Aydos Amantay: The Failure

Translated by Canaan Morse - From Issue 15 of Chutzpah!


I AM A Kazakh who grew up in Beijing, far away from my own people. It wasn’t until April of last year that a stroke of good fortune allowed me to travel to a county town in Xinjiang province to teach Chinese to Kazakh middle school students.

I had to fly to Urumqi, then spend many hours on a long-distance bus to get there. The bus sped across the grasslands, a bright green expanse dotted infrequently with snow-white yurts that flicked past the eye.

I knew the people living in the yurts were Kazakhs, but I would never know what kind of life it was they led there. Who was I? A Kazakh who had grown up in Beijing. I had never experienced the grasslands, never kissed that soil. Even when I was there, it was only as a traveler, and like any other tourist, all I could do was take a couple of meaningless pictures as evidence of my presence.

I carry deep-seated feelings of failure and self-contempt inside me.

THERE’S NOTHING I can do about it.

Even if I were to abandon Beijing and move to the grasslands to herd sheep, would I have found the Kazakhs? Would I have found myself?

Even in Xinjiang, I was still the same boy with a Beijing accent, who loved reading Kafka and going to coffee shops on weekends with his girlfriend. No one who wasn’t born on the grasslands can have the spirit of the grasslands within him. The bus wasn’t crowded at all; over half of the seats were empty. I smelled an overpowering stench. It might have only been the smell of mud, and I was just unaccustomed to it. Thinking of this, I sighed and looked out the window.

Sunset burned over the grasslands. It was unutterably beautiful.

We got into town. To me, these county-level towns were only just short of being nowhere, but to young kids from the grasslands, this was already “the outside world.” I didn’t have time to take in the local scenery because I had to report to the school. When I arrived at the front gate I hesitated for a long time before creeping forward like a thief and peering inside.

The first thing that caught my eye was not children, but the children’s smiles.

IMMEDIATELY, I WAS surrounded and hustled into a dilapidated old classroom. As a former Secretary General for my high school’s student council, I didn’t fear public speaking—yet I was deeply nervous now, as I faced these students for the first time. I wasn’t just facing children; I was facing their eyes. Never had I been examined with such intensity. I couldn’t tell if there were special meaning in it, but it made me feel happy. I introduced myself in broken, Beijing-flavored Kazakh: “Um, so . . . Uhh . . . I—um—I—ahh—am your new teacher.” Before I had even finished the room erupted in laughter. I scratched my head and stuck out my tongue in embarrassment.

The room laughed harder. I laughed too.

MINUTES LATER, THE Head of School got up and gave me a very earnest introduction. He said I was the pride of the Kazakh people, and that I had come from Beijing, our country’s capital. That it was such a fortunate surprise that a young man from Beijing would actual agree to come all the way to a backward place like this one to dispense knowledge to all of you. We should all attend to his example, he said. He is the true pride of the Kazakh people. The students paid no attention to him. Their little black eyes were too busy running up and down my body. A few more impudent boys even made faces at me.

I stood enveloped in the children’s collective gaze and listened to the Head of School’s embarrassingly exaggerated praise of me. I had intended to deflect his compliments with an apologetic reply, but in the end I let it go.

First of all, my Kazakh was so bad I wouldn’t be able to make myself understood.

Second, when I looked into the kids’ eyes, I realized it would be utterly meaningless to try.

I was only five years older than they were, but I still like to call them “kids.”

The kids in my section liked to go around boasting to the other sections, “We have a teacher from Beijing.” They were passionately curious about Beijing. Their questions were all very simple: “Are the buildings tall? Are there a lot of cars?” And I replied in my limping Kazakh, “So tall, so many.”

My every answer was followed by an awed “Ohhhh!” from the whole class.

I’m not sure what that exclamation was supposed to imply. Nor do I think they knew, either.

IN FACT, LIFE in Beijing was fairly boring. On the weekends, my girlfriend and I went either to the bar and café street, Nanluoguxiang, or to the 798 arts district. Or we went out for coffee. Life was so bland that we were left filling one kind of boredom with another.

Of course the kids would never have understood that, and I would never have told them.

And yet I couldn’t figure it out: these children all came from grasslands. Growing up in such a vast landscape, how could they think the city was big? Perhaps their definition of big was different from ours, a definition only they could understand.

Conditions in our classroom were as poor as one could imagine. The blackboard was only a section of wall painted black by the students. Even the whitewash on the walls had been done by them. It was a boarding school, and the students all slept there at night. An on-duty teacher, who was responsible for room check-in and security, slept in a small reception office. The administration had wanted to find me an apartment in town, but I refused, offering to live in the reception room full-time. That way, the other teachers wouldn’t have to do night duty. All were pleased with this.

The kids were happy about it, too. At first, I assumed that this was because they figured their “child teacher” would be easier to negotiate with; but during my time on duty, they seemed even more respectful of the rules than they ordinarily were.

This was a Kazakh school. I was responsible for the students’ Chinese language classes. To them, Chinese was a foreign language. Their Chinese was bad, but they liked to speak. They would tell me in faltering Mandarin, “Teacher, we . . . we really . . . really . . . we really like you.”

Naturally, to hear things like that was heartwarming. Their Chinese and my Kazakh were equally bad. Yet we communicated more fluently with our childlike gestures and baby talk than we did with speakers of our own languages.

They left me with many moving proclamations, though there was one that was particularly unforgettable. It came from Aygelin, a young girl in my class. One day, she rushed excitedly up to me, a wide grin on her face. With determined effort she managed to say, “Teacher is from Beijing. We are Kazakhs. We love our teacher.” She was wearing a skirt with a floral print that was too loud for its own good and a shirt that was something between pink and purple. Two glowing cheeks in a baby-fresh face. As soon as she finished she turned and ran off, giggling.

She believed she had said something that would really please me.

THEY WERE FASCINATED by Beijing. Even though they would probably never learn what Beijing was really like. Each had his own imaginary Beijing. They loved hearing me talk about it. I would say to them in my execrable Kazakh, “Beijing, real, real big. Wangfujing Street, real, real pretty. The girls, real pretty too!” A roar, as the room exploded with cheers and laughter.

These were the only Beijing stories my Kazakh would allow me to tell.

THERE WAS ONE class in which everyone was surprisingly energetic—because, it turned out, they wanted to hear me talk about Beijing. I asked them what they wanted to hear, but the class went quiet in response.

A boy piped up, “We want to hear the last one you told.”

So, I repeated the story about the buildings being tall and the girls being pretty.

They laughed just as happily as they had before, as if it were their first time hearing it.


THE CLASS HAD one female student who was older than I. Her name was Aydana. She had worked as a waitress for several years in Urumqi. She had settled down, made a little money, made a life for herself. But when the hotel manager wanted to promote her to head waitress, she responded, “Ma’am, I’m leaving.” The manager, a middle-aged woman of almost fifty, asked, “Are you unsatisfied with your compensation here? Or have you found a new job?”

“I want to go to school,” Aydana stammered.

“You’re such a focused worker, and you don’t even talk much. You know, you’re the only Kazakh worker in this entire hotel, and yet I’m asking you to be head waitress. It has nothing at all to do with ‘ethnic unity.’ You’re dependable, and I think you have a fighting spirit. I look on you like my own daughter. Think about it.”

Aydana replied, “Ma’am, do you know why I don’t talk much?”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s because I don’t know any Chinese.”

The manager gave her some money. She told Aydana that when she graduated, if she wanted to come back to the hotel, the head waitress position would be waiting for her.

After Aydana finished her story, she kept looking at me silently, as if there were something still unfinished.

The town may have been utterly unremarkable, yet to a Beijing boy like me it seemed full of wonder.

The first contrast that comes to mind was the restaurants.

THERE WAS ONE restaurant right near the school entrance called “Yellow Flour Steamed Buns.” You walked in and the owner hollered at you, “You want dumplings or noodles?” You picked one of the two. For a kid like me, used to picking his way through heavy, choice-laden menus, this was a novel thing. It got better. There was another place simply called “Pilaf,” with a big Uyghur man at the door who asked you, “Big bowl or small bowl?” Then he gave you your bowl of pilaf and you walked inside to find a seat. Food so fast, it left even KFC in the dust.

