“I started to see a sadness in their eyes. They had become sad. They didn’t know what to do, so they just accepted it.”
Post-disappearance, what happens to those left behind?
Last month, Akida Pulat celebrated her birthday alone. It was her third birthday since her mother, Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut, had disappeared in Northwest China. Thinking about this in a café in Seattle two weeks before the city began to shut down due to COVID-19, Akida said, “When I was little my mom would ask me what I would want for my birthday. She would make my favorite food, hand-pulled noodles or Hui-style lamb fried with garlic (蒜苔炒羊肉 suàntái chǎo yángròu), and served with rice. She would invite her friends to bring their kids to my party. They always showed me that they really loved me and showered me with attention.
“She would always tell me, ‘I love you my daughter, I hope you have a wonderful year.’ She would always be the first person to give me a birthday wish. So no matter where she is now, whether in a camp or in prison, I know that today she is thinking, ‘This is my daughter’s birthday.’”
Akida worried that during the pandemic, her birthday would be especially hard for her mother. She said:
“In China, the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is in the news all the time. All of my Chinese friends’ parents are calling them every day making sure they are OK. My grandmother is so worried about me. She is always telling me ‘don’t go out.’ So that makes me think that my mom must also be really worried about me, too. She must be losing sleep, afraid that I will get coronavirus. I’m also worried about her because I can’t get any information about how it might spread where she is at. I don’t even know if she is being protected from it or not. I’m afraid that my grandma doesn’t know either. She always just tells me, ‘Don’t worry, she is well.’ She has been telling me the same thing for almost three years. When you don’t have real information about the people you love, anything feels possible.”
Akida, speaking to the New York Times, along with two other young Uyghurs who have a parent who has been disappeared.
As I have written elsewhere, the news of Rahile’s disappearance began circulating around the world on December 12, 2017. Administrators had told her to pack her bags for an urgent conference in Beijing. She has not been seen in public since that time. Akida said that when she didn’t hear from her mom for a few days, her first thought was that maybe there had been a plane crash.
But then she had a video chat with her relatives not long after. “My father’s expression seemed to indicate that it was not that serious,” she said. “They were reassuring. They just told me it was complicated. Her work ‘in Beijing’ was being extended.” Akida felt as though they were trying to protect her, since she was all alone in the United States, finishing her degree at the University of Washington.
“When you told me during the summer of 2017 that something had happened to Yalqun Rozi and that some professors were missing from Xinjiang University, I began to worry about her safety,” Akida told me. “Now other people here were telling me she was under investigation. I was devastated, but other people were telling me that other people had been arrested and then they were released after just three months. So I was just waiting for February. Then I would wait for one more month. Then I thought, maybe after six months they would let her out.”
She said that over this period, the expressions on her relatives’ faces did not really change during their regular WeChat video calls. She said, “They didn’t look as devastated as I thought they should be. But then I started to see a sadness in their eyes. They had become sad. They didn’t know what to do, so they just accepted it.”
During the summer of 2018, Akida said that she began to hear more and more about what was happening to other Uyghurs. For her, and many other Uyghurs, a story about life inside the reeducation camps by Gerry Shih, a Washington Post reporter who was recently expelled from China along with other American journalists, made her feel a sense of desperation. “I started to think about how this was connected to her. What if she was being treated like that?”
When Akida thinks about her mom it is hard for her not to idolize her. “To be honest, she is nearly perfect,” she said. “Some professors are workaholics, but she did everything. She is an expert in her field, but she also did the housework, cooked food for us, and supported us in every way.”
The way she poured herself into their family made them always want to please her, Akida said.
“She looks happy most of the time. But when she is angry, she looks like she is mad. When I was a teenager and I would lie about something to her, she would look so mad. Or if I was impolite to elders, if I wasn’t warm and hospitable. If I wasn’t polite to my cousins from the countryside when they came to visit, she would get really mad. In this way she is a bit like my grandmother, who is also very energetic and could handle a job and three kids. But they are also different. My grandmother was really good at her job, but my mother was really strong and driven. My mom would let me know when she was upset with me right away. My grandmother also gets angry, but it builds more slowly with her.”
