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A few hours ago I posted a picture from Kashgar of a Help Wanted ad that concluded, "Han Chinese only." Recently I've received a wave of messages, mainly from readers with Chinese names, similar in content to the one below. (In fairness, not all have been this huffy in tone*):

I came cross your website and read the article "No Uighurs Need Apply" written by Shannon Kirwin [ie, quoting S.K.], hinting the unfair treatment of Uighurs by Han. It showed how ignorant she and your web editors are, because you don't even know that Muslims don't touch any pork while Hans do. In addition it'd be a humiliation and insult to Muslims if you ask them to work in Han kitchens. I think it's typical that you Westerners are so unfairly to spread twisted information around the world, while smiling to your local Han friends.

Now, at the level of simple, cold logic, there are some obvious responses to this argument. If observant Uighur Muslims don't want to work with pork, then they're not going to apply for the jobs anyway. So why bother to say they can't? Or: maybe not all Uighurs are observant Muslims or even Muslim at all, and perhaps they'd like the job. Or: maybe there are other ethnic groups in the area who are not Han but would still be happy to work with pork. Why rule them out? Or: maybe some of the jobs listed, as supervisors, don't involve touching food at all. What about those? And so on.

But to me the responses are more interesting on two other, sociological levels. One is the theme that runs through much internal Chinese discussion of relations with its minority groups: that whatever is going on is obviously and overwhelmingly for the minority's own good. In the case of the Kashgar restaurant, sparing Muslims the sacrilege of dealing with pork. In the case of a Beijing exhibit on the history of Tibet I mentioned last year, bringing modern prosperity to a backward people. In this context, it doesn't make sense to ask, "Well, what if the Uighur wanted to work in the restaurant?" or "What if the Tibetans wanted to choose a different path," since the benefits to them are so plain. This attitude is obviously not confined to China: it typifies America's attitude toward its minority groups at many points in our history. But the attitude is more broadly shared and less internally-debated in China now than many other places.

(Beijing exhibit photo, showing a Tibetan woman grateful to have a modern fridge full of beer.)
http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5628.jpg

The other theme this illustrates is the much-discussed readiness of the Chinese "netizen" population to take offense at foreign criticism. Being away from China even for a few weeks, I am aware of how this reaction can be mis-read in the outside world. Day by day over the past few years in China, I've been in a sea of highly varied, tremendously individualistic, and generally very good-humored and approachable people. This touchy, net-based tone did not at all characterize the daily life I observed anywhere in the country -- very much including interactions with foreigners. But it is part of the mix in China's dealings with the outside world, especially when "foreign criticism" comes up.
____
* It is possible in the case of this note that I have fallen for an elaborate hoax. The sender's email address contains the initials "LOL" repeated twice with numbers in between, and his or her listed Chinese name is 笑生, which also has a jokey connotation. So who knows. Many of the other notes seemed quite serious.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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