At first blush, places like these may have seemed too dirty to me. Yet once I’d taken the time to experience them for what they were, I found their method easier and more sensible than restaurants in Beijing.

I was most impressed by a restaurant called “Mr. Hai’s Place.” It had no servers, just an old man named Mr. Hai. He sat in his restaurant, reading the paper and pondering the great problems facing the nation. There weren’t many guests. One day, I brought one of the students there. There was a menu, and no shortage of dishes listed on it. But when we finished ordering, the old man closed the menu shut, turned and trotted out the front door, even calling back to us, “Watch the place for me,” as my classmate and I looked at each other in disbelief. Five minutes later he came loping back, breathless, a plastic bag of groceries in his hand. Apparently, the food there was all by-order. Prices were astonishingly low; you could have fed five people on twenty yuan. The dishes were good, too. While we ate, the owner sat next to us with his newspaper, occasionally inquiring, “How do you like the beef dish? Does it taste good? Not too much salt in it?”

Beijing has nothing like Mr. Hai’s Place.


TO THE STUDENTS , though, I was still a Beijinger. Whenever I joined their company, they turned reticent. Aygelin was the only exception. She came to my office every day at noon to get help with her Chinese.

She was my favorite student. Her Chinese was nothing special, yet she always fixed her gaze tightly on me during class, and her laugh was so easy and amicable.

Her declaration, “Teacher comes from Beijing. We are Kazakhs,” also gave me reason to like her. Slowly, she began to treat me like one of her own. There was a sense of having conquered or proved something—and regardless of which it was, it was expressed with great delight, the kind of delight that’s impossible to mute or conceal. She could see it and feel it, though I doubt she knew what it was.

I often took her to the only passable bookstore in town to read during the free time before evening study period. On the way, I would do my best to talk to her in my broken Kazakh. “Kafka . . . Kafka—ahh—umm—he is an author, an outstanding author, he wrote a lot of things Kazakh don’t have. If you can, you—you should learn Chinese. Learn it well. And read him.”

She had no idea who Kafka was, and so could only smile and nod. In reality, though I was supposedly the city boy from Beijing who had read books, I didn’t really have much to teach her. All I could do was explain to her what I believed to be true using my thoroughly awful Kazakh.

By now, I’ve already forgotten what exactly we talked about. Most of it had to do with universal equality, democracy, liberty, that sort of thing.

Maybe I didn’t express myself clearly; at any rate, she still didn’t understand.

THAT EVENING, AS I returned to the dark reception room, I chided myself for introducing such messed-up ideas to a girl like her. What could a girl from the grasslands possibly want with Kafka? Walking to the window, I looked into a night far blacker than Beijing’s. I wanted to smoke a cigarette, then discovered I was terrible at it.

In that moment, that little provincial town seemed to me like a better place than Beijing.

Though I may have had more knowledge than the people here, that knowledge made me shallower than they.

RESTLESS AND UNABLE to sleep, I left the reception room. The sports field was all sand, but I didn’t care, and I lay right down on my back. As I stretched myself out, I unintentionally heaved a long sigh. Lying on the sand, I felt as if Mother Nature was holding on to me. My field of vision was filled with stars. I thought of my first girlfriend. She loved stars. Her greatest dream even now was to look at a sky full of stars.

There I was doing just that, and she was thousands of miles away.

She moved to Beijing from a small city when she was eight. While we were dating, she frequently told me how their house used to face a mountain that was blasted to rubble by miners. The also used to have a huge tree right in their front yard, which she would play under when she was little. Later, she watched as the tree was cut down by men with chainsaws.

She was only a child then, and she thought she was losing her home, though the reality was that people were building. Several years after moving to Beijing, she once traveled back to her home to see relatives. She discovered that everything about the city had improved, and the quality of life had risen. But that evoked a feeling of pain and fear from the very bottom of her heart, worse than when she saw her tree felled by a chainsaw.

We were sixteen when we dated. I didn’t understand her at all. All I knew how to do was constantly promise her that I would become a successful, reliable man. I told her I’d buy her a forest, and build a little house for her in the middle of it. This always made her laugh. Back then, I thought she was laughing because I had made her happy, but now I realize she was simply laughing at me. I admit I never really listened to her. Perhaps because I was only her boyfriend then, not her friend. All I wanted was to make her laugh. I didn’t know that smiling and laughing weren’t all that happy, or all that important.

I never could understand why, when she spoke of the destruction of her hometown, she never showed any anger. She just repeated the story over and over with no trace of emotion. In an utterly unmoved tone, she’d say, “It’s all very hard to accept.”

But from her tone of voice, I could tell that she had already accepted it.

WE CONCLUDED WITH an inexplicable breakup, just like all other couples that age. Afterwards I realized that the reason she’d talked to me about her hometown was not because I was her boyfriend. It was because I was Kazakh. Even though I had grown up in Beijing, the Kazakhs all live in Xinjiang, so I had the air of a wanderer, like she did. It may even have been the reason we dated in the first place. We remain good friends to this day, supporting and encouraging each other.

SHE’S CURRENTLY STUDYING mechanical engineering at a very good university here in China. The girl who always hated machines, who watched machines bulldoze her childhood memories flat, decided when she was nineteen to learn how to build them.

This apparently contradictory situation somehow makes perfect sense to me.

Only, I don’t know why it should make sense, just as she didn’t know why she accepted it.

BECOMING FRIENDS WITH Aygelin brought me closer to all the other female students in the class. Sometimes in the evenings they would invite me into their dormitory to drink milk tea. When the girls from the adjacent dorms heard I was there, they would come by too. Everyone would squeeze together in one little room. It was a warm scene.

The surface of the narrow table in the middle of the room would be jam-packed with cups of all different kinds. Some were cracked in the lip, while some of the ceramic ones looked like they’d come through a century of use. They were snugged together on the table, mismatched, garish colors making a mean display. When each one had been filled with steaming hot milk tea, no one immediately reached for her own, but sat there, watching.

Perhaps drinking milk tea is a happiness only a Kazakh can know.

I IMAGINE MY ancestors. On bitter cold winter days and nights they crouched together inside a yurt, a pot of milk tea between them. Anyone traveling across the vast plains could step into any yurt and receive the attention of the host. The very same pot of milk tea would be placed before them.

Several people have said to me that the Kazakhs never produced any heroes. To me, this seems no great cause for anxiety. I am moved by the fact that, no matter how much hardship this people have had to face, even in their darkest hours they have held fast to a bowl of milk tea. They understand the happiness it holds. They understand the happiness of a group of living, breathing people, dark-eyed and red-faced, gathered around a bowl of milk tea. Everyone around me reached for their own cups and sat looking at each other, giggling and sipping.

Aydana pulled out several circles of nang flatbread and tore them quickly into manageable pieces. Several people reached out to take some. It was the first time I’d observed the hands of Kazakh girls. They were larger and stronger than mine. The skin above their knuckles was thick and creased. Aygelin’s hands were no exception.

When I extended my hand for a piece of nang, Aygelin cried out, “Look! Teacher’s hands are so soft! Just like a girl’s!” I yanked my hand back in a flash, while the girls laughed heartily. Beijing girls are all very polite when they laugh, and hold their small hands lightly over their mouths. The girls in front of me guffawed loudly, like the hard-drinking bandits of legend.

They ate their nang by spreading it with a thick layer of butter before dunking it in their tea. They said this was the Kazakh way of eating it. I imitated it, and crammed two big pieces of nang into my stomach. There were cheers and applause. Aygelin was watching me eat and smiling, as if to say, Teacher, now you are a real Kazakh. She tore a piece from the half-moon she held and stuffed it into my hand. “Here! One more piece!” I ate it using the “hundred-percent Kazakh method.” More applause and acclaim.

I didn’t tell any of them that I didn’t like to eat nang this way. I wanted them to call me a Kazakh, Aygelin especially. I don’t know why.

