Ayniwaer never expected that 30 years ago—living in rural Xinjiang, in China's vast western expanse—he'd be picked by the government to move to Beijing and sell skewers. As part of a government project to bring Uyghurs, a Chinese ethnic minority, to the capital, only 18 would be selected to bring their various specialties with them. For Ayniwaer, searing up spiced lamb on thin metal rods, a food now ubiquitous across Beijing and called chuanr in Mandarin, landed him in the country's Communist headquarters in his early twenties.
Today, at 53, Ayniwaer has managed to expand his food business with a medium-sized restaurant called Crescent Moon. It stands out like a sore thumb—looking something like a small mosque—in a quiet alley, tucked away in the city's downtown Dongcheng district. Operating a restaurant like this is no easy task easy for a Uyghur in Beijing, or even in the rest of China. Most Uyghurs, associated with the devastating poverty of Xinjiang, are largely thought by the Chinese Han ethnic majority to be petty thieves.
Uyghurs stand out from the Han, too—they're Muslim, and their native language sounds more similar to Turkish than Mandarin. Their home province, on the border with Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, has a prolific history of violence. In recent years, Xinjiang has been rocked by mob violence, bomb blasts, and police clashes, but details remain murky, because the Chinese government tightly restricts access into the area and the information that comes out of it. There are reports that in Xinjiang, Uyghur stores have been forced to sell alcohol and cigarettes, and that the government prohibits fasting on Ramadan along with mosques giving calls to prayers. Fitting into Beijing for a Uyghur isn't always easy.
But business at Crescent Moon on a sticky summer Monday night is bustling. Ayniwaer's daughter, Myra, is decked head-to-toe in a traditional green, gold, and black Uyghur outfit; she manages orders while Turkish dance music blares over hungry foreign and local Chinese diners. She came to join her father in Beijing five years ago. Two girls—who Myra says had connections to her family back in Xinjiang's Kuche, and later moved to Beijing—hurriedly bring out orders from the kitchen, their T-shirts both featuring the same blindingly pink sequin peacocks.
I'm joined at dinner by my close friend, a foreign journalist in Beijing, who speaks perfect Mandarin. (Mine is deeply awkward from the year I've spent in Cantonese Hong Kong.) Myra and Ayniwaer can speak both Uyghur and Mandarin, but they don't speak English. Myra says that their best Uyghur dishes are lamb chuanr—the skewers Ayniwaer was so famous for—along with a stir-fried beef served over small bits of a Xinjiang spin on naan. She also suggest we try a similar dish, where the beef is served over a whole naan stuffed with vegetables, and da pan ji, a seemingly bottomless spicy dish of chicken and potatoes.
It's hard not to notice how many foreigners there are in the restaurant; English can be heard from across the room. Myra says that when Crescent Moon opened up 12 years ago, it became an instant hit with foreign language students—and since, it's stayed a tradition with foreigners studying in Beijing. While my friend and I wait for the crowds to ask the father-daughter pair some more questions, we take a break to feast on the food. The bread is thick and doughy; the meat cumin-soaked and sliced thin. It's not quite Chinese but it's certainly not Turkish, either.
My friend and I want to warm up to asking Ayniwaer what it's like dealing with discrimination in Beijing, so we start out by asking him about the difficulties he faced going from a skewer stall to a popular restaurant. He says quickly that he's one of the lucky ones, telling us that the rapidly rising rent in Beijing—especially over the past two years—has driven many Uyghurs out of the city, since they're no longer able to afford it. He also says that with mass emigration from rural provinces to the country's first-tier cities, China's more prominent kings of cuisine—those coming from Hunan and Sichuan—have presented a new problem with competition to grapple with.
"But now, Beijing is my home," Ayniwaer says. When we ask what it's like dealing with the Han as a Uyghur, he tells us, "Over the past 30 years, things have been good." He says it with a smile and a lowered voice—and just as soon as we ask, a Han patron walks in and sits down for a bite. It's an answer journalists in China can typically expect: deeply vague, but still positive.
Getting a real answer in China isn't only difficult, but all too often impossible.