Life of a Mimic
When I was a child, my father would brag to our neighbours of my precocious capacity for mimicry. Whether my ability to mimic was instinct or gift I couldn't say, but I do recall that my earliest experience of paternal approval was down to the uncanny accuracy of my impersonations. Whenever we had guests, Father would turn the talk to me, and my performances became an essential part of the entertainment. He'd crack a gold-toothed grin and give me my cue: "Come on, my girl, show us the way Marya's granny walks."
Father's laugh served as a signal for everyone to turn and watch me curve up my back and buckle my legs. I would plant a pretend walking-stick into the ground and tuck one arm high up behind the curve of my spine, furrow my brow, screw up my eyes, and suck in my mouth as if I had no teeth. Affecting the tremulous tone of the very aged, like a goat bleating, I'd call out, "Marya, Marya . . . time to light the stove and get the tea on!"
I would put on a performance like this every few days. My acting was getting ever more skillful, to the point that even I began to wonder if I might actually become a little old bound-foot Hui granny in a black headscarf and an old-time gown, leaning on her walking-stick, back hunched, calling her grandchildren in a small high voice that belied her years.
There was no way I'd dare mimic Marya's granny when there was no one else about. It was as if so long as someone was watching I wasn't at risk of losing myself. I worried that in the absence of an audience, if I wasn't careful I wouldn't be able to change back.
My talent for mimicry was obvious. What I didn't know back then is that a good actor finds true success only when, besides being able to mimic someone so everyone agrees you have the part down right, you can come back to being yourself once the performance is over. It shouldn't be a case of acting until you no longer recognise yourself, investing so permanently in a character you can't pick yourself back up again—like a monkey lost and confused in a hall of mirrors.
Actors have a thing for looking at themselves in the mirror and I was no exception. If there was no one else in the house I could spend all day looking at my reflection, losing myself in the mirror only to be found again when the grown-ups called for me.
Mimicry required repeated rehearsal, until you'd trained yourself to become what or who you were impersonating, with no way of distinguishing between you and them. My most successful impersonation was of a monkey. I rehearsed until I pretty much became one, hopping and bounding as I walked, blinking my eyes and sticking out my tongue at anyone I met. For no particular reason I took to rubbing shiny butter into the folds around my eyes, and it progressed so that in the end I felt I'd sprouted fur. The way I'd pick for nits or scratch my ears and cheeks became an opera performance of the Monkey King.
I developed a fascination for monkeys that was hard to put into words. If someone came to the village with a performing monkey, I'd follow them about from morning till night. I'd watch the tricks the monkey performed under the lash of its keeper's whip, and I'd be deeply moved by the sorry sight of the captive beast. It evoked a tenderness in me, a sympathy for monkeys that went far beyond any I felt for my brothers and sisters should they catch a beating. This unconditional compassion seemed to infuriate my father. "Them monkeys eat better than you do, I don't see what there is to feel sorry about. They have it way better than you, so they don't need your pity."
But I still thought the monkeys were to be pitied, winning their right to life only because they used their mimicry to garner approval.
Perhaps monkeys did not share my view of the mimic's life as something to be pitied, nor see it as some form of art, but then it was precisely because they could not see things this way that made them all the more pitiable. The monkeys were perhaps merely mimicking themselves, and people just assumed they were copying human behaviour. I could not know how monkeys think, nor indeed what other people thought, only that the latter shared my love of watching monkeys mimicking humans. And although you could see that many shared my feeling that we should feel sorry for the monkeys, none of us could quite articulate exactly what it was that we should feel sorry about.
My guess was that we pitied the monkeys who, through mimicry, had forgotten their natural way of life and couldn't find their way back; they were left alone and isolated amid a human crowd, fate firmly in the hands of the object of their mimicry. They could no longer be monkeys in the proper sense, and it was to be pitiable that they had to barter their performances in order to survive. They had surely not willingly abandoned their own way of life, and would long to be proper monkeys among others in natural surroundings, far from the tomfoolery of mankind, not desperate for approval by acting the mimic. Did they even still remember what life ought to be like? No matter how well they might be fed, they were kept beasts now and once the performance was over, they were put back in a cage. Cruel mankind was denying them the right to be the monkeys that they were.