Finally, we sat on the beds and sang Kazakh songs. The nights in Xinjiang are cold. Yet we were all together in one room, drinking tea, eating nang, and singing. All feelings of cold—those blown in from the window as well as those risen within the heart—were banished without a trace. They sang:

I love the one I hold, may all things rest
Do not believe the world has only beauty
When you believe everyone in the world is lovely
Don’t forget that earthly beauty is only in the mold

Galloping toward the mountain pass
The pass is right before your eyes
Sitting at table with family and friends
Happiness is before your eyes

A star on my steed’s brow, I’ve come to see you
I built a banister around the well, afraid you’d fall
I come purposefully to your door, O my girl
Don’t pretend not to know me, and turn on your heel

Galloping toward the mountain pass
The pass is right before your eyes
Sitting at table with family and friends
Happiness is before your eyes

Such a lovely song. Whenever I hear it, I wonder if the Kazakhs really are a race free from care and anxiety. But all things are not as beautiful as songs.

Life is still life.

THERE WERE TWO problem children in my class. They were bad students. One was called Kaysa, the other Kaylat. They went out drinking every night. I frequently invited Aygelin and her roommate out to dinner, and we would invariably find these two drinking in the restaurant. “They aren’t good students. We don’t like them,” Aygelin would whisper to me. I only smiled weakly in response. Whether or not they were good students was not a crucial question.

Yet their way of drinking confused me: facing each other at the table without saying a word. They’d just pop the caps off the bottles of beer and drink in total silence. Neither would utter a single syllable to the other during the entire affair. To me, it seemed boring in the extreme. But they did it every night.

They just stared at each other and drained the bottles before them. Restaurants in small cities are always loud. Most of the guests at even the halal restaurants were Han people from the city, and there was a constant squawking of Mandarin Chinese. I watched the two of them drink quietly, fingers wrapped tightly around their beer bottles.

If you’re a Kazakh you know that many of our people are alcoholics. That such people drink doesn’t concern me, but I am interested to know how they get drunk. Is it at the dinner table, singing with friends and family, or are they like these two boys, drinking alone in some loud, or quiet, but nevertheless lonely corner of the city?


AYGELIN AND I had a lot of good times together.

One night, as she and I were coming back from the bookstore, she went silent for a moment, then asked, “Um, you know what?”


Before she even responded, she burst out laughing. “You look like a little bear! You look like a bear when you talk to me.”

I smiled and shook my head. No matter if they’re from the grasslands or from Beijing, girls say some nonsensical things.

STILL, THIS NONSENSICAL little girl had some brawn to her. One day, when we were out on the sports field, she said, “Teacher, let’s see who’s stronger!” “Um, maybe that’s not a good idea,” I replied, but she had already sat down in the grass and assumed the position. So with a laugh, I sat down as well to arm-wrestle a fourteen-year-old girl. Now, I’m no weakling, but as soon as my hand gripped hers I regretted my decision. I couldn’t put her down. Nor was she impatient to beat me, but looked at me with those impish, twinkling eyes. My ego had been pricked; I relaxed my wrist and make a quick end to the conflict.

She grinned in exultation. I felt a momentary disgust for her. “The weaker one has to do what the stronger one says,” she mandated. I grunted in assent. “You have to do what I say,” she continued. I grunted again.

Moments later, she declared I needed to be punished by receiving a hard flick on the forehead. I closed my eyes and awaited the impact. Yet instead, I felt a soft tickle next to my nose. Opening my eyes, I found Aygelin holding the stalk of some plant, which she was twiddling over my face.

I could have been wrong, but at that moment, she seemed almost bashful.

Zhysang,” she told me.

I stared blankly.

She pointed to the herb, and repeated, “Zhysang.”

SHE GAVE ME the plant. Its odor wasn’t really sweet like a flower’s perfume, but had the pure scent of grass. Later in life, whenever I smelled that odor, I thought of Kazakh girls. The dictionary revealed that zhysang was actually just the Kazakh word for mugwort, a common enough plant.

I don’t know if this plant holds any special significance in Kazakh culture, but frankly, I would prefer that it didn’t. I would prefer that its background were as clean and uncomplicated as its aroma.

I gave Aygelin a Chinese nickname, “Miss Nonsense.” This Miss Nonsense frequently made me nonsensically annoyed, as if she were making fun of me for being from the city. Other times her nonsense would move me in ways Beijing never could.

Happiness is extended in time spent simply. The days kept repeating themselves, yet without becoming monotonous. Everything was so simple, until one day, little Miss Nonsense fell nonsensically in love with me.

IT WAS IN the wee hours of one morning, as I was sleeping soundly in the reception room. There was a knock on the door. I sat up and turned on the light. It was 2 a.m., Beijing time.

Who could this be?

My clothing utterly disordered, I went to the door and opened it to find Aygelin standing before me. She was wearing a pink skirt and, incredibly, had even put on makeup. Seeing the bright red of her lips through the half-light, I felt something bad was about to happen, though I couldn’t think what.

“Aygelin, is something wrong? It’s so late.” She didn’t reply; she would say nothing.

It was the first time I ever saw her serious.

I HAD JUST woken up and my mind was in disorder. It was the first time I’d ever seen her with her face so clean and made-up. My heart quivered, and I realized she was actually quite pretty. But I quieted my emotions, smiled and asked, “Aygelin, is there anything I can do for you?”

Tears welled up in her eyes. Her entire countenance twisted. She started babbling in Kazakh, speaking much too fast for me to understand. Then she pulled out a few notecards and read me Kazakh poems. I stared at her in complete confusion. She spoke to me some more. I merely looked at her through a sleep-drunk haze, as if she were a dream. The only thing I understood was the final question: “ . . . will you?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t understand you.”

Her head was lowered, but now she raised two glistening eyes and gazed at me.

There was a long silence. Only the sound of her heavy breathing.

Then, in broken Mandarin, she said, “Teacher, I . . . I fell—fell in love with you.”

MY ONLY THOUGHT was that this couldn’t be real, and I must be dreaming. Without thinking, I replied, “I don’t know. I need to sleep,” and shut the door heavily. I shouldn’t have said that, but I had no choice.

But when I lay back down in bed I was as awake as I’d ever been. I stared at the broken ceiling. I should have been thinking of ways to deal with this girl, yet my mind was drawn uncontrollably back to Beijing.

Beijing, land of my childhood. Beijing: Tian’anmen, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Beihai. . . .

Walking hand-in-hand with my girlfriend through the crowds at Shichahai, I felt like I had found my lost self. I’d take her to the Museum of Art, not to look at the paintings, but to look at her. On summer nights, we’d sit on the rooftop terrace of some restaurant in Nanluoguxiang, and I’d watch her drink beer. Winters in the Temple of the Earth Park. The roots of the ancient trees curled and twisted, the setting sun so beautiful it stopped the breath, sparrows dancing in the air around us.

These times weren’t entirely without uncomfortable moments, of course. That discomfort was caused by one particular difference. Whenever I walked alone down the streets or narrow alleys of Beijing, old women would often smile at me and say, “Welcome to China!”

When I told the most recent “Welcome to China” story to my girlfriend, she merely giggled. I laughed with her, though I knew it wasn’t something to laugh about.

Ever since I was small, I have hoped to make my differences invisible. Those differences are often very hard to bear.


I was only a guest; in half a month I was set to leave this small town, never to return. In the end, I thought, I am still different. More importantly, Beijing represented development, modernity, opportunity. . . . These were all things this little town would never have. Only, in Beijing, I often felt like a wanderer. As if I didn’t belong to that land, but couldn’t find my own home. I had never slept with my girlfriend. But tonight, after Aygelin’s confession, I felt a burning desire for my girlfriend to be with me. I could smell my own weakness. It had settled into the deepest pocket of my life and put down roots.

I lay in bed, unable to sleep and feeling like I was quietly breaking down. The next day, I would have to see Aygelin’s naturally beautiful face. I would catch her by the hand and say to her, “Aygelin, we can’t be together. We’re just too different.” Once I said those words, I would lose the most precious hope and emotion I had felt to date. I couldn’t give myself resolve, nor even think up a reason to have it.

The sun rose. The day had started too quickly, I thought.


BEFORE CLASS THAT morning, I screwed up my courage and explained myself to Aygelin. “I’m only here for two months in all, and I only have two weeks left. For the two of us to be together just isn’t realistic. You’re a good person.”

I figured that once I told her, everything would be fine.

YET I HAD no sooner stepped into the classroom than Aygelin started to cry. It appeared that everyone knew her problem already. No one spoke. My own mind was awash in delirium. Feelings of shame mixed with a sensation like moving through a dream with no way to escape. I couldn’t help missing Beijing and my girlfriend. I hoped she would come and rescue me, though I couldn’t say exactly why I needed to be saved.