It isn’t her anger that Akida remembers most, though; it’s the way her mother cared for her. The emotional labor that made her life path possible came from her.
One of Akida’s earliest memories was of when her mom left for Beijing to study for her Ph.D. in Uyghur folklore. She was only two or three at the time, but she said she still remembers it.
“I felt so sad. I missed her so much. I could feel how attached I was to her already at that time. The happiest memory from my childhood was when I went to attend her graduation ceremony. I stayed with her for two months. It was one of the closest times we had together. We could talk to each other. When she left I was just two, so I could only say ‘mom.’ She taught me to respond to the question ‘Can you speak English?’ with the answer, in English, ‘Yes, I can.’”
“She always said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life? Chocolate is the best thing in the world.’ In Seattle, she especially fell in love with the snacks from the Fred Meyers grocery store. She thought they had the best chicken wings.”
At first, Akida didn’t realize how significant her mother’s accomplishments were, as one of the first Uyghur women to earn a Ph.D., or how those early language lessons would shape her life course. Back in Ürümchi, she started to realize some of this because suddenly it seemed like everyone was saying, “Rahile is a doctor, Rahile is a doctor.” Akida remembers repeating this in school to her classmates. “They were like, what?”
When Akida started school, like many Uyghur parents who wanted the best for their children, her mother insisted on sending her to a Chinese kindergarten. Akida remembers this as being really hard.
“I could not understand a single word, because up to that point I had never spoken Chinese or heard Chinese. I never finished my homework. At first my mother blamed me for not doing my homework. She told me, ‘Do your homework.’ As if I was just lazy. But I didn’t know what this was.”
Akida soon began to understand her Chinese lessons, and when she started to study English, she realized that she might have a gift for languages. “I was the smallest person in the class at the English training center. My mom was so proud of me. She told me, ‘If you study hard you can go abroad, go to Harvard, be a doctor and see the world.’”
Rahile wanted Akida to know everything and do everything, but she especially wanted her to understand her Uyghur heritage. As Akida remembers it,
“Unlike other parents, she encouraged me to travel. She always pushed me to explore life. She would tell me, ‘Go live with your relatives for the summer.’ She would give me 30 yuan ($4.20), pack some clothes, and a tin of biscuits. She made it seem like it wasn’t hard. Like it was fun. We had been living a cozy life in the city. But on the farm in the countryside, the toilet was outside, there were no showers. Someone had to hold a hollowed-out gourd filled with water and pour it over you. In the countryside there were no supermarkets and the kids had a different kind of life. In the city, girls and boys were treated more equally, but in the countryside, the women were treated differently. For instance, young women would be married to young men without meeting each other. Girls had to get up early and clean the house. The girls were super, super good at cleaning. There were also some cultural traditions. The children should not talk freely with elders. We should avoid being impolite. I learned by watching the other children, but I made a lot of mistakes. They were very patient with me. They would tell me over and over again, ‘Akida, you are a girl.’ In the countryside, even a 10-year-old girl could make hand-pulled noodles and all kinds of food. I couldn’t do any of those things.”
One of Akida’s fondest memories of her mom came from the intense periods of time when Akida was studying for the middle school and college entrance exams. Rahile incorporated Akida’s work into her own approach to academic work. Her habit was to work for one hour and then take a five-minute break to listen to some Uyghur folk music and to dance. Akida said, “She would always invite me to dance with her, so I always had a five-minute break, too. Our favorite song to sing and dance to was a song by the Uyghur singer Mominjan called “There is Beauty in You” (Uy: Güzelik Sende).
Akida was in high school when the violence of July 5, 2009 happened. Looking out from their 10th-floor apartment at Xinjiang University, she saw fires burning in the streets.
“My mom and I took a walk to the front gates to look out. We didn’t know what was happening. Our education was all from the state-run media. I felt terrified. No one wants chaos. I didn’t know what would happen next. One of the things I remember is that people were saying that their daughter or their son was missing. In high school they told us that all of the ethnicities were in solidarity with each other. But everyone saw that students were missing.”
