Like Seeds of a Pomegranate

Two stories of lifelong friendship in Xinjiang

On solidarity among ethnic groups in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, President Xi Jinping noted, “All ethnic groups should remain closely united like how the seeds of a pomegranate stick together.” The sentence deftly illustrated the close connection between the various ethnic groups in the vast Xinjiang region in northwest China. Here, people from Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture and Kucha share their stories.

Second Family

Even in December, the temperature can stay quite warm in the southern areas of Xinjiang. In only a thin shirt, Guo Zongjun cooked lunch in a Uygur kitchen. “The lamb is great today, Dad,” Guo said to Isa, owner of the home. Isa had invited Guo and his family to have lunch at his home. Isa’s daughters were still waiting to send the dishes to the tables even though a series of delicious Uygur food, including lamb kebabs, baked samosas, stewed lamb and Xinjiang pilaf, had already piled up. Guo’s son, Shibo, chatted about mobile phone games with the Uygur girls. Isa and his wife sat on a traditional brick bed to converse with their guests. The harmonious scene kindled smiles of satisfaction.

Even though Guo Zongjun is of Han ethnicity, he said he considers Isa his father figure. “He is just like my own son,” said Isa, a 75-year-old resident of Daxi Village in Bayingolin Prefecture. On the wall of Isa’s house hung a group photo of Isa, his wife Hakzi Tayi, and Guo Zongjun and his spouse. Isa and Hakzi said the visits from Guo’s family were frequent on weekends and holidays. Whenever Guo was in the village, he would help Isa do farm work like watering and fertilizing cotton and digging ridges for growing pear trees.

The deep bond between Guo and Isa dates back to 1998 when Guo left home in Henan Province and arrived in Daxi Village seeking a job. “Life in Henan was quite hard back then, and I thought that I had the skills to build houses, so I decided to try my luck in Xinjiang.” When Guo arrived in the small village, he had only 10 yuan in his pocket.

A group photo of Guo Zongjun’s family and three generations of Isa’s family. (WANG FENGJUAN)

Upon seeing this poor soul wander in the village, Isa approached him and asked if he had eaten recently. Guo replied that he could not afford to buy any food. Isa took Guo home, fed him, and accommodated him in an empty room. “I can build houses, and I work hard,” said Guo. Seeing sincerity and determination in Guo’s eyes, Isa decided to help him find work in construction.

At first, locals did not trust the stranger, wondering whether he could produce quality work. “You may not know him, but you know me,” said Isa. “Guo lives in my house, so I guarantee that if anything goes wrong, I will take responsibility.” Isa also helped Guo negotiate his rate. Thanks to Isa’s support, Guo finally gained a foothold in Daxi Village renovating roofs, erecting walls, and building houses. He eventually won recognition from all the villagers.

In 1999, Isa’s only son died in a car accident. Isa and his wife were heart-broken and could barely handle the grief. Guo offered major support and began to refer to them as Dad and Mom. “I will be your son and take care of you for the rest of my life,” Guo vowed.

Guo lived in Isa’s house for about eight years. When Guo had finally saved some money, Isa helped him find a plot to build a house of his own. “Dad planted pears and grapes to make the house a real home for me,” Guo recalled. Even after Guo moved out, the familial feelings continued. A native of Henan in central China, Guo likes cooked wheaten food, so Isa invited him to dinner every time he made Xinjiang noodles. When Guo caught a cold, Hakzi would bring soup.

“We are a loving family,” said Hakzi. Talking about Guo made Hakzi’s eyes get glassy. In 2000, Hakzi fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Her two daughters were in school, so Guo took care of her. Guo was quite devoted to looking after her and spent more than 10 days in hospital. When Isa and Hakzi’s youngest daughter went to Urumqi to attend college, Guo visited her frequently and brought snacks and other things. Guo sometimes gave her some pocket money and told her not to tell Isa and Hakzi.

Guo Zongjun is now married with a son. Isa’s two daughters also married. Now, the family gatherings are larger. As Guo’s career improved, he started taking young people to do business in Hotan in southern Xinjiang. Isa often makes video calls with him. Guo Shibo, Guo Zongjun’s son, often went to Isa’s house to play when he was little. He calls Isa and Hakzi Grandpa and Grandma.