So I stood awkwardly at the blackboard and taught my lesson. Today’s example was, “Excuse me, how do I get to Wangfujing Street?” Everyone did their best to listen and pronounce it correctly. I was kicking myself, wishing I hadn’t picked this kind of example.

The lockstep repetition of the entire class set off the noise of Aygelin’s sobbing, which echoed throughout the classroom. I finally lost control of my emotions and yelled, “Aygelin! Go stand in the corner!” Only when she stood up did I realize she was still wearing the pink skirt from the night before. She wiped her cheeks as she walked to the far corner.

That class, Aygelin cried from the starting bell all the way to the end.

When the period was over, I put on my teacher’s face and scolded her, “Pay attention to your work and stop crying! Do you hear me?” She just wiped her eyes and said between sobs, “You’re leaving soon, anyway—”.

EVERY DAY SHE came back to tell me she loved me. When she made me genuinely angry, I asked, “What is it you really want?” She realized I was mad and got scared. It appeared she didn’t expect I would ask her such a question, or that such a question might even be raised. She stared at me and replied, “I just . . . love you.”

PERHAPS I DID injure her pure heart.

“AYGELIN CAN’T SEE! Teacher! Aygelin’s eyes hurt!” Aydana ran over to me, breathing hard. I ran out of the office to find Aygelin covering her eyes with her hands. I pulled her hands away, and saw that both her eyes were bright red. I put her on my back and set off for the town’s sanitation clinic, my mind totally blank.

THE SMELL OF cleaning fluid pervaded the clinic. I carried Aygelin all the way to the doctor’s office. The doctor carried on unhurriedly with his business for a while before finally putting on his stethoscope and cursorily examining her eyes. Then, still unfazed, he said, “Oh, this is nothing. Just an infection.”

“Doctor, how could it be nothing?” I exclaimed. “Her eyes really hurt, and they’re all red.”

The doctor replied, “There is a medicine for it, but I’d recommend she just use a normal eyewash instead.”

“How come?”

“For her benefit. The medicine isn’t for her.”

“How is it not for her?”

The doctor got annoyed, and looked up at me. “Ninety yuan a bottle! I’m saying this for her own good. Have her use a normal eyewash and she’ll be fine, it’ll just take a little longer.”

I looked at Aygelin. Her face had turned red, and she lowered her head.

Glaring at the doctor, I pulled a hundred-yuan note from my wallet, slammed it on the table, and said with vicious effort, “Keep the change.”

SHE RODE ON my back the whole way home.

On the road, she remarked, “I thought that even if something happened to me, you wouldn’t care.”

EVEN TODAY, AS I am writing this story, I doubt she fully understands how important she was to me. She was the first Kazakh to smile at me that way. I’ve had a lot of Kazakhs tell me I’m a fine young man.

Yet none of them had ever smiled at me the way she did.

AYGELIN WAS RECUPERATING in her dormitory. That day, the students all had gym class, so I took the time to go to Aygelin’s room to see her and administer her medicine.

As I was dripping it in her eyes, she asked, “Why don’t you like me?”

I sighed and replied, “You know, I have a girlfriend back in Beijing.”

“A Han girl?”

I gave a half-smile and nodded.

Our race usually doesn’t allow inter-marriage with Han people. I hadn’t planned on telling her any of this. Still, after I’d said it, I felt it wasn’t the reason she and I would never be together.

She paused for a moment, then asked, “Is she pretty?”

“Uh-huh, she is.”

“Probably better-looking than I am?”

I didn’t reply. She sighed, then said, “Well, I wish you both happiness!”

Then she snatched the bottle from my hands and applied her medicine herself.

“It’s really not because there’s anything wrong with you,” I continued. “Ten more days and I’m gone. And I won’t be coming back.”

She pulled herself close to me, and in a soft voice asked, “Why won’t you come back? We’re all Kazakhs. We’re your people, we love you. There are none of your people in Beijing.”

I inhaled reflexively the moment she came near. Her body had a strange perfume to it, entirely different from the way Han women smelled.

It was the smell of fresh milk. She had been milking cows all her life.

I like that smell.

Yet I said resolutely, “I can’t live in the grasslands. We’ll never be together.”

I DIDN’T KNOW how things were going for my girlfriend in Beijing.

At the end of 2008, I tested into a good university in Beijing. Yet, due to an inability to accustom myself to the university method of education, I chose to drop out. While I was there, I had studied in the Chinese department. But I decided to take control of my own life and work as a freelance writer. Quite a romantic ideal, but it put a lot of pressure on me and my family. I loved my girlfriend, even hoped to start a family and spend the rest of my life with her. But I didn’t know what to do. I knew the racial issue would mean we wouldn’t have many well-wishers.

And what about me? Never went to college, spending all my time writing stuff nobody reads—even if we did end up together, how would I support her?

She was the calm, collected type, with a very unexcitable personality. She always found my love to be a little too intense. She preferred slower, more stable men. Being with her gave me a feeling like I couldn’t stretch my arms. If only she could love me the way Aygelin loved me, I thought. But if she did, that wouldn’t be her.

Yet if I loved her dispassionately and soberly, would that be me?


THERE WAS AN open interview at school. A company came to interview Kazakh high-school seniors for positions as tour guides. Aygelin, Aydana and I went to listen in.

The interviewer was a Han, dressed in a suit but with the air of a provincial buffoon, who sat grandiosely on the stage.

“Any special abilities?”

“Singing, dancing, playing the dombra.”

“ . . . Any special abilities?”

“Singing, dancing, playing the dombra.”

The interviewer shook his head pretentiously. “How is it that none of you can do anything but sing, dance, and play the dombra?”

The audience went dead quiet.

The interviewer made a stupid joke to cover the silence. “This isn’t good at all, ha ha, all your race can do is sing and dance, nothing else? This won’t work.”

The Head of School, who sat next to him, laughed too, almost more heartily than he did.

Dissent seethed among the students. Everyone began talking and arguing together. Aygelin touched me on the shoulder and said, “What he’s saying is, he thinks we’re all dumb, like we don’t know anything.”

Aydana chimed in, “Right. Teacher, you’re the only one of us who speaks Chinese. You can’t let him talk like that.”

Every single one of the students there possessed a sensitive mind and a pure spirit. These are the fundamental qualities of being human. It was only the difference of language that kept them from displaying their talent. It might be easy for a stranger to believe mistakenly that all they did was dance and sing all day. But how could they make this man before them understand otherwise?

I stood up. I had no idea what to say. . . .

THE EYES OF the “boss” doing the interviews and of all the other teachers turned to me. They knew this was a Kazakh who could speak flawless Mandarin. They were waiting for me to stand up for them. My mind replayed scenes of the students tearing off pieces of nang for me. We had sung, danced, and passed carefree days together.

Glancing to one side, I noticed Aygelin staring fixedly at me.

My race can do more than just dance and sing. We understand the very nature of man’s relationship to man. From one perspective, even that is enough. The boss was looking at me with a smirk on his face. “Do you have something to say?” “I . . .” I lowered my head and looked back at Aygelin.

I don’t know why I was shaking with excitement and anger. I slowly lifted a finger and pointed at the “boss.”

Nor do I know why I suddenly shouted:

“Fuck you! You’re the one who doesn’t fucking know anything!”

Every kid in the room seemed to understand the meaning of what I said. Their soft black eyes were all trained on me.

Aygelin gazed at me with an expression overflowing with love and excitement.

I nodded and swallowed. Then I said:

“Hell, you can’t even sing or dance!”

DEAD SILENCE, THEN enthusiastic applause, followed by boos and catcalls directed at the “boss.” Aygelin hadn’t laughed so heartily in a long time.

I HAD NEVER done anything so crazy before. When I realized what had happened, I grabbed Aydana and Aygelin each by the hand and hightailed it out of the room.

FROM A MORAL standpoint, I shouldn’t have done it. He wasn’t a bad person, he just didn’t know enough about my people. I understand him. My protestation was really more of a vent for my own emotions. I harbored a nameless anguish. It was because of the good times I had had with the Kazakhs, as well as the pure spirits of my students, who had been so hardworking and persistent in their studies. They shouldn’t be judged so hastily, especially not as a collective.

