Enver Tohti is a Uyghur doctor now living in the UK, having left Xinjiang in the late 1990s after making an undercover documentary film for Channel 4 uncovering the effects that Chinese nuclear tests have had on the local Uyghur population. Here he writes for Xinjiang Source on the evolution of his Uyghur identity.
The first sentence I ever remember learning was “long live Chairman Mao, long live the CCP”. I had no idea of what 'identity' was or of what my identity was, but I knew that I had to learn those words before I could be accepted into primary school in Urumqi.
I went to school at the age of seven. My parents worked for the railway bureau, and because those working for the bureau lived separately from the Uyghur areas of the city, my siblings and I went to a Chinese school. My education, therefore, was a Chinese education, and I was taught to feel proud of being Chinese and of being part of the Chinese nation.
However, despite speaking perfect Chinese and my father being a respected member of the CCP, I had an uneasy relationship with my classmates. They would shout my name and angrily question me as to why my name was so different from their names. I didn't know what to say. They couldn't even pronounce my name correctly, and I had no idea why.
One day, I was invited to my friend's house to celebrate Chinese New Year with him and his family. His mother offered me some pork, but I declined and told them that I was not allowed to eat pork. My friend asked me why this was and, as I was only a young child, I told him that I did not know. His father then told him that Uyghurs did not eat pork because our ancestors were pigs. In that moment, I felt such pain and hurt that all I wanted to do was escape. We had been told in school that all Chinese were descendants of the dragon, but I had just been told that I was descended from a pig. Despite the many years that have passed, the pain and humiliation that I felt has not left me.
I started to become more and more aware of my identity as I got older. A few years later, we were studying a textbook of Chinese and world history. I couldn't find anything about the history of Xinjiang or of Uyghurs, and I didn't understand why. I asked my teacher about it, and he told me that it was because in those days the Uyghurs were foreigners. This startled me; how could Uyghurs have been foreigners? Weren't we all a part of China? I was confused, and started to question whether or not I really was Chinese.
It was not until many years later that I finally understood my identity. The year was 1995, and as part of my medical studies I was training in a cancer hospital in Tianjin, in the north-east of China. Shortly before, a bus had exploded in Urumqi and Uyghurs had been blamed. In the hospital's morning briefing, a Chinese doctor from Henan province remarked to me, “We should have assimilated you people long ago, you only cause problems.” The other doctors and nurses loudly agreed with him. I was the only Uyghur in the hospital, and at that second I felt completely alone.
After a moment of silence I replied, “You know what? Your Chinese nation is a great nation. In the anti-Japan war, the Japanese were raping your mothers, your sisters and your wives. You fought for eight long years, and finally kicked them out. Be prepared, because eventually we will do to you what you did to them!”.
It was at that moment that my view of identity changed forever. It was only then that I finally understood who and what I was, and who and what I was not. I was not Chinese, I was a Uyghur.