It occurs to me that perhaps the sense of enormous sorrow I felt back then, watching a monkey perform, was due to discerning a foreshadowing of the fate that was to characterise my entire life.
I mimicked people of all kinds: I'd copy grandfather chasing down and beating his two sons and how his voice sounded when he chastised them, then afterwards found the vicious beatings grandfather dealt out were exactly how my father would beat my mother and me. Later still I could see in the mirror that I looked just like my grandfather and father when I beat my own children, as if struggling under some unbearable load, brow knit tight and veins popping. When I lose my temper I become someone else entirely. Whether this is life repeating itself and mimicry, or some unavoidable inherited behaviour, I just don't know.
There was no end to the delight I found in mimicry. I loved to copy the way my bound-foot granny hopped along, chasing after me to administer a beating with a maize or sunflower stalk. One time, when I was copying for my classmates the way our teacher Zhao Zihu, who had one lame leg, walked, Zhao caught me in my act. I can still see the forced smile he felt obliged to give. I would mimic the comical way our language studies teacher Mr. Zhang mispronounced his own surname as "Zang." This, as it turned out, earned special praise from my father. Since pretty much no Uyghur person could distinguish between the names Zhang, Chiang, and Jiang when they spoke Chinese, my father was enormously proud that a little Uyghur kid like me was good enough to find faults in a Han person's mispronunciation of their own language. How smug he was to have at long last found a failing, be it ever so small, that gave him justification for looking down on that mighty people. Such connivance only served to embolden me and I started to mimic his sneer and the way he'd run his tongue over his gold teeth. This latter behaviour was to my mind immensely intimidating; it was a sign father was about to lose his temper. But it turned out that by mimicry I had laid bare one of his secrets and disarmed what had been one of his signature manoeuvres for putting the frighteners on. Of course father wasn't so keen on mimicry of this sort, and he berated me furiously, spluttering that I was looking to do him down. I learned then that mimicry had the power to disarm people's most potent tricks.
I was also an accomplished mimic of the way Suma's little sister would cry and carry on. My impersonation afforded Suma a stark vision of an ugly side to her beloved baby sister. The shame this brought Suma then drove her to anger. Unable to bear my antics any longer, she counterattacked, turning my mimicry back round on me, showing me how unpleasant I looked when I was mimicking her sister. I discovered to my great surprise that mimicking people's less appealing behaviours to their face had the effect of affronting their dignity, in a manner far more efficacious than any invective. This was a far superior means by which to hurt and attack. At home, I took this method of humiliation to its extreme, with the result that I was on the receiving end of a constant series of beatings. Having discovered the extraordinary wounding power of open mimicry, I began to make it my secret weapon instead, a concealed part of my life that from then on I would never lightly bring to bear.
After I started studying at the Chinese-language high school, my mimicry of Han people went from being a public performance to something hidden, a thing of the small particulars of life at some more profound level. In the multi-ethnic community of our village, such mimicry found tacit consent and I could engage in it, or not, pretty much as I pleased.
I liked to observe the way Han girls wore cloth buckle shoes. I could never work out if it was that Han and Uyghur people's feet were different or just the shoes. When I put on the black felt buckle shoes the mother of He Chengxia, the girl I shared my desk with, had made for me, my feet garnered far greater attention than I gave anything else. It seemed to me that my feet had changed to become like those of Han people. I'd always thought one pair of feet was much like another, and it was only the style of shoes that made them different. But I found that the shape of my feet would alter to match different types of footwear. It was a transformation so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Come spring, when I peeled my feet out from the leather casings and cloth bindings they'd been packed away in all winter and put them instead into nylon socks and cloth buckle shoes, I discovered they'd gone a bit awry. They were far more sturdy and untamed, little wild beasts come out after being wrapped up all winter, and it seemed clear that the Han cloth buckle shoes were no longer going to be able to hold in this pair of Uyghur feet. I lost interest in the cloth shoes, feeling they took my feet away from me. It even seemed that heading home they'd try to guide me to He Chengxia's house rather than my own. I rummaged around in the storage shed to find a pair of handmade ox-hide boots from Kashgar my father had put away years back. Only after I pulled them on were my feet able to carry me safely back to the Ibrahim family compound and sheep folds without any detours.
Returning to the village thirty years later, I found both He Chengxia and her daughter wearing ox-hide boots; the black cloth buckle shoes once so popular were now only on the feet of the very oldest ladies. The son of Zhao Zihu—in his bearing, expressions, and even the direction his wrinkles ran in—was identical to the Zhao Zihu of my day, leaving me to wonder why he lacked the same lame gait for me to mimic. The son was now another Zhao Zihu minus the leg trouble. All the village children closely resembled their fathers, so much so that I'd call out their fathers' names, which of course meant I was continually being corrected. This apparently entirely unchanged environment placed me back in the days of my childhood. The evidence of my eyes contradicted the images in my head. When I first left, these people's grandfathers had been the same age as my father, and my father the same age as they were now, with their grandchildren the age I had been back then. I could no longer be sure exactly who it was I'd been mimicking, suddenly confronted by so many people with the same physical tics and ways of speaking.
This was the mimicry of time—time was using mimicry to mock someone like me, who fancied herself an accomplished impersonator.
There was a time when I longed for other people to mimic my life—to get a sense of achievement from being the object of mimicry. Perhaps this proved, to some degree at least, that I did have a life of my own. It transpired there were indeed people who copied me: namely my younger brother, my sister, and my daughter.
No matter where she moved, my sister would have me mail her my old clothes, as she'd been wearing my hand-me-downs since childhood. Even if my father made something especially for her, she'd have me wear it first, then pass it on. She just couldn't get on with the image of herself wearing some item of clothing I'd not previously worn. That's true even today, when she earns far more than I do. Perhaps she thinks she wouldn't recognise herself. In clothes I've never worn she might feel she was some other person entirely, a total stranger. She can only live her life by mimicking me. The life and career she has chosen for herself have surprising similarities to mine as well. This is neither, I'd say, due simply to some shared familial legacy, nor the outcome of chance or coincidence; these are things she pursued deliberately, the result of mimicking me, the oldest daughter of the family—something that began in childhood. She developed a love of literature and reciting poetry about missing home. Whenever she was preparing to write she would read lines I'd wrote first, and even when it came to reciting she would only be satisfied when she made her voice and intonation exactly like mine. She was intent on turning herself into another me. Even her marriage and the various failures and setbacks in her life played out just like mine had. I often found myself quietly marvelling at this. Although her Uyghur was completely fluent, while in Hong Kong she worked promoting the uptake of Mandarin. Moving in a world of Mandarin and Cantonese, and English too, with no opportunity to speak her native tongue, her particular ethnic and religious identities gradually slipped into nothingness. Although I was not so distant from the Uyghur language and mosque life, I would find spiritual comfort in the sound of church bells and psalm singing, in the vicarious experience of the religious lives of others. My sister would repeatedly ask my view on the question of cremation versus burial in the Muslim fashion. At a loss herself, she hoped to resolve her concerns regarding eternal rest simply by asking my opinion on the matter, in place of her own. For some years now I've vacillated between planning a return to Xinjiang in my old age and carrying on my life as a mimic to the very end, here in the south of China. Perhaps, as my sister sees it, in the world of Han people I'm a success. But the truth, I'm well aware, is that I'm merely a passable impersonator. I don't know how best to make the truth of the thing clear to her. Having set herself to mimicking the life of a mimic of Han people, she now wants to copy my post-mortem arrangements. If I put it to her in those terms, I wonder if her idolisation of me would all come crashing down?
I think I should also count my daughter as one of my mimics. She has made many of her life decisions by copying me. One time my daughter was dressed in one of my stage costumes, copying my Xinjiang folk dance. Sitting in the audience, I ran my hands over my legs and arms, as I had a vague sense that the dancing body up on stage was in fact my own. My daughter has made off with my favourite clothes and my best-loved books; she has greedily sneaked down my favourite foods and extracted attitudes to life from my head. Even her choices of university and major were identical to mine. As if this were not enough, she's even made a deluded attempt to replicate my life experiences. Her persistence in seeking to emulate my body and soul has been such that often when I'm with her, as the object of her mimicry, I feel the kind of unease you get subsequent to some major scare. It's a sorry business when a mimic becomes the object of mimicry. It appears mimicry can spread like the plague: among family, among wider kin, or to a whole people. My family life is drowning in latent mimicry of every sort, with no hope of stemming the tide. The danger in this kind of impersonated life is that it becomes more and more divorced from reality. Life for me began to go awry and lose all fidelity, to the point where I couldn't carry on with any sense of solidity or stability. No matter what, my younger kin were going to do the same. It drove you out of your mind to be continually copied like that, with no apparent end to it all. Perhaps I was unconsciously enabling such mimicry, in bringing my daughter from faraway Xinjiang to live with me on the pretext of giving her better educational opportunities and a vastly superior quality of life. In so many instances I could see that, like me, she was split into two people. One worked washing dishes and waiting tables in a Xinjiang border town halal lamb joint, and studying her Koran at night like a good girl; the other was the student in the lushness of South China, soaking in its soft-spoken charms, not quite sure how to handle herself under the admiring gaze of the Han boys; the one who couldn't decide how best to settle future love and marriage, or questions of religion.
A northern transplant in the south, I found any possible lifestyle I could call my own steadily slipping away from me. I simply mechanically adapted myself, and now my daughter was following my example, and becoming another impersonator of life in South China. I once watched a video of myself doing a Xinjiang folkdance with a group of young Uyghur women who worked in a South China textile factory, and I was surprised to find how successfully I mimicked yet another "me" up on that stage. Perhaps my daughter felt something similar after her performances. Here I was in the south, successfully imitating the northern "me" that was no longer there. I was clearly now also an impersonator of myself. The southerners who knew me, due to my successful mimicry of myself, assumed the girl on stage, in traditional costume and with braided hair, was the person I used to be. In truth I'd rarely had an opportunity to be that version of me, living in an ethnically-diverse community in northern Xinjiang. The difference back then was the lack of the pressing psychological need to have others affirm your identity. Back there, surrounded by mosques and the Uyghur language, I wasn't going to lose sight of myself as easily as I do in South China.
That image of the Xinjiang folk dancer on stage became for a time the person that the me who lived in the south tried to impersonate in the core of my being. In an attempt to get close to that image, to become part of it, I would mimic rehearsing time and time again when not performing, and before going on stage I'd spend three hours or more getting my costume and make-up right. This was all so that for just three minutes I could fool all those people who thought that was another me, when I alone knew it was just another copied version of me. The person up on stage had never been me and I've never truly become her. I'd never been her, right from the minute I was born. In the mixing of my mother's and father's blood, which brought me into this world, the I who might have been was held back somewhere before birth, so that the I who did get born was a different I; the I of mixed ethnic heritage and ambiguous identity, the I who lived a dilemma.
I had become a replica of myself.
translated from the Chinese by Jim Weldon
With thanks to Pathlight Managing Editor Alice Liu. This simultaneous publication marks our first collaboration with the Pathlight Magazine, where this piece appears in the Spring 2014 edition. Their website can be found here.