The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

War Games

On the Oregon coast, there’s a giant sand dune conveniently located next to a microbrewery where kids and families slog up and then roll down, before climbing back into their mini-vans dizzy and with sand in their shoes. As a kid though, I enjoyed the backside of the dune—a warren of sand paths in coastal greenery—even more than sledding down the sandy slope. You could crawl through a maze of plant tunnels, sneak up and spy on the other kids. You never knew what was around the corner. There could be nothing, or you could find yourself running into a suburban dad or a white-tailed deer. You were always close to others, but if you were stealthy, they couldn’t see you. I got a certain mischievous thrill when they had no idea you were crawling circles around them.

Crouched in the Hong Kong foilage near the border with China holding an automatic weapon, I remembered how exciting that feeling was. When you’re crawling around trying to remain hidden, you become aware of every movement and every sound around you. Even if you’re just waiting in the bushes, time seems to stretch out, and you’re aware of every moment.

A couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I got roped into playing war games. I’d imagined something akin to the paintball experiences I’d had: We’d run around a small field, getting shot at by teenagers on birthday parties. But when we got to the bus stop, we realized we the people shooting at us wouldn’t be rank amateurs. Everybody was in full fatigues and many wore genuine military helmets with built-in radios. When we got the field, everybody took out their guns and lovingly assembled them, comparing sizes and models with the people around them. We were the only people—out of about 80—without our own automatic rifles. We just referred to as ‘the rentals’, and with our inferior gear we made easy targets for the military hobbyists and their high-powered BB M-16s and sniper rifles.

The BBs don’t hurt a great deal unless you’re hit at really close range. Of course, we didn’t know this in the first round when we were dumped into a labyrinth of forest paths. There was no team strategy or goal. We were just told to shoot the enemy. We’d recognize the them, we were told, because they’d be shooting at us. Fair enough, I thought, but the reality was you’re almost always in total confusion about who’s around the corner. In the fog of war, one constantly wonders, ‘If I crawl down the path, will I find myself staring down the barrel of an enemy rifle?’ Usually, when you crawl around a corner, you meet an empty path, but enough of the time, you find yourself getting shot in the face that you became hyper-sensitive to the sounds around you, listening for any clue about who’s in the neighborhood.

In the end, I don’t think the world’s armies will come recruiting me after my first effort as a foot soldier, but I didn’t do half bad either. Maybe crawling around the Oregon coast spying on other children taught me a thing or two after all.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: History in Hotan

Norlan, my volunteer Uighur guide in Hotan, has read carefully every piece of tourist information about the Xinjiang. He has underlined, circled, and annotated passages on nearly every page of his numerous pamphlets and guides. He even has an old, well-worn copy of a book illegal in China—The Lonely Planet.

At the bus station in Hotan, he reads to me from his LP, “It’s fairly certain that the Tang dynasty never had absolute control” and then he skips to “In 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords over whom the Nationalist Party had very little control.”

Earlier in the day, he had told me that in school he never learned any Uighur history, just the history of the Communist Party like everyone else in China. Norlan had only vague ideas of Uighurs fighting in the “1930s or 40s” for independence which he learned from relatives old enough to have fought against the Chinese. It was only after he learned English and read the Lonely Planet that he discovered a longer account of Uighur history—nearly two pages.

Besides being naturally curious and exceptionally bright, Norlan got lucky. China’s imposes a sanitized history of long-standing control to justify its rule of Xinjiang.  I don’t think most Uighurs buy into this narrative, but with China’s regime of information censorship, no competing accounts of history can readily emerge—leaving Norlan to accidentally uncover it in an illicit tourist guide. Without the ability to form any sort of civil society and without a believable history, it’s no wonder many Uighurs feel dispossessed.

Right before I got on the bus, he looked right at me, tapped his finger to his Lonely Planet, and said, “This is real history.”