At that moment I realized it would be impossible to explain myself to someone I didn’t know.

I ONLY HAD five days left at the school, so the administration didn’t punish me for what I had done, but only put the visitor off by saying I was a child who didn’t understand the world, and I would soon be leaving the school anyway. By the second day, everyone in my class knew. When I walked into the room, they all applauded. Called me a Kazakh hero.

Yet I was strongly conflicted. Not because the man had said what he’d said, rather because I knew that on some level he was right. The Kazakhs are a great race. Yet if the outside world can’t see our true spirit, how will they ever understand us? So they don’t; they think Kazakhs are all singers and dancers. A part of this responsibility rests with us.

First we need to understand our own most valuable character, then transform it into a motivating force. We have to display ourselves to others and, as we do so, look to create value. If we don’t, but instead abandon or reject society and the times, the day will come when not only others will be unable to recognize our quality, we will hardly be persuaded by it, either.

I addressed my students with gravity. “It’s nothing. You are the ones who need to prove yourselves! You see, they don’t know anything about us. Why? Because we haven’t shown them who we are.” I paused, then continued: “If someone praises you for being able to sing and dance, then you’ve really failed, because every one of you is intelligent and talented. You have to strive for success, to keep them from misunderstanding us like he did.”

By the time I finished, the children were quiet. Even though there had been silence before, only then, as I looked at their eyes, did I feel they were quiet.

No one spoke.

I went on: “What I want to say is that he doesn’t represent Han people either. For instance—Aydana, your manager is a good person. I grew up in Beijing. My friends are all Hans, and they’re good to me. Everything I know I learned from them. I’m sure you all have met Hans who are good people, haven’t you?

I looked over the entire class. The majority of the students nodded, while a few simply stared at me, their faces expressionless.

Kaysa and Kaylat were among the expressionless ones.


STILL, I WAS disappointed. The students worked their hardest to imitate my line, “Fuck you! You’re the one who doesn’t fucking know anything!” I regretted ever saying it. They described how heroic I had been, how I humiliated the bad guy. Some of the tales were embellished even further. Something about the bad guy sweating bullets, his legs shaking uncontrollably.

The most ridiculous version included a whispered final line, “I’ll never go up against the Kazakhs again!”

I mean, come on. It was utterly faked!

Even so, the students were still climbing over each other to tell and re-tell the “never go against the Kazakhs again” version. They’d huddle up in a group, repeating the line again and again to one another.

One day I overheard Aygelin’s version. It never even mentioned the interviewer. It was all about how handsome and courageous I had been. How my beard quivered once my blood was up.

After hearing this, I couldn’t help but laugh for a long time.

Aygelin’s version of the story reminded me: even though the Kazakh people do have their shortcomings, we still possess our own inimitable charm.

I HAD BEEN afraid my incident would spark some kind of racial tension among the students, but they were kids, after all, and they forgot about it just a few days later. Two days before I left, the administration suddenly announced an all-school assembly, in order to implement thought education.

All classes were cancelled for the sake of thought education.

During the assembly, the school leaders called out “two students” for special criticism. Said they forsook their responsibilities, and even attempted to encourage the backward practice of young love outside of school. One of the students was Kaysa from my section. He and a girl from another section were made to stand at the center of the assembly hall, surrounded by watching eyes. The Head of School made a vigorous proclamation: “The Kazakhs must not be a race of failures!”

Some students bowed their heads, while others looked on impassively.

The Head of School went on. “There are those of you who resent your parents, resent them because they didn’t have much to give you. But there is only one way you can change that, and that is persistent study! Your parents give you money to study here, and you spend your time involved in romance? What would you say to them?”

I was a little put off. What he said was basically correct, students ought to spend their time studying. But I always felt that the Kazakhs were a free and open people, and shouldn’t be worrying about this set of ethical baggage.

Just as I thought this, I discovered Aygelin looking directly at me.

The Head of School repeated his question: “Are there any others engaged in romantic relations? Honesty will be met with leniency!”

Aygelin was looking at me with an impassioned eye and an inexplicable smile.

I frowned and shook my head. I even put a finger to my lips as an exhortation for her to keep quiet.

She saw my fear, sighed, then laughed out loud.

LATER I ASKED her what she had been thinking. She said she wanted to confess, to say, “Sir, I am in love with our teacher from Beijing.” Though she didn’t love me.

I asked her why.

She said that that way we could be together, standing in front of the entire school, everybody looking at us. That would make her happy.

I was leaving in two days.

Looking at this lovelorn girl whom I’d never see again, I found it hard to let her go. But when I smelled that sweet tang of milk on her body, I understood that she belonged here.

Curious, I asked her: “Aygelin, tell me, why did you fall in love with me?”

“Because you look like a baby bear.”

“Tell the truth.”

“Because of Cofka.”

“Cofka? You mean Kafka? Why because of him? You don’t even know who he is.”

“You told me about him. Just like you told me about democracy and liberty.”

“Do you understand democracy?”


“Why would you fall in love with me because I told you about that crazy stuff?”

“Because no one told me about these things before. I don’t know what kind of crazy thing Kafka is. But I know no one ever told me about him before.”

I gently stroked her hair.

She said, “I promise I will study hard, read a lot of books, and know who Cofka is.”

I felt like crying. I held her like I was holding my entire people.

I whispered in her ear, “One day, you’ll know who Cofka is. One day, you’ll know everything.”

And on the day you know who Kafka is, you’ll realize he’s utterly meaningless.

Aygelin leaned softly against me as I held her, without saying a word. She started singing that old song:

A star on my steed’s brow, I’ve come to see you
I built a banister around the well, afraid you’d fall
I come purposefully to your door, O my girl
Don’t pretend not to know me, and turn on your heel

Galloping toward the mountain pass
The pass is right before your eyes
Sitting at table with family and friends
Happiness is before your eyes

On the eve of my parting, the song seemed deeply meaningful.

AYGELIN LEFT. I passed the night alone on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I remembered when I was her age, fourteen or so, and I fell in love with a girl. She liked to write poems in the Song dynasty classical style, and her beauty was as graceful and moving as her poetry, echoing strongly the old classical ideals of the female figure. We got along very well, I gradually fell in love with her, and eventually confessed it. I was still a child back then, and everything I said was childish. I told her that I loved her, I wanted her to be my girlfriend, and maybe someday I’d marry her.

Of course, my unexpected zeal frightened her. I believe she actually liked me, and thought I was a nice boy. Yet in the end she refused me. My love was too fierce for her, too much like a ball of flame, which made her afraid.

I was severely disappointed.

Thinking carefully on it now, I see that the way I chose to love back then was the same way Aygelin chose to love me. I had always thought my way of loving was unique to my personality; after Aygelin, I wondered if it might be related to my ethnicity.

Yet there I was only five years later at nineteen, looking on her the same way my first love had looked on me, afraid of her love because it was too intense, too senseless, too difficult to defend against.

Wouldn’t denying that love mean denying myself?

MY FRIENDS’ INFLUENCE made me more realistic. But what is reality? They told me, “Nobody loves the way you do, like a volcano ready to erupt.”

But maybe I love this way because I’m Kazakh?

WHILE THE KAZAKHS are not the most successful race, never invented airplanes or cannons, they hold a certain truth in their bones. A certain sentiment. It isn’t very noble, nor is it complex. But if you give a Kazakh a handful of earth, he will know how to hold on to it tight, and teach you what a handful of earth feels like.

This is a kind of genuine truth.

I ONCE BELIEVED that all other reality disappeared in the face of this truth.

I still believe that.


IN THE MIDST of my all-night meditations, I fell ill. The thermometer read my temperature at 39.5 Celsius. I repeatedly whispered Aygelin’s name. To this day I’m still not sure what kind of illness it was. Not only did it come with a fever, it made my fingers ache.

Through my delirium I saw the outline of Aygelin approach my bed. I caught the scent of milk, and some empty space inside me was temporarily filled. Her face seemed far from me, and only her bright pink dress fluttered before my eyes.

My exhaustion seemed to find a measure of satisfaction, which only led to deeper exhaustion. My eyelids drooped. Aygelin might have been crying; I couldn’t hear clearly.

“Teacher, teacher, what hurts?”

“My—a fever, and . . . and my—my fingers hurt.”

