Changji, Xinjiang

Because they were surprised I spoke a different language and wanted to know what part of China my family lived in…

If I said I was from Wu Yi Dong Lu in Changji, Xinjiang, a block away from the Fei Ma Zhuan Pan (or the flying horse intersection), where the men smoking cigarettes squat on sidewalks and trees align on either side of the streets decorated with color-changing lights. Where there is little pollution that taints the endless blur of blue above me and every sign is in both Mandarin and Uyghur. Where the most tourist-attractive structure is a massive onion-shaped theatre that is supposed to look like a lotus flower, would you know where I’m from?

In the place I love, the beaming, summer sun greets me in the mornings with a cool but dry breeze. In the place I love, the sounds of students skipping to school, intertwined with the chorus of chirping birds, flow in through my window. In the place I love, I get ready for the day at 10 a.m., leaving my room with the teddy bear curtains adorned with broken English. In the place I love, when I eat breakfast, I often glance at the framed picture of Mao Zedong displayed on the ledge and observe the faded, black-and-white photos of my young grandpa in the army preserved on the peeling white-painted walls.

In the place I love, people question if I can speak Mandarin, smile at my obvious accent, and ask me about America: “Do you prefer China or the U.S.?” In the place I love, we stroll around; my grandma points out the trees she’s planted and watched grow in her small community of pastel buildings and beautiful flowers. In the place I love, we stop below an apricot tree or a plum tree and discuss whether it’s ripe enough to shake. In the place I love, my aunts reluctantly agree to let me drive them on my grandpa’s three-wheeled motorcycle so we can all have lunch together. In the place I love, the maid sends me to the small community store to buy a few things. I struggle with understanding the currency — the owner asks for yi yuan, but I hand her yi mao qian. She laughs kindly. In the place I love, it is time for lunch. Delicious smells waft out through windows as the maid calls us in. We make our way up the three flights of stairs. I have to make two trips — once to help my grandpa and twice to carry his wheelchair. In the place I love, my other uncle visits us, bringing a variety of melons: honeymelon, watermelon, and cantaloupe.

In the place I love, my grandparents take their second nap of the day as I watch the International Women’s Volleyball Games. China’s team is very good. I sit on the edge of my seat and cheer for them. In the place I love, my mom and I go shopping for groceries. I drive us in my grandpa’s three-wheeled motorcycle, passing by foreign branded cars as we park near the crowded, noisy street markets with vendors who loudly bargain with customers. In the place I love, we stop by Grandpa Tea to grab a 24 yuan cup of iced tea. I order the one with passion fruit, strawberries, and oranges. The owner tells us his husky is at the other store. In the place I love, I pass by a police station every 50 meters.

In the place I love, my grandparents and I go downstairs to sit on our favorite bench in the evening. In the place I love, we talk with the gossiping old ladies who possess all knowledge concerning the community: “Did you hear Li Xian Sheng went to visit his son in Urumqi?” In the place I love, my mom joins the community residents as they play pre-recorded CD music and follow their dance instructor, waving their hands and spinning as the sun sets. In the place I love, the sun sets at 10 p.m., but it’s too hot so I cannot sleep. Sometimes, I snap on my rollerblades and explore the city at 11 p.m. The color-changing lights and store windows illuminate the sidewalk as I weave through groups of people. In the place I love, my grandma occasionally talks with my mom until midnight as we lounge on the couch. I listen. In the place I love, the lonely sound of outdoor cats, the whirring fan, my grandma’s steady snoring, and my grandpa’s humming oxygen tank are the last things I hear before I fall asleep.

– Alice L


Summer 2019 nostalgia. I haven’t been able to visit my mom’s side of the family because of the pandemic. I was born in America, but both my parents are immigrants and most of my relatives are in China. Although I’ve lived here for my entire life, I often feel homesick for my second home. This is my love letter to Changji, Xinjiang.

Instagram: @alei.23