This week I received another reminder that there is very little in this hyperconnected world of ours that doesn’t eventually figure in an encounter between writer and writing center consultant. The writing center is the kind of place where a consultation devoted to lamb kebab and the mechanics of writing ends up also being about the difficult, hazardous aspects of human sociality.
The reminder I’m referring to here occurred while a student and I were working together on a paper about a food item that was personally important to the student. Odd assignment, I thought, but whatever. The student was concerned about their language usage, particularly their articles and sentence structure, and we sat down prepared to talk about parts of speech, verb tenses, and the conventions of Standard Edited American English. The food item they had chosen was lamb kebab, and the student gave a clear (and hunger-inducing) step-by-step description of how to make it before turning to the emotional aspect of the dish. Due to its association not with the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang (where the student is from) but with the Uighur population, lamb kebab is a dish that doesn’t have strict social conventions around its consumption and is instead associated with friendship, trust, and informality. The student wrote that businessmen will often leave formal banquets on the conclusion of a deal and go to a street cart for lamb kebab, to better symbolize the heightened level of trust and intimacy in their new relationship to each other. The student also noted that he felt most comfortable talking with his father about life, family, and the future when they share lamb kebab.
At this point I’m struggling to concentrate on the grammar and mechanics the writer wants to discuss. I manage, but afterward I keep thinking about the writer and what they wrote. A student from Central Asia living and studying in the middle of Texas, even on as diverse a campus as the University of Texas at Austin’s, must feel as far from family and as frighteningly immersed in their own future as it is possible to feel; I know from my work with other non-American students (and plenty of American students, too) that the distance from home and from support networks inherent to residential college life can be emotionally difficult, even disabling. The student’s conclusion was also interesting – they wrote that people of Han Chinese and Uighur ethnicities could perhaps sit down someday and share lamb kebab, thereby better connecting the two peoples – which activated long-forgotten memories of news reports in the 1990s and in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
The reality is that it will probably take more than lamb kebab to unite the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Chinese: 新疆维吾尔自治区, Uyghur: شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى). The Xinjiang Uyghur AR is very large and its political connections to China are hotly contested; the region’s ethnic minorities differ from the Han Chinese majority in many ways including religion, tradition, and social norms, and Uyghurs are typically of lower socioeconomic status than their Han Chinese cohabitants. For context it is worth noting that in some ways the Xinjiang Uyghur AR’s political situation resembles that of Tibet. In addition it is very rugged, with the Tianshan mountains forming an internal frontier cutting the region into two halves; according to People’s Daily Online only 4.3% of the region is habitable by humans and the influx of exogamous economic migrants is stretching the region’s already-meagre resources.
This sparsely-populated, rugged area in the grip of ongoing political violence stands in strong contrast with the smooth new writing center space in which I discussed lamb kebab with my consultee; what the experience of reading his paper reminded me of is that this contrast does not necessarily also indicate distance. Certainly the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is not geographically close to Texas, and I’m not suggesting that even the power of writing can change that; however, the cooperative energy and goodwill with which we discuss writing in the writing center encounter can lessen the felt experience of many kinds of distance whether physical or emotional and remind us that, whether or not lamb kebabs physically enter the writing center, their unexpectedly complex and various influence does.