Epistemology as Ethics: Notes from the Asian Borderlands

From the Series: Denaturalizing Ethnographic Epistemology

Taken during a flight from Osh to Urumqi, as we were crossing the Tian Shan mountain range that runs along the border of Kyrgyzstan and China. Photo by Grace H. Zhou.

“Do you like spicy food? How about Chinese?”

Gulyar was inviting me out to lunch. It was 2014 in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city. We decided to take a taxi to an unassuming, homey restaurant in the bazaar district that served merchants from China. In the car, the driver eyed us through the rearview mirror, and I could already anticipate his question.

“Where are you from?”

It was a line of inquiry I usually dreaded. My answer (“I’m from the U.S.”) would often provoke disbelief and a demand for me to explain myself further. I had experienced unpleasant exchanges, almost always with men, where they continued to deny my elaborations in a way that perplexed and frustrated me.

Gulyar replied brightly, without hesitation, “China.”

“But what is your natsiya [nationality or ethnic group]?”

“I’m Chinese [Ya Kitayanka],” she said with a sly smile, refusing to give into his desire for a deeper explanation. The driver mused that she didn’t look it.

“She looks Chinese,” he said pointedly, referring to me.

“I’m actually American,” I quipped. He laughed, as if it were a joke.

Gulyar and I were parallel interlopers in Kyrgyzstan, who had both forged deep connections with this place over the years. We were often presented as a confounding pair. We were two young women, seemingly unattached and living alone in a place where that was rare; one, Chinese-American and the other, Uyghur from Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province. Our hybrid identities roused interest in others and could be recast playfully or deployed strategically. Once, Gulyar was pulled over by traffic police while driving me and her Han Chinese boyfriend across town without a license. In fluent Kyrgyz, she negotiated an out. Pressing a small fold of bills into the officer’s hands, she claimed that she was connected to a powerful local businessman and was merely chauffeuring his Chinese business partners around the city. The police officer peered through the windows, taking in her boyfriend’s and my East Asian features, before reluctantly letting us continue on our way.

Gulyar came from a politically well-positioned Urumqi family with extensive business connections across southern Kyrgyzstan. We got to know each other in 2012, when a student in my English conversation class at a local university offered to introduce me to her Chinese language teacher. We were similar in age, both pursuing graduate studies, both teaching and mentoring students in southern Kyrgyzstan, albeit in two geopolitically competing languages, one looking West and the other East. When we first met, she offered to teach me to read and write Chinese, but I struggled to maintain my enthusiasm. Gulyar considered herself minkaohan, a label used for ethnic Uyghurs educated in Mandarin-language schools. Her complicated attitude toward her Turkic mother tongue echoed my own relationship to Mandarin Chinese—a mixture of embarrassment and regret for not being fluent enough, but also a desire to move beyond it, to not be defined by it.

Year after year, we both returned to Kyrgyzstan, to our overlapping social circles, to our feral multilingual patter, to our shared desire for hot pot, which she would simmer in her apartment to the scorn of an Uzbek boyfriend she once dated. The last time we connected in person was in late 2016, in Urumqi, her native city. She’d gotten married, had a baby. Life had changed. We fell out of touch when I returned to the U.S. a year later, at the conclusion of a long stretch of fieldwork. At that point, China’s violent campaign against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang had begun a drastic escalation. Not only were millions arrested and disappeared into internment camps euphemistically called “reeducation centers,” but any inkling of foreign connection, including communication with relatives or friends abroad, became a cause of suspicion and arrest.

Gulyar and I were at once familiar and strange to one another. She found my American habits quirky, while I felt some unease about her seemingly ready embrace of Sinicization, given the rise of Han nationalism and its oppression of Uyghur culture. But I balked at asking her probing questions. I didn’t want to make her account for herself as an anthropological subject whose habits and perspectives would be analyzed once I returned to the folds of the academy. Though I explained the nature of ethnographic research to her, she occasionally joked that perhaps I was some kind of a spy. These complicated emotions contrasted with the more straightforward dynamics I experienced with other friends and interlocutors in southern Kyrgyzstan, where I was more easily legible as an “outsider” who had earned trust in long-standing relationships through years of Uzbek and Kyrgyz language study and fieldwork immersion.

My relationship with Gulyar illuminates the ways that those of us who come from “marked” identities vis-à-vis the anthropological tradition complicate binaries of Native/Other, West/non-West. Not only are these categories crossed, as in the “native anthropologist” who is trained in Euro-American institutions to go “back” to study their “own” cultures, but our relationships are already riven by multiple vectors of power. In the field, and especially in my interactions with Uyghurs in or from Xinjiang, I become hyper-aware of the double-bind of my positionality. What power, real or imagined, might my interlocutors be ascribing to me and their perceptions of my identity? How might my questions be read or misread? When I write about or account for these experiences, what unintentional effects or repercussions might my words have?