SHE FELL QUIET for half a minute, then I heard the sound of running footsteps leaving the room.

It was a full five or six minutes before she came back.

Aygelin sat by the edge of the bed and said to me, “Teacher, this disease is common on the grasslands, Kazakhs have the best medicine for it. I have some with me. I’ll put it on you. Just lie here a while, the pain will go away and the fever will break.” My world was fading in and out, and I just nodded my head.

I FELT HER take hold of my hand. I touched the abrasive calluses on hers, and they evoked in me an instant feeling of safety. With her other hand she painted the medicine on my fingers. “Good, don’t be afraid, you’ll be fine soon,” she comforted me gently. “Don’t be afraid, don’t worry, go to sleep and it will all be better.”

She was the very model of a mother comforting a sick child.

The tears came unbidden from my eyes. I felt I had been wrong—that I had been making the same mistake over and over again for so many years, without ever knowing why. I grasped her hands tightly, as if she were the one leaving, not I. While I held one hand I played my thumb across the thick, lined skin on the back of her palm, and over the calluses that had risen there who knows how long ago as if I were looking for something.

She started to sob. In my half-conscious state I asked, “Is this your hand?” She didn’t reply, nor did she need to.

As I held those hands, I thought of how different we were.

I understood that my mistake was not recognizing or admitting this difference before.

I hadn’t admitted the difference, but after admitting it I realized nothing was significantly different.

I am and will always be a Chinese-speaking Kazakh.

My hands will forever be like a woman’s, soft and smooth and unlike the hands of a Kazakh.

I am different from the Kazakhs of the grassland. I know I have a home there, but I can never go back. This often made me feel inferior. I felt like I’d been abandoned. Yet on that day, I finally understood. Difference and similarity don’t show in the hands. And the degree of difference between my hands and Aygelin’s has nothing to do with whether mine have calluses.

It is whether or not we hold on to each other.

THIS IS A fairly superficial truth, but I couldn’t have learned it from a book. One can only know what a Kazakh is, what one’s own race, one’s family is, by holding a Kazakh’s hand.

The two of us cried for a long time, yet neither could guess why the other was crying.

I recalled that I never cried in the city. Not when I broke up with a girlfriend, failed at something, felt lonely or in pain. As if I were stronger there. Or had tears and emotion already become discourtesies in the city? Everyone must do their best to restrain tears and emotion, love and hate. Sit on the subway and look serious as you play games on your hand-helds. Then, only when the recorded voice reminds you, “Please get ready for your arrival,” you should stand up and force yourself unwillingly toward the door. Then get off and disappear into the endless crowd. . . .

EXHAUSTION CARRIED ME off to sleep again. When I awoke, Aygelin was sitting beside me, a smile on her face. Sure enough, my fingers didn’t hurt and my forehead was cooler. But when I looked down at my fingers, I broke into a sweat anyway. My fingernails were painted with a light pink nail polish, and they glittered in the light.

Having just woken up, my face wore an expression of surprise and dull confusion. Aygelin couldn’t help but laugh.

“So your special Kazakh medicine is really nail polish?” I asked in astonishment.

“I bought it for a lot of money. And look, your fingers don’t hurt anymore, right?”

It was weird, but she was right—they didn’t.

“As I put it on,” she continued, “I thought, Teacher will get better, he has to get better. And you’re better.”

I stared at her and nodded.


ALMOST TIME TO go. I spent hours on my own wandering through the city. Everything was beautiful under the setting sun. I thought several times about writing a detailed record of this town, afraid that it would lose its present face, as the great tree in my first girlfriend’s front yard was eventually cut down. Yet even after long deliberation, I didn’t do it.

Before I left, Aydana and I went out to Mr. Hai’s Place. I asked Aydana if she would go back to the same restaurant where she’d worked before. She said she didn’t know. I told her she’d certainly end up successful. She said again that she didn’t know. I realized that she still wasn’t talking much. I worried that her reticence at work was not due to her limited Chinese. Maybe, if she graduated and went back, life would still be difficult. But I didn’t say that.

We were all in or near our twenties. No matter what we faced today, we would get through it.

Everyone should face their own future in the manner of Kazakh songs.

I bade goodbye to Mr. Hai. Surprised, he asked me where I was going. I told him my home was in Beijing.

With sincere gravity, the old man put down his newspaper, stood up and shook my hand, saying, “Child, no matter where you are, always study hard. I wish you the best of luck on your journey. Make our country stronger and more glorious.”

Had someone in Beijing said that to me, it would have sounded fake. Yet this white-haired old Mr. Hai, I thought, must have been one of those first Party cadres who were sent over to help with Xinjiang’s restoration all those years ago. Every sentence was as earnest and as genuine as his restaurant.

That evening, I broke bread with the students one last time. They sang for me again:

I love the one I hold, may all things rest
Do not believe the world has only beauty
When you believe everyone in the world is lovely
Don’t forget that earthly beauty is only in the mold

Galloping toward the mountain pass
The pass is right before your eyes
Sitting at table with family and friends
Happiness is before your eyes

The day of my departure was almost here. Both narrative and story continue in the form of a farewell.

AN UNCOMFORTABLE AYGELIN walked into my room. It was my last night.

We looked at each other, neither of us knowing quite what to say.

I asked her, “Where will you be in the future?”

“On the grasslands, of course.”

“It’s nice there,” I replied, as if talking to myself. No one spoke again for a long while.

SHE ASKED, “WAS it because I was bad that you got sick?”

“Silly girl. I got sick because I was stupid.”

I looked at that face. She was actually quite beautiful, just hardened by wind and rain. I imagined her milking cows, and the image touched me.

With a sudden passion, I said, “Aygelin, will you hold me? I’m sorry—even though I don’t love you, and I’m leaving tomorrow, will you hold me for a while?”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked, but she wrapped her arms around me anyway.

I had long ago forgotten that I was her teacher, even forgotten that this was a girl who loved me. I curled myself into her embrace, and inhaled deeply that scent of milk. It was then I became fully conscious of how much I cherished that smell. Beijing may have towering skyscrapers and all kinds of luxurious, beautiful things, but it will never have that faint smell of fresh milk.

I SAID TO Aygelin, “You know, there’s something else I’d like to do.”


“To write something, once I have the opportunity. I want to write about you. And about the happiness of Kazakhs eating nang and drinking milk tea together. About our people’s simple, profound love for the world. So they will really understand us.”

She nodded vigorously. I never thought I’d be confessing my dreams and ambitions in the arms of a fourteen-year-old girl. But there’s nothing you can’t say to a friend like that.

“You’re going back to Beijing soon, you’ll get to see your girlfriend. Are you happy?”

I nodded, then shook my head. And then I said something strange: “You know, when I’m in Beijing, I really don’t like the sun.”

“Why? Why don’t you like the sun?”

“The sun rising means another day of work and problems. Sometimes I just wish it would never come up.”

“Don’t say that. The Kazakh people love the sun. We Kazakhs must love the sun.”

The hands that held me squeezed. There was a childlike earnestness in what she said. Perhaps childlike earnestness is the way in which Kazakhs regard the sun.

“One day, when our Han friends read the things I’ve written, they will truly understand our race. Now they only come to the grasslands to breathe fresh air and take a few hasty pictures.” I looked into her eyes and said softly, “They will come to the grassland and love the sun like we do.”

After saying that I was overtaken by an incredible fatigue, and drifted to sleep within the smell of milk and her embrace. She continued holding me, not daring to move. This man she loved had been a bit brutish with her, not intimate at all. Only on this final night could she hold him like a baby. He lay quietly and obediently in her arms, as if he weren’t going anywhere, as if he would sleep there forever.

I smacked my lips and fell dead to the world. She kept gazing at me. She knew that this man, this man who slept in her arms like a child, was about to leave her the very next day. She held her man, her prince who belonged to her alone.

Even at the end, I felt like I never saw her as the callow, lovestruck fourteen-year-old she was. I looked at her almost as if she were my entire people.

Perhaps this is a tragedy.

THIS BOY OF hers was a bit of a bookworm. Sometimes I wonder, why was his fear so great? Could this embrace truly change or comfort him? Why did it all happen?

We won’t worry about all this. It was the last embrace of his last night in town. Holding on to the man she loved, our Aygelin fell asleep too. They were lovable people; no matter if their lives progress smoothly or not, lovable people will always find happiness. . . .


THE HOUR OF my departure finally came. The whole class went with me to the bus station to see me off. Before the bus had even arrived, the girls started crying, sobbing together with Aygelin.

Aydana grabbed me and said, “Teacher, no one ever taught me as much as you did.”

I looked at them all confusedly. Isn’t that what teachers are supposed to do? Although, to that day I still wasn’t sure what, if anything, I had taught them.

I HAD WORN cheap clothing during my time in town in order to avoid attention. Only that day did I take the name-brand clothes back out of my suitcase and put them on. I looked at myself in my nice clothes. Clothes that pulled me so far away from all of them.

The bus arrived. I bought a ticket and got on. The other passengers saw the crying children and gave me strange looks. They leaned close to the window and gossiped in dialect, “What d’you think, why are all these kids crying? What’re they crying about—what happened?”

When I wore my old clothes, I didn’t really care how people looked at me. Now, the entire bus was looking at me and talking, making their idle conjectures. I timidly replied, “I’m a teacher from the city. The children don’t understand politeness; please don’t be angry.”

Everyone else on the bus was looking at the kids, yet I turned my head away.

“Goodbye, Teacher! Think of us!” All the students yelled in unison. Everyone was crying. I couldn’t help but look back at them. Even Kaysa and Kaylat, two boys I never really liked, were crying. They all waved to me in farewell.

I turned my head away again and yelled out, “Driver, let’s go!” The driver, who had probably never seen such a scene before, sat dumbstruck in his seat, looking at the children. I yelled again, “Driver! Let’s GO!”

The driver roused himself, and the bus backed slowly out.

I stuck my head out the window. The children were running behind the bus, calling out in their tender young voices, “Teacher! You have to come back some day!”

Aygelin was not one of their number. She was there, with her face made up and wearing her best pink skirt. She was covering her face and crying. She did not chase the bus.

I knew her voice well; she definitely didn’t yell “goodbye.”

She just cried, helpless and alone.

Her normal cry was a voluble howl, but this time, as I left, she wept silently.

THE MOMENT HER pink skirt disappeared from my field of vision, I wanted to sob violently, as violently as they had done.

But everyone on the bus was looking at me—me with my Italian clothing and my Beijing accent.

So I merely remarked over-loudly to myself, “Poor little kids don’t know how to behave.”

The original plan was to bring home a few stalks of the mugwort zhysang, but I had forgotten.

The bus sped across the grasslands, a bright green expanse dotted infrequently with snow-white yurts that flicked past the eye.


BACK IN BEIJING , I represented my nationality at a meeting for minority writers. People discussed techniques for depicting minority life more vividly. It was a good class, but it left me with a strange sadness. How should I write you, Aygelin? I felt comical just thinking about the question.

I finally met up with my girlfriend. I gave her a cashmere stuffed camel I’d picked out especially for her in Urumqi. She didn’t seem to like it, though I couldn’t tell why. It’s hard to know what people in cities will like.

“Were the children there cute?” she asked me.

“Not bad. Aren’t I one of those children?”

She asked me if the girls there were exceptionally pretty. I mentioned you, Aygelin. Though she listened attentively, I could tell she really didn’t care.

I took her hand, “That’s right, there’s something I wanted to ask you. What do you know about Xinjiang?”

“Uhhh, singing, dancing, and dombra music . . .”

“And that’s it?”

“Well, then there’s you,” she laughed.

She sensed my slight unhappiness and followed up with a concerned question: “What’s wrong? Has anything happened?” I should have taken the opportunity to talk to her about my people, but instead I just put on a surprised face and said, “Something wrong? No, I’m fine.”

“OH!” SHE SUDDENLY remembered something. “You also have a dance where girls wave their necks.”

I had to think for a minute before replying, “That’s not our dance, that’s the Uyghurs’.”

But she gave me a strange look and said, “Uyghurs, Kazakhs, what’s the difference? It’s one of your dances out there.” I nodded silently.

It wasn’t her mistake. The problem was that urban people live lives unconnected to race.

SHE WORE EXPENSIVE makeup, and her dresses were prettier than Aygelin’s. Thinking of Aygelin and the Kazakhs made me hesitate even more. I hugged my girlfriend tighter, kissed her harder. When I was close to her, I could sense her body did not have the familiar smell of milk I loved so much.

She smelled of French perfume.

I LOVED HER. She was a successful, thoughtful girl. But she made me tired. One of our dreams was to open our own café.

Yet I was only nineteen, with no college education, getting by by writing unremarkable stories and poems.

We’d often sit in the lawn chairs in a mid-street park on the boulevard and dream of our ideal café. Then both of us would feel depressed. Perhaps young people love to dream. But life without dreams is utterly bland. One goes to different places to eat, drink, and have fun, but it’s nothing more than a zombie happiness.

I kept thinking about Aygelin. Why had being with her been so simple?

My girlfriend was taking enrichment courses during her vacation, so I frequently found myself alone on the streets of Beijing. I discovered that nothing was as nice as I’d remembered it. The 798 arts district was filled with affectation and art that was either arrogant or designed to trick teenage girls. The souvenirs sold in the shops on Nanluoguxiang were merely cheap notions and entertainment, products of an industrial assembly line.

I DID MANAGE to see my first girlfriend.

Right when we met, I told her about the stars in Xinjiang. All she could do was listen politely. A starry night is a thing you have to be there for.

Though only a rising sophomore, she was already considering learning English and studying abroad in America.

It felt to me like she had once been herself, but had gradually transformed into an action item in society’s larger plan. Everyone was fighting tooth and nail to move upward, like their lives had already been scheduled for them. If they ever got lazy, some quota wouldn’t be met. Even love and marriage were parts of the plan. She told me she never thought about love. She just hoped that once she hit twenty-eight her parents would help her land some reliable, unexcitable guy and she would get it over with. I wanted to say something, then. Though, in this society, that was exactly how it should go.

I looked her over once, this girl I had once held to me, who was now telling me, “Love and marriage are part of the plan, they aren’t my problem.” There wasn’t anything abnormal about her, but she left me with an indescribably weird impression.

I ASKED HER if she believed in love.

She said, basically, yeah.

An understandable thing to say in this city.

She still couldn’t accept the fact of that tree having been cut down.

That happened over ten years ago, and the entire world had been turned inside out since then. How could she still not accept it?

Because it was that one tree.

I said I basically understood.

THERE FOLLOWED A long interval in which nobody spoke.


She said that Aygelin and my people were my tree.

I didn’t get it, but didn’t ask about it.

She asked me what I wanted.

I told her that in the city, it wasn’t a good idea to borrow trouble by thinking about that question too much.

She said she thought one ought to have a goal of some kind. When you reached it, then swoosh, you’d discover yourself.


Oh, she said, that’s just a description. Anyway, you’d discover yourself.

THIS MATTER HAS nothing to do with ethnicity. People like you and me live in this city. We don’t have ethnicities. We’ve all turned into beetles, just like in Kafka’s story. One day, we finally have an epiphany, and then we turn back into people. Right now, we’re still young, but one day we’ll swoosh discover ourselves, and transform back into human beings.

As if the reason we worked so hard in this life is only to become what we are.

She said: That’s basically how it is.

She was right, yet I couldn’t figure out why she would say what she did about not caring about love and getting marriage over with. The tree was not what she cared about. The tree was merely a symbol of loss. We are constantly losing ourselves, beginning at birth.

The situation is now clearer to me. But in the city, clarity only means the beginning of confusion.

I feel longing for that girl who kept talking about her tree being cut down, not this sanctimonious young woman. If it were possible to swoosh discover oneself, why did it seem that she was moving farther and farther away from that?


THE NARRATIVE MOVES to the city, and its style comes unglued. Aygelin becomes a symbol. This is all inevitable. If Aygelin were a symbol, then what did she represent? My girlfriend and I underwent an utterly suspenseless breakup. I knew it would happen, but was hurt anyway.

She said: The idea of the café is too much, it would only be a burden on you.

She said: You’re a very nice guy, but I’m not what you want.

She said: I’ll remember you, you’re a good person.

MY ONLY THOUGHT while she was saying all this was to grab her and keep her from leaving. If she left, I’d be on my own. Yet the truth was that even if she didn’t leave, I’d still be on my own. Holding on to her, I could have proof of my own existence. Her leaving was losing a part of myself.

Everything she said was true. Yet there was one more true thing she didn’t say, which was that she didn’t love me anymore. She was looking at me with that same smile she always did. I didn’t know when she’d stopped loving me. Perhaps she never had?

I wanted to hold her and make her stay. Instead, I just smiled and said, “Goodbye.”

She flashed an enchanting smile. “You’re already more mature, just like a real man.”

But I doubted this maturity would allow me to swoosh discover myself.

MY FIRST GIRLFRIEND was too busy studying for graduate exams to be bothered. So too with my other friends. I discovered that I had become friendless in my own city, with no one to help me.

Having broken up with my girlfriend, and thinking constantly of Aygelin, I bought a subway ticket. I got on at one end of Line 13 and rode the loop all the way to the other end. I sat on the plastic bench seat and stared with a stupid intensity at the passengers getting on and off. I was like an item in a Lost and Found, but no one came to claim me. I rode back and forth, from one end to the other.

AT 1 A.M. ON a Beijing summer night, I left my apartment and went out into the street. I bought two rice balls wrapped in seaweed from 7-11 and ate as I walked. The street was totally empty, yet still I ate wolfishly, as if someone were hurrying me.

I wanted to get myself lost in the depths of night, yet I didn’t want to fall. I wanted to love myself, but also thoroughly humiliate myself. But in the end I had nothing, and I walked with nothing along the Beijing streets. It was pitiful. No, it wasn’t even that—even the pity was faked. I had nothing, I walked down the street. Every once in a while a few drunk foreigners passed by; I wondered what could tempt them to come this far just to stumble around intoxicated.

“Motherfucker!” I swore as I stood alone under a bridge. There were no fresh profanities available. Standing and swearing in such a desolate place in the middle of the night, I lacked even a body to swear at. Could Aygelin imagine me this way? Even I had a hard time believing what I had become.

I was always afraid that Beijing would want me; clearly, that was all bullshit.

This city has never “wanted” nor rejected anyone.

I AM A failure.

The teaching example I had used was, “How do I get to Wangfujing Street?” They would never in their lives get to Wangfujing. As I recalled the earnest excitement with which they practiced the sentence, I felt I was a failure.

Talk to Aygelin about liberty and democracy? About Kafka?

She had no use for liberty or democracy. Her life was so simple that all she needed was for the man she loved to stay with her.

Her man couldn’t do it.

Aygelin, you smell of milk. Even though that is a woman’s most precious smell, even though it’s a smell I’ll never forget.

Yet I couldn’t possibly have stayed.

I WAS AFRAID. It was the first time I’d realized I was afraid.

I was afraid people would greet me with “Welcome to China.”

I’m afraid of standing out. Not because I’m different, but because I feel empty here in the city.

Fear feels like abandonment. My Kazakh mother abandoned me among these skyscrapers. I’m afraid that one day, the city will abandon me. This is totally unreasonable. But I’m still afraid.

I’m sorry, Aygelin, I’m a failure.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps everyone in the city lives with fear and emptiness, and I only focused too much attention on the reasons.

I DREAMED OF my girlfriend. How I longed for her to hold me in her embrace the way you did, give me the same comfort and beauty. Yet nothing like that occurred.

She merely said I was a good person and left.


EVEN IF AYDANA works hard, okay, she’ll still only be a head waitress. What dreams could she possible have? Her dream was to know something, and to be able to communicate.

Kaysa and Kaylat. When I asked the students if they had met lots of nice Han people, why didn’t they nod as well? Sitting in their little restaurant amid a sea of Chinese. They will be silent their entire lives, unable to understand what people around them are saying.

But do urbanites not fail?

The city always keeps its distance. Whenever I hug my friends the way Kazakhs do, they say, “Whoah, dude, I’m not gay. Personal space, personal space.” How could someone who’s never really been hugged before be happy?

Just as several of my friends responded after hearing my story: “What is not failing? If Aydana goes to Peking University, will she be not failing? Everything would be exactly the way it was.”

In reality, we are each surrounded on all sides by failure.

I hope to have a daughter someday, and to keep living in Beijing. I frequently wonder if her body will carry the Kazakh smell of milk. Will she be like you, Aygelin, or like that girlfriend of mine? Will she know what love is?

I’m not sure.

I don’t know if I’d rather she smelled of milk or of French perfume.

I MAY WALK the streets of Tokyo, Paris or London. But I will certainly never walk through that small town again. You’ll be married by then, won’t you? Married to some herder. Will he drink? Will he love you?

Will you think of me the day you marry? The night you held that Beijing boy in your arms.

I’M A KAZAKH, really. I love you, Aygelin, but this is the world we live in. It doesn’t care that a man left your embrace and went to Beijing. None of it should have been that way.

One day, our people will move to the city, or machines will bring the flavor of the city into the countryside.

One day, Aygelin, your granddaughters will smell like perfume.

Maybe then you will understand me better—or, perhaps, less well.


4:00 A.M., THE CENTRAL Business District. No one is at work. Beijing’s most luxurious district is now as quiet as a tomb. Here at the tail end of night, I hear a girl howling in anguish. I follow the sound. I see a smart-looking young woman in well-cut business clothes sitting on a park bench bawling her eyes out. She is very attractive.

Her head is lowered, and her hair shakes with each sob. I finally understand this superficial truth: there are unhappy girls even in Beijing. Everything is only life, and life is life. No matter if we are wearing pink skirts or business suits, rags and tatters or Italian brand names. We will feel anguish and failure.

I give the woman a small pack of tissues, and she repays me with a sweet smile. For an urbanite to smile that way while she is crying is no easy task. I want to comfort her, but she doesn’t dare cry anymore. She gets up and hurries away.

When people in need are finally offered aid, they react with shame and exclusion. As if they can only feel liberated and at ease once the aid is gone? What follows is a feeling of abandonment, then fear of being alone, until they need help once again, and are finally offered it. . . .

I don’t want to keep analyzing. The sun’s almost up; I stand on a footbridge, face the rising sun and sing that Kazakh song:

I love the one I hold, may all things rest
Do not believe the world has only beauty
When you believe everyone in the world is lovely
Don’t forget that earthly beauty is only in the mold

Galloping toward the mountain pass
The pass is right before your eyes
Sitting at table with family and friends
Happiness is before your eyes

A star on my steed’s brow, I’ve come to see you
I built a banister around the well, afraid you’d fall
I come purposefully to your door, O my girl
Don’t pretend not to know me, and turn on your heel

Galloping toward the mountain pass
The pass is right before your eyes
Sitting at table with family and friends
Happiness is before your eyes

The sun rises. All is quiet, unbelievably quiet, as if this weren’t Beijing.

Aygelin, the man you loved could not have stayed with you; children from the grasslands will never see the diverse world; my first girlfriend found knowledge and morality, but will never get the tree of her childhood back; my Han girlfriend dates and breaks up with that same calm smile, yet has never been happy.

All this can’t help but make one feel depressed.

AYGELIN, PERHAPS ONE day I will turn into a Kafka, perhaps not. I don’t know what it is to be a good writer. But I do know that no matter what I gain, I will always be failing, because I once lost you, we lost each other.

Aygelin, I never told you that I love you deeply.

BECAUSE IN YOU I saw something that allowed me to fail gently, intimately.

Because I failed, I fell deeply in love with you.

Because I failed, I left you.

GAZING AT THIS blazing orange sun, I suddenly realize why the Kazakhs love it so much.

Perhaps, in the face of such a dazzling sun, we are all failures.

The song of my Kazakh ancestors rings through my head.

I understand:

There is nothing we have to fail at, and nothing we can’t.


2013-10-5 0:32:59ernar
estellk eken hoy cet6 level
2013-10-25 9:12:04smashing top seo
Sm2MlW Fantastic article post. Want more.
2013-10-25 9:12:11smashing top seo
Sm2MlW Fantastic article post. Want more.
2013-10-5 0:32:59ernar
estellk eken hoy cet6 level
2013-10-25 9:12:04smashing top seo
Sm2MlW Fantastic article post. Want more.
2013-10-25 9:12:11smashing top seo
Sm2MlW Fantastic article post. Want more.


The 16th Issue