One rainy evening in Chengudu, Mirzat and I sat over clay mugs of yak butter tea at a table tucked away in the corner of our favorite Tibetan restaurant. Mirzat is from Xinjiang in northwest China, where all permutations of yak meat are common on dinner tables. The sky outside was dark and the street glittered with holiday lights. We huddled close over a small square table and talked intensely. This was a favorite activity of ours on those dark, chilly Chengdu evenings.
Mirzat and I became fast friends at our university, both outsiders. The native population of Xinjiang is Uighur, and children grow up speaking the Uighur language and learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language. They are also Muslim, and look more Turikic than Han Chinese. Mirzat had been sent to the east coast of China for high school, and he spoke impeccable Mandarin. Sometimes when he met people, they complemented him on his Chinese, which I always found uncomfortable. A stranger in his own country.
That night we were discussing an online course Mirzat was taking through Harvard. Mirzat had been through a grueling boarding school experience that sounded more like jail to me than high school, and the university he attended was not one that fostered independent thinking or intellectual exploration. But somehow Mirzat motivated himself to learn, reaching out to a world he had never seen through the internet. The course he was watching that week was entitled “Justice,” and Mirzat had just watched a segment on homosexuality. That night at dinner I found myself witness to 20 year-old Mirzat thinking through his beliefs on homosexuality for the very first time.
“It is against my religion.” He said, “but I guess I do want gay people to be able to get married.” He paused, then: “it’s safer.”
“Safer?” I asked.
“Yes.” he said, “then they can’t spread diseases through having sex with lots of people.”
“Why do you think that they would spread diseases more than straight people would?” I said.
“I guess because men, they like sex more than women.”
He thought again.
“But I guess I never really met any gay people. So I can’t really say that, then.”
This was Mirzat: a thinker. He gobbled ideas as fast as he could discover them, and integrated them into his increasingly complex belief system: traditional and modern, Muslim and secular all at once. I always thought he may break down from excitement if he were to step on the campus of a liberal arts college and have peers around him who wanted to bounce ideas and learn together. As it stood, he was studying logstics and finance in Chengdu, because he tested into those majors and he thought he could get a good job from them even in the tight job market. But Mirzat was a truth seeker, and every time we met he had an arsenal of new ideas to test out with me.
Since then, Mirzat has continued to ponder avidly. He moved from Chengdu to Kazakstan, and then Sudan. This week I got an email from Mirzat. I want to share it because I find him inspiring. Mirzat, who has had none of the opportunity and education I have had, for whom English is a second language, around whom there is no culture of curiosity, always continues to grow his mind. Mirzat reminds me to keep fresh eyes on the world. He has graciously agreed to share the email here.