Continuing to practice ethnography means not only acknowledging its historical baggage as a colonial “technique of knowing” (Simpson 2007, 67), but also wrestling with its contemporary shadows that use knowledge for exploitation. As someone of Han Chinese heritage doing research in Central Asia, I am perpetually conscious of not only the violence China’s authoritarian regime is committing against Uyghurs and other predominantly Turkic Muslim groups, but also about settler colonial policies that have encouraged Han migration to Uyghur and Kazakh lands, systematic and compulsory linguistic and cultural assimilation, as well as initiatives like the Civil Servant Family Pair Up program that places Han Chinese bureaucrats in Uyghur homes as a form of surveillance and forced paternalistic care (Byler 2018; Yi 2019). It is a government scheme with a sinister resemblance to the ethnographer’s modus operandi.

Claiming an “American” identity is certainly no reprieve. For over a decade, the war in Afghanistan was supported by the Transit Center at Manas Airport, a U.S. Air Force military base housed within Kyrgyzstan’s largest civilian airport, in the capital of Bishkek. In certain years, when tension between the U.S. and Russia was particularly high, I would be warned by close friends: don’t say you’re American. U.S. imperialism, particularly the “War on Terror,” has had destructive echoes across Central Asia—including China’s adoption of its language in the oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang. It has been propped up by operations like the Human Terrain System, a military program that recruited anthropologists.

The double-bind of a racialized position in the field can be a reckoning, an impetus to rethink ethnographic praxis—as well as the privilege we wield in our institutional homes. As I critique the workings of settler colonialism in Xinjiang, I am compelled to reflect on what it means to be an immigrant-settler in the American settler colony. I work to remain attuned to the ways that power can be reproduced even as it is being contested, because I have been grappling with Asian American experiences that reveal how one can simultaneously be victimized by, and complicit with, the structures of white supremacy. It is the experience of being a “crossroads” of identities (Anzaldúa 1987, 195) that propels me to the borderlands of Central Asia. The view from here destabilizes knowledge production from power centers, and it becomes starkly apparent that, for example, the Soviet Union, as a purportedly socialist and anti-imperialist project, was also a colonial one; that China can be both a subject of colonization and a settler colonial state in the making.

Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla write that classical anthropology’s adage of “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange” might be better reconceptualized through W. E. B. Du Bois’s theorization of racialized double consciousness, whereby African Americans are “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Du Bois 1903, 351), in contrast with “normative subjects’ hegemonic modes of perception” (Rosa and Bonilla 2017, 206). The racialized subject as anthropologist, thus, should not aspire to do research with the intellectual abandon of the field’s traditionally unmarked white men, nor to reproduce the institutional status quo. We must remain committed to a constant interrogation of power relations that often also implicate ourselves and our subject positions.

However, having a marginalized identity alone does not mean that one’s scholarly research is safe from reproducing the harms of oppressive hierarchy or control. But it can be a starting point for building solidarity from the margins, as we imagine other ways of doing and being, both within and outside of the academy. In this work of reimagining, epistemology is also an ethics: a call for collaboration and the co-production of knowledge, to interrogate accepted frameworks (Kassymbekova and Chokobaeva 2021; Marat 2021), to honor refusal and indeterminacy (Visweswaran 1994; Simpson 2007; McGranahan 2016; Shange 2019), to embrace unconditional relationality that extends beyond research (Cox 2018), and to make space for “epistemological elsewheres” (Reese 2019) that are not ours to claim or utilize.

The last time I saw Gulyar in China, she invited me out for dinner at a spacious restaurant in Urumqi lined with potted palms and packed with multigenerational Uyghur families and groups of well-dressed women in spirited conversation. We listened to singers from a medley of Central Asian nations croon onstage. There was a woman from Almaty who sang ballads in Kazakh. After her, an Uzbek man from Osh performed in Russian and Uzbek. Listening to the songs and the chatter, I reflected on the glimmerings of an alternative Central Asia, one that persisted across nation-state borders and in the cracks of an authoritarian state.

Between sets, Gulyar confided that she had not given up on her personal dreams of state employment. “I want to teach Russian at the Chinese military academy, or maybe the Ministry of State Security [Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence agency],” she said, poking fun at the old joke that I was perhaps a spy.

I told her that I wanted to write a book. Her eyes lit up with recognition, as if seeing me for the first time.

“I want to write a book too! Oh, the book that I would write!”


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