Her mom encouraged her to go to Beijing for college, since it would give her better chances to find a good job. Akida remembers this as one of the difficult times in her life.
“It was really hard. When I was in college and feeling upset, she would always give me encouragement. She would say, ‘As long as you are making progress you are doing better.’ I never got any awards in college. She would have been happy if I did, but she just encouraged me anyway. She said, ‘The other students are native Chinese speakers.’ Usually I would call her in the evening after class. I would tell her all the gossip about my roommates and my friends. I would tell her what I ate for dinner. She would try to call me in the morning on the weekends so that I would get up and study. I would always pretend that I was already awake. I would say, ‘I’ve been up for an hour already.’ Whenever I went to Beijing she would pack my bag with snacks and bedding. She would pack some dried meat for me in a jar. She would tell me to eat in class in school when I am hungry. I would think of her for several weeks as I ate what she sent.”
When the stress of college life drove Akida close to developing an eating disorder, Rahile intervened as gently as she could. Akida said, “She always did it in a humorous way. When I didn’t eat enough before I left for school, she used to say, ‘You will faint if you don’t eat.’ During video chats after I came to the U.S., she used to repeat the Uyghur proverb: ‘If you don’t eat well, the wind will take you away’” (Uy: Tamakni yaxshi yemisigiz, shamal uqurtiwitidu).
After she came to visit Akida in Seattle as a Chinese state-sponsored visiting scholar at the University of Washington in 2016, Rahile always tried to ply Akida with snacks like chocolate. Akida said, “I would never eat it because I was dieting. She always said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life? Chocolate is the best thing in the world.’ In Seattle, she especially fell in love with the snacks from the Fred Meyers grocery store. She thought they had the best chicken wings.”
For Akida, Seattle is haunted by the memory of her mother. She said, “When she came to visit me here, I had no idea that this would be the last time we would stay together for a long time. I didn’t know the meaning of her visit. I thought it seemed so familiar, like when she had visited me in Beijing. I didn’t know the meaning of having her here.”
As she goes about her daily routine, little things Akida encounters makes her think about her mother.
“My exercise clothes always remind me of her. She has a lot of tennis shoes and sports outfits. She had a gray hoodie that she wore for 10 years, I often imagine her in that. Not many Uyghur women her age would wear this sort of thing in public, so they always reminded me of how different she is, how confident she is as a woman. I used to always borrow her clothes or steal them from her. She would always complain, ‘Why did you take my clothes again?’ But secretly I could tell that she was pleased. We used to walk together around the Red Lake in the center of Xinjiang University. She would tell me, ‘You will ruin your eyes, if you just look at your computer.’ When she was a visiting scholar here in Seattle we walked down by the lake near our apartment. I think of her when I go back to where we used to walk. When I see the apartment where we used to live, I remember that she lived there with me. This always brings tears to my eyes.
“There is a Value Village thrift store near that apartment. Once when I was passing it, I went in to have a look. She used to go there almost every day. She liked saving money, but she also liked nice clothes. She liked to go there to see if she could find some nice clothes or good shoes. Then she would brag to me about what she found. This is one of the things that really made her happy.”
“Most Chinese people cannot comprehend it when I say that my mother is missing. When I say she is missing, their first response is why? Did she commit some sort of crime?”
Mostly, Akida says she misses having someone to talk to.
“I miss her so much. I used to stay in the same room with her, so now I miss her scent. I could just talk to her for hours every day. I told her about all of the small things. Even after she left, we kept talking like this, right until the day she disappeared. She had just bought a new TV and a dishwasher so she could do less housework and watch more movies. She told me that her future plan was to move to a house in the mountains outside of Ürümchi. After she retired she wanted to live in the countryside and write and read. She wanted to smell the fresh air and write about the countryside. She told me to get married and give her grandchildren. She told me that if I lived and worked in the U.S. she would take care of my children. This is what makes me so sad. This life no longer seems possible. She wanted to enjoy her life. Knowing this is what makes her disappearance so hard.”
Akida said that much of the past three years have felt like a waking dream, a nightmare that never ends.
