Summer Shorts: Going Home

A Uighur returns – flash fiction by Robert Powers


My job for the winter is finished. I am finished here. I am outside a train station in Beijing. It is midnight. The sky is a shroud, the same shroud. There is a board with red lights, and we are looking. A mass looking. People amassed looking the same. All doing the same thing. Everyone impatient, tired, hungry, lonely. People, I think, are the same. But they look at me in the same way: You are an alien. You are not the same. You are not from here. You do not look like me. You do not think like I think. It is always the same. I am going home. Home to the West, leaving from the East to the West, past the desert, to the border, to the rest of Asia. I hope one day to continue West, beyond my home, beyond my country, farther West to Mecca then Europe. There, I can swing a shovel just like they can. I can carve up and cook a lamb just like they can. I can clean any filthy floor or toilet, sell any trinket or candy, just like they can. I can even melt metal to the skeletons of buildings just like they can. But right now, there is a board with red lights, and I am here, and we are waiting to begin the same days-long journey to Wulumuqi, now hours delayed. So we stare up at the board with red lights, shining red on all our same faces, waiting for a change in the train times. I do not want to be going home. I am going home because I do not belong, even though I do. I have to explain who I am: What are you doing. What are you doing here. You do not belong. You are an alien. You do not look the same. Who are you? Where do you come from? You are not the same. But I still think people are the same when I am bumped by a woman, nearly knocked to the ground. My bag falls. My bag is full of gifts for my family, full of gifts in boxes with sharp edges. She is holding her dirty daughter by the hand, who stares at me. My bag and its corners fell on her daughter. Red is flowing on an important part of her head. She could be my daughter. She could be a part of my family. She is a part of my family. A part of our same family. But her mother says I am an alien. She says very loudly that I am an alien. An alien who has attacked a proud local daughter. I quickly apologize in their language, in our language, and they see I am not the same. I am at the center of a crowd, now a circle, now moving around and toward me, pointing, saying the same thing but in different ways, with different accents, with the same anger. They say things that are true. They say things that are not true. They want my knife. The one that cut the child. I show them my passport. I show them my national ID card. I show them a photo of my Han wife, our mixed and beautiful child. I show them everything. I show them I am the same, and I apologize again in their language, in our language, and in my own. I plead with them in a language anyone anywhere can understand. The mass of them, swarming, moving, stuck and shouting. Full of hope, full of dread. The woman and her child, I lose their faces. I lose my own. So many faces. So many hands and arms. I do not last long. But it does not last long. The red overhead changes, a voice trumpets our departure, a whistle sounds, and the gates open. We are moving. Pale lights in the corridors lead the way and paint our same faces. The train is ready and we leave. Outside, the land is dark. Every shadow a dark fortress. The lights in the villages like stars. I am going home.

Robert Powers was born in Washington DC. He has previously worked as a journalist and technical writer in Beijing and Shenzhen

This story was a runner up for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition, and is part of our "summer shorts" season