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An American-born Chinese breaks down misconceptions in Beijing

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

BEIJING -- The call instructed me to go to Workers' Stadium, a name that conjures up proletariat drab. The call had come from a Mr. Cui, some sort of official with the Chinese boxing team. I didn't know his exact position, just that any hope for contact with the athlete I was looking for meant going through him.

I was trying to get in touch with a boxer named Nijiati Yushan, a 22-year-old heavyweight who had already been eliminated in his first bout. What interested me in Yushan was not his performance in the ring, but the fact that he is one of two ethnic Uyghurs on the Chinese Olympic team.

There are 56 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese government. Han is the majority by far, representing over 91 percent of the population. I am Han; every Chinese person I had ever met is Han. Uyghurs, on the other hand, comprise 0.6 percent of the Chinese population. The only Uyghurs I had ever heard of were the East Turkestan Independence Movement, the separatist group suspected of terror bombings in the Xinjiang province (where most Uyghurs live) in the days running up to the Beijing Games.

On the way over to the stadium, I wrote out my intended questions, worded in their most innocuous form, just in case they had to be approved. In my head I ran through the most casual way to ask permission to use my tape recorder, and I imagined being led into a small room with two ex-weightlifters posted at the door, having to conduct the interview with Mr. Cui hovering overhead.

The shuttle bus dropped me off in front of Workers' Stadium, which like all Olympic venues was modern and new. Clearly marked signs in three languages directed me to the entrance where Mr. Cui was waiting for me. He was a casually dressed man who asked me where I was from. When I told him I was an American-born Chinese, he nodded and said that explained my accent. Then he beckoned Yushan over.

Not knowing whether ethnic minorities could speak Mandarin (there are as many, if not more, dialects as ethnic groups in China), I asked Mr. Cui if Yushan could speak Putonghua.

"About as well as you," he laughed.

Mr. Cui was wrong. Yushan, the minority Uyghur, spoke better Mandarin than Rebecca, the (American-born) majority Han. This was my first corrected misconception.

The second came immediately thereafter. Mr. Cui slapped Yushan on the back and said he was free to do whatever he wanted after the interview. Then he waved to me and said, "Have a good one," and walked away.

Despite the itinerary of questions in my notebook, I suddenly felt unprepared. I looked around and finally asked Yushan where he wanted to go.

"Why don't we sit outside?" he suggested.

We walked out into the bright sunlight and found some steps to sit on. Yushan stretched out his legs and took a slim silver cell phone out of his pocket, setting it beside him. A pair of Oakley wraparounds were perched on his head.

He was a pleasant interview; polite but unguarded. He grew up in Xinjiang and still lives and trains there (again, contrary to my assumption that all Chinese athletes train in pitiable isolation from home and family). He became a boxer because he "didn't like school," he grinned, and didn't want to waste his parents' investment in his education if he wasn't going to be any good at it. He had been to the United States twice, the first time for the world championships in Chicago last October, where he surprisingly earned a bronze medal in his weight class. He enjoyed America very much, finding the environment clean and the people polite, but would always call Xinjiang home.

I knew better than to think Yushan, an athlete wearing the official adidas-designed Chinese team warmups, would profess any affiliation with ETIM. At most, I figured his family must live in near-constant fear, living in a warzone. At the least, they were in a remote, pre-modern village.

Wrong again. Yushan's hometown, Altay, has a population of 700,000. When I remarked in surprise how big that is (my own hometown in California has about 100,000), he replied, equally surprised, that it isn't. Of course it isn't, not in a country where the capital houses nearly 16 million people.

On several occasions, where my Chinese note taking skills failed me, Yushan would help me out, tracing characters on the ground with his finger. He even complimented me on my Chinese penmanship, a polite lie.

I wasn't sure how to conclude the interview, having planned to have it ended for me. We ended up sitting on the steps a while longer, a 20-something Uyghur boxer on the Chinese Olympic team and a 20-something American-born Han journalist watching hot dog and popcorn transactions at the concessions stand across from us.

There's a Chinese thought that an invisible red thread connects people who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. It's related to the concept of yuanfen, or fate. I don't really subscribe to it, but I have to wonder whether in an alternate universe, Yushan and I might have been schoolmates, either on this side of the Pacific or the other. But it's in this life, and this particular time that we were actually able to meet, despite our respective lineages developing on opposite sides of the world when our shared homeland's political narrative took a detour about 60 years ago. Given all of that, it may have seemed inconceivable for the scene above to take place. It may have seemed inconceivable, if not for China's changing ambitions leading it to a desire to host the Olympic Games. It may have seemed inconceivable, if not for Yushan and my respective interests and abilities (not to mention a host of other factors) leading us to our respective occupations. Given all of that, it was perhaps yuanfen that created the opportunity for our threads, somehow, finally, to intersect.

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