“I have dreams about her returning home and that I am in the same room with her. Or I am talking with her over the phone. But then when I wake up, I know it is just a dream. I often have nightmares that something happened to her. When this happens it takes me days for me to recover. In the dream she just looks weak. Her hair has turned white. She has a hard time walking. I say, ‘Mom!’ to her but she cannot respond. It’s like she doesn’t recognize me. She just stares at me blankly. It is like a really weird, horrible movie. I often wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. I go to work feeling heavy inside. It is hard to pretend that things are normal. Lots of people have trauma, but it is not like this. This never ends. I don’t have the energy to even scream or cry. I can’t scream at work. I wash my face, make breakfast, and commute to work. I just feel this heaviness all the time. It is a physical feeling inside me, like a monster is inside me weighing me down. I feel it in my stomach. At the same time, my head doesn’t stop thinking about it and these two things combine together. Sometimes I feel so tired that I might end up not doing anything. I crawl into bed and try to sleep to forget these things, but it is hard to sleep sometimes. Sometimes I just think about what has happened to my mom for hours at a time. It is so contradictory. It is hard to sleep, but it is also hard to get out of bed. Sometimes I spend days in bed.
What makes her memory of dancing with her mother to the song “There is Beauty in You” more painful is that, in her nightmares, her mom can barely walk. “I’m afraid that it is impossible for her to dance now, that I’ll never relive this again.”
“The saddest time was reading that the president of Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Tiyip, had been allegedly sentenced to death (with a two-year reprieve). I saw him all the time on campus. He was a family friend. I thought about it for weeks. The only time I feel a little bit better is when I see that another Uyghur has testified for their family member and the government has released them as a result. For example, when I heard Halmurat Harri had gotten his mother out. At that time, I hadn’t even started speaking. But then I thought, ‘Now I have no choice but to speak.’ You know the Chinese government lies are being unveiled through leaked documents. There is clear proof. This, and the ability to tell our stories, gives me energy. Together we can show that this is happening.”
It is often hard for Akida to remain optimistic. As someone who has spent decades of her life in the Chinese education system, she knows how powerful the Chinese state is in revising history. She fears that most of her Chinese friends will simply act as though what is happening to the Uyghurs is not true and wait for the story to go away.
“Sometimes I tell my Chinese friends that my mother is missing and it feels like they don’t believe me. When I post testimony videos or interviews many Han people tell me that I am telling lies. They say, ‘Your mom must be a terrorist.’ I believe that many people have humanity at their core. They just don’t know what is actually happening in Northwest China. I don’t think most Chinese people know that it is happening. You can’t hear anything about it from the media they are used to. If they hear it is happening from the Western media, they think it is just them trying to humiliate China. If they knew, they would say this is wrong. I hope that this is true. First they have to understand that this is happening. They are detaining innocent Uyghurs. I tell my Han friends they don’t need to say something for my mother. But it is true that innocent people are being detained. I would stand up for anyone who is innocent. This is what I believe in.”
Over time, Akida says she has stopped talking directly to her Chinese friends, since they often just shut down when she brings up her mother’s situation. It makes them uncomfortable, so she has started to develop more non-Chinese friendships.
“Most Chinese people cannot comprehend it when I say that my mother is missing. When I say she is missing, their first response is why? Did she commit some sort of crime? They cannot digest it. So most of the time I don’t mention it.”
But it still means a lot if one of her Chinese friends sees her and her mother as fellow humans and relates to them on that level.
“One of my Chinese friends, when I began to post about this, sent me a message saying she was so sorry and said, ‘I hope you can see your mother soon.’ She told me to keep staying strong. Her first response was to feel sorry for me. She identified with me as a daughter. I will remember this forever. It means so much if someone from her background has empathy like this. If they say something like this, I feel a little bit lighter. That heaviness in my stomach goes away just for a little bit. When my Chinese friends see her as a human, as a mother, if they start there, then it makes me feel as though there is hope. But to be honest, among my Chinese friends, this is really rare, just one or two or three.
Akida buried her head in her hands. She shook her head sadly and tried to smile.
For ways to can support Akida’s efforts to help her mom, visit www.freemymom.org
Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column is published on the first Wednesday of every month. Previously: