Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in a national English-speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in China. This year was no exception. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country.
The main difference is that Uyghurs are now learning to be confident in their English-language ability starting at a younger age. It’s because of people like Kasim and dozens of other award-winning role models that kids like 14 year-old Tughluk Tursunjan feel self-assured on the big stage.
Tughluk, who was this year’s winner of the Junior High School division of the “Outlook of Hope” contest on CCTV, was taught by an English instructor named Nemo, a young Uyghur man who teaches at the Web English school in downtown Ürümchi. It was Nemo who coached Tughluk on how to speak with commanding gestures and respond fluently to difficult questions. The political emphasis of his speech — one that emphasized Chinese patriotism and strengthening of the nation — seemed also to stem from his self-esteem. He doesn’t say anything directly about the difficulties of being a minority; instead, the need to overcome the stereotypes associated with Uyghurs is inferred through the doppa he wears and the goals he intends to achieve. He presents an action plan: he will develop himself so that he can teach the next generation.
Part of the reason for Uyghur English success comes from the way many young Uyghurs learn a second language at a young age. Learning a third language is of course not quite as difficult as acquiring a second. But another major factor is the way most Uyghur English speakers are self-taught. Since the Xinjiang education system requires Chinese proficiency before Uyghurs are provided English language education, most Uyghur English speakers learn English on their own, while at the same time trying to master the technical language of Chinese academia in their first two years of college. Yet unlike that sort of practical Chinese learning, English study is fueled by the desire to consume images that resonate with their own aspirations. Their ability comes from practice with friends. Although the vast majority of them have never been outside Xinjiang, their English is learned in everyday situations rather than classroom textbooks.
For many Uyghurs, speaking English on stage is one of the few occasions in which they have the opportunity to stand on an equal footing with their Han counterparts. As one former contestant told me:
“When we see that (Han) also struggle hard at this and that sometimes we can outperform them, we get a huge amount of satisfaction with the amount of progress we have made. Also, when we speak (English), our accent tends to be less strong compared to theirs. After having our Chinese accent judged as a mark of our ‘diminished intelligence’ for most of our lives, it feels like a great opportunity for us to see that we are actually worth something and not as stupid as we have been stereotyped. Instead, it is clear that we are in our current situation because of a range of complex historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons.”
In a recent interview the anthropologist Carolyn Rouse said that moving beyond the surface of racial situations requires an understanding of the agency of those affected by negative stereotypes. Overcoming the feeling that a minor person’s own sense of self is not reflected in how others see you requires many strategies. For Uyghurs, English-learning is one of these strategies. It is a kind of embodiment in which the speaker is surrounding himself (or herself) with cultural signs that reflect what he thinks he is and wants to become.
Speaking English like a professional politician is a way of signifying the kind of person Tughluk wants to be: someone who is respected for his intellect, his quality, and his humanity. He just happens to also be Uyghur. As his success circulates in Uyghur society, the values that accompany an English-speaking body are further amplified.
Of course, many young dreamers will never go to Canada like Tughluk. Many of them will never win a major contest. Yet for most of them, young adults from the rural South, entering into an English-speaking world is also a way of drastically expanding the horizon of their imagination. Being able to watch and understand the lives of others in drastically different circumstances gives them ways of imagining a future life that might be different. It helps them think through the possibilities for organizing and designing their own businesses and passions; it gives them new patterns and habits for living, new stories that help them retell their own.
Here is a partial list of Uyghur English-speaking award winners since 2004:
2004 CCTV English speaking competition
Third Place Overall: Kasimujiang Abudureyimu (Xinjiang University)
Best Pronunciation Award: Aizimaiti Rusitanmu (Xinjiang Medical University)
Audience’s Choice Award: Kasimujiang Abudureyimu (Xinjiang University)
2005 CCTV English speaking competition
Second Place Overall: Adilijiang Abudukelimu (Xinjiang University)
Fourth Place Overall: Maierhaba
2006 CCTV English speaking competition
Judges’ Choice Award: Sabahaiti (Tianjin Foreign Studies University)
Finalists: Dilidaer Duishan (Xinjiang Medical University)
Milajiguli Wusiman (Xinjiang University)
2008 CCTV English speaking competition
Outstanding Contestant: Faluke Maierdan (Xinjiang Medical University)
2010 CCTV English speaking competition
First Place Overall: Umid Haji (Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics)
Finalists: Yierxiati Bolati, Zukela Tuerhong
2011 CCTV English speaking competition
Second Place Overall: Ainiwaerjiang Abudurusuli (Xinjiang University)
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.