“Life of a Mimic”: Xinjiang Writer Addresses Sensitive Question of Self-identity

The latest session of the Lu Xun Literary Institute’s training in creative writing for minority writers recently convened (第15 期少数民族创作培训), and I found myself sifting through the names of the trainees. That’s because participation is a milestone of sorts that presages future stardom: You join the state-run China Writers Association, get published in a prestigious state-run Chinese-language literary magazine like People’s Literature (Renmin Wenxue), take part in the Lu Xun Institute’s training, and then if you’re lucky, get a shot at winning an overseas readership via publication in a state-run magazine like Pathlight, which specializes in Chinese literature in English translation.

One of the new batch of trainees, Patigul (帕蒂古丽), has jumped the gun by appearing first in the 2014 spring issue of Pathlight. Although the issue was dedicated to several pieces of fiction by non-Han authors, her piece Life of a Mimic (translated by Jim Weldon) is one of the few I found immediately rang true for me.

It appears to be partly autobiographical. Patigul is listed on Baidu as Uyghur, but the first-person narrator in Life of a Mimic is obviously from a mixed Han-Uyghur background, and like Patigul in real life grew up in Xinjiang, now works in “South China.” Patigul is a journalist in Zhejiang, which is of course traditionally referred to as “south of the Yangtse” (Jiāngnán).

The entire piece is devoted to the narator’s “precocious capacity for mimicry,” and how her early delight in it — specifically mimicry of “Han people” — becomes something more disturbing as she moves into adulthood and even motherhood.

Eventually, even something as basic as eating becomes a joyless performance for this Xinjiang native who has become a “replica” of herself:

The way I eat when in the south is entirely a matter of mimicking an essential procedure for sustenance, with no enjoyment of my food whatsoever. Perhaps the stomach is the most sensitive of all the organs of the body, and things that don’t taste right will never be any use in your mimicking of happiness. There was a time when I tried very hard to copy the trick by which people from the coast could peel a shrimp in their mouths, but in the end I had to fall back on the way you eat polo rice, grabbing them off the plate with my hands. You could say I was hanging on to one last bit of ethnic minority essence, but eating with my hands also brought along a kind of pleasure. Required to pick either the agonies of mimicry or becoming the subject of mockery, I chose to be laughed at. That at least meant even as they laughed, people admitted my ethnic otherness. There was a difference between me and anyone else eating in the room, and even if I was getting laughed at, at least I had the sense of security derived from an identity I felt comfortable with. When invited to important meals, my only recourse that preserved my sorry self-respect was to eschew any crab or shrimp or other odd-shaped shellfish that would require setting my Xinjiang hands to work.

I have cooked polo rice for my colleagues a number of times. I wanted these folk, well-used in the south to coping with crab and shrimp, to have at least one go at mimicking my eating habits. Maybe they’d get some glimpse of the lived experience of their Hemudu culture Neolithic ancestors. But even though I’d hidden all the chopsticks, no one wanted to eat rice with their hands.

Forced mimicry is a game of power and the rules oblige the minority to bow to the habits of the majority; the weaker party must give way to the customs of the strong.

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