China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Dirty Laundry
Date: Fri, 09 Oct 1998 13:16:37 -0700

11:54 John's Cafe, Kashgar; Xinjiang--China :: FR 09 OCT 98

I am back in Aksu, picking up my laundry a block or so from the Jin Hai Hotel. Or trying to. Can't seem to find the place. A row of blue-door-jambed storefronts all the same--unable to read the sanskrit and chinese lettering which would differentiate them. Ahh, a face I recognize. A small face on a small, middle-aged Han Chinese man. A pleasant face, which recognizes me and smiles. He motions with a wave, a query: you've walked by here a couple times haven't you? I nod a sheepish grin back, and we walk inside the shop.

Though I'm a little late, the laundry isn't quite ready yet. A young Uyghur woman, tall and straight, black hair pulled back tight but without the usual triangle-folded scarf pulled over it, she finishes the last couple passes of an iron over my pants and begins on my touring shorts. She looks up, at me, looks away. The laundry owner motions to a couple chairs, and I sit down with my shopping bags splayed all 'round. Time to reorganize them.

I've been shopping for western indulgences. There's a box of Oreos(tm), jars of peanut butter and strawberry jam, some of the rare edible dark semi-sweet chocolate you find from time to time, and a box of chocolate covered cakes, individually wrapped. The cakes are nearly finished so I consolidate the empty wrappers in the small bag which holds the Oreos, move the Oreos to the cake bag.

The owner watches all this, taking a noticeable interest in the cake box. There's only one left, and I've had my fill, so I offer this last cake to him. He politely waves the offer off, so I politely insist. Back and forth a couple times until it's firmly established that I'm not offering out of simple politeness, that I want him to have it, and he gratefully accepts the gift.

The wrappers on this give up their contents grudgingly so I help him out with the task of opening it and hand it back. He looks inside, gives it a sniff...then a tentative bite. I watch for facial reactions, but they're unreadable.

"Hao bu hao?"
Good/not good? I ask him. A smile, a nod of the head, thumbs up.
And another bite.

The cake's not large. He finishes it off with quick satisfaction.

He checks the progress of the ironing, notices only a couple shirts remain in the un-ironed pile. A long pole with a hook plucks from the high rails the hangers over which my finished clothes are draped. As he's absentmindedly folding the clothes he asks where I'm from

Ni shi cong nar laide?
and we begin the familiar sequence of conversation.

I'm somewhere between Xian and Lanzhou in the itinerary when another young Uyghur woman enters the shop. She looks up into the rows of clothing hanging from the high rails, for a couple minutes. Eventually, the owner turns from his task and asks in a tone for which a translation of the Chinese words is hardly necessary.

Is there some way I can help you, miss?
She fixes him with a stare, then looks beyond him to the woman busily ironing the last of my shirts, querying her in Uyghur. While the two carry on an animated question and answer period, the owner simply bows his head back to the task of folding my t-shirt. It takes a couple attempts.

The two women finish their conversation. The customer turns on her heel, briskly leaving the shop; the other finishes my shirt and sets it aside. No follow-up exchange between she and the owner.

I break the silence by launching back into my itinerary, explaining in my grammatically sparse Chinese:

Baoji de Lanzhou, huoche.
From Baoji to Lanzhou, I took a train. And the owner and I reenter our conversation while the woman moves onto the next pile of unironed clothes. He finishes the folding, stuffs the clothes in a couple bags which I gather up along with all my western goodies. The bag of consolidated garbage he takes and lobs into a far corner of the shop. I bid my adieus and thank yous and walk out into the street, in search of the elusive sliced bread for my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

I'm sitting here, in Kashgar, wondering if I should comment on this scene, provide an interpretation. Wondering if I should add any more of my own inflection than my simply retelling the story already adds. And I think not, except to observe that this is a scene which has played out in human history for longer than we can remember. I could say it is about race, nationalism, cultural ethnocentrism. I could add that while this land has changed hands many times over the millenia, between various Chinese Dynasties, Buddhist states and Muslim factions, the current situation sees the Chinese central government controlling a region almost entirely inhabited by Muslims who are not of Han Chinese descent and who have almost no representation in Beijing's halls of power. But this only describes the surface. The roles played are archetypal, the script translatable to any language, the sub-text easily recognizable to any who closely observe the underlying patterns of human interaction. Such a human story, and such a sad one. I'll leave the interpreations and the moralising, the defending and finger-pointing to those who believe such things make a difference.

Whoever is planted in the Tao
will not be rooted up.
Whoever embraces the Tao
will not slip away.
Her name will be held in honor
from generation to generation.

Let the Tao be present in your life
and you will become genuine.
Let it be present in your family
and your family will flourish.
Let it be present in your country
and your country will be an example
to all countries in the world.
Let it be present in the universe
and the universe will sing.

How do I know this is true?
By looking inside myself.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 54
trans. Stephen Mitchell