After lunch, Guo Zongjun sat next to Isa and Hakzi to wish them the best and promise a return during the Spring Festival. “I lost my own son, but my Han son treats us like his dearest family,” said Hakzi. “No family reunion will ever be complete without Guo.”

Good Neighbors Forever

Yongku Solidarity Village in Kucha originally had a name meaning “a tree” in the Uygur language. As recently as the 1960s, the location had little to offer other than a couple of sand dunes, and the village’s landmark was several poplar trees. Today, broad asphalt roads connect new houses, and villagers from different ethnic groups greet each other and chat along the roads.

Wang Mingyin and Muhammad Apizi attended the same primary school and grew up together. They quickly became inseparable and worked together to dig canals, plant cotton, and venture to central China to do business. Thanks to a housing project supported by the local government, they became neighbors after moving into two adjacent houses.

“We never imagined our lives would turn out this happy,” Wang said. Years later, the two greying men sat on a sofa in Muhammad’s living room to inventory the improvements in their living standards. “Thanks to the government’s support, we realized agricultural mechanization with subsidies to buy agricultural machines,” he added. “We also applied drip irrigation techniques to save both time and resources. In the past, we could only plant a few hectares of farmland a year, but now we do dozens. Policies to support farmers brought real benefit to all of us. Now we are all living in governmentsubsidized houses.”

In 1961, a group of builders working on the Lanzhou- Xinjiang Railway brought their families to the village along with rails. They became the first generation of Han Chinese to settle in the village and began working with locals from other ethnic groups on establishing farmland, planting, and digging canals. Wang’s parents were among them. Muhammad recalled that he and Wang began helping their parents at work soon after graduating from primary school. Wang’s wife testified to the brotherhood bond between Wang and Muhammad lasting a lifetime.

“During the busy farming season, if he plants his field first, I would come to help him first and vice versa. The bond was not developed in a day. It has been enhanced day by day since 1961,” Wang said. He noted that he likes the Xinjiang noodles made by Muhammad’s family, while Muhammad loves fried dishes made by his family.

“We live so close that we can decide where to eat just by sniffing the air,” Muhammad joked. Because their living standards have improved so dramatically, they are always eager to share food with their fellow villagers. The villagers act like a big family. When the first bought a television, every other villager went to watch.

Wang suffers from diabetes and heart disease, so Muhammad helps him do farm work. Muhammad tears up talking of the days Wang was hospitalized in 2016. “I was quite worried, so I stayed at the hospital to look after him,” he said. “I needed to see him recover because I knew we had many more days together ahead of us.” Muhammad spent two weeks in the hospital and did not leave until Wang Mingyin had fully recovered.

The pair beamed about a picture together on the Great Wall in 2010. When Wang decided to go back to his hometown in Shandong Province, Muhammad asked to go with him. They set out from Xinjiang and went to Beijing before traveling on to Shandong and then to Gansu Province. They attended the flag-raising ceremony in Tian’anmen Square and climbed the Great Wall, checking off two shared bucket list items. “I am more outgoing and better at communication,” claimed Wang. “But I always had to get Muhammad’s opinion.”

Wang’s relatives in Shandong welcomed his friend from Xinjiang enthusiastically. “Mingyin’s relatives treated me much better than they did to him,” Muhammad smiled when recalling the scene.

Wang Mingyin and Muhammad recall their 2010 trip to the Great Wall. (WANG FENGJUAN)

After more than six decades, Yongku Village has become Wang’s second hometown where most of his family and friends live. The bond between him and Muhammad has continued developing steadily and has been passed on to their offspring. Wang Shuangjian, son of Wang Mingyin, said that he and Muhammad’s children live in different places but often reunite for holidays. “I tell the kids the stories of our two families with hopes they keep the bond going.”

In Xinjiang, it is quite normal for people of various ethnic groups to live, work, study, and celebrate holidays together. The region has been a part of China’s territory where various ethnic groups have lived together in harmony, regardless of religious belief, race, or culture. They know the real Xinjiang better than anyone else.

By Wang Fengjuan

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