someone who’d represented something significant to me. I wanted to smash all the idols I’d known, stop listening to Beach House dream pop, return to Beijing a bad bitch. I wanted to eat men in place of all my missing calories and spit out the bones.
The world spun that evening or I wouldn’t have crammed into a small sedan, packed like a clown car, with a band of Uyghur gay men. The drag queen from earlier. A large older man with a skinny, young, and exceedingly handsome top. The friend drove. He blasted music as he zoomed around town and through a traffic checkpoint—where whatever his ID said exempted him from a breathalyzer or further interrogation of his faculties—to his well-to-do neighborhood. The song playing was a remix of “Jidya” by Uzbek superstar Bojalar. An electrified Kazachok, perfect for a wild and bumpy ride, gliding recklessly across a dimly lit city. The friend gave me the burnt CD later in the evening. Young Sheen sat on my lap in the backseat. My mouth pressed against his damp shirt. I rested my ear against his back in between the bumps, and I was certain I could hear his heart pounding faster as the car leapt into seconds-long fits of flight. In the faint yellow light from the street lamps, I looked down to be certain it was his hand on mine, our fingers interwoven.
We poured out of the car, gasping for air. The friend’s parents were in another province, where they owned a business, he said. They frequently traveled. That they had obtained passports, as Uyghurs, was a status symbol akin to owning a Louis Vuitton bag.
The friend put out a spread of Uyghur leftovers. Very hospitable. He turned on a Rayhon song that had been playing at the club, “Bombay.” A Bollywood-inspired Uzbek song, perhaps a bit Orientalist but also an appreciation of the many Indian films watched in Central Asia. The friend danced for us, looking straight at me as he thrust his hips, while Young Sheen sat at my side smiling and laughing.
He’s crazy, Young Sheen said. We went to a bedroom and closed the door and began to mess around. The large man and the young top were in another room. The drag queen passed out on the couch, exhausted from her earlier
gyrations. The friend knocked on our door, playfully peeking in multiple times. Finally he said, in his mis-toned Mandarin, that he wanted to join us. Young Sheen replied with something stern in Uyghur and then locked him out. I was indifferent.
Young Sheen straddled me like I was a large beast. And then, just as his shirt came off, I felt a powerful cramp in my stomach. I searched my mind. We’d had so much comped liquor and stomach-churning red tea soft drink. We’d had Uyghur leftovers, perfectly refrigerated. It was none of that. I hadn’t washed the grapes from earlier.
Years of street food in China, eating innards and things that many Chinese friends said were dirty, had made me cocky—my stomach could handle anything. Except unwashed grapes. There was no vomiting or diarrhea, just stomach cramps, vibrating like the auras of a migraine. It’s a sort of synesthesia when you, all at once, experience sharp abdominal pains and a great sense of calm. Neither of us was upset not to have sex in that moment, though it is very much my personality to worry that I wasn’t sexually appealing enough for him to have made more of a fuss. But that night I was too drunk and my head was already too full, even for the white noise of my endless obsessions. I was quietly suffering. And also at peace, for something had ended that evening—a foolish sort of hope had died. And it had been a long night. We passed out under a floral printed quilt on the carpeted floor of a spare room with thick drawn curtains. In the morning we became conscious with our arms entwined but our bodies separate.
I stayed in that home for most of the next day. The pain was agonizing. The stomach cramps came in intervals, like contractions, whenever I awoke. I felt as though I had been staring at the ceiling of that room for the entirety of my short trip to Urumqi. Young Sheen brought me medicine. It was his day off from work.
Everyone else had left the apartment when he and I finally emerged. The cramps had subsided in time for me to go to my hotel, gather my things, and get to the airport. He said he would drive me. Back then I still entertained human interactions that were destined to expire. I’ve since learned to save myself the trouble, in the way that the dry woman, and her cop, probably had.
Young Sheen and I walked from the friend’s apartment complex to his small car. The tangerine-tinted late afternoon surrounded us. The light was pale and beautiful. The calm was punctuated only by the sound of children’s laughter, a far cry from the endless din of Beijing. I was unsteady. And, in front of everyone, in public, with conservative Uyghurs, police, and CCTV cameras watching, he took my hand. It was the closest I’d felt to anyone in a long time.