Ramadan: Arrival

Welcome to part two of this Ramadan series, and welcome to China, once more, to my husband Rora.

After the first week of Ramadan was over I got on a bus to Xi’an to meet Rora at the airport. After checking in at the hostel I hastened to the Muslim Quarter, because I wanted to pray and break my fast at the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the biggest, and probably most famous mosque in all of China. Once I reached the mosque I was already hearing the prayer through some loudspeakers, but I was not sure where the prayer hall was, as this Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) building has various gates and courtyards. People all pointed me in one direction, and I eventually reached the prayer hall. I was a bit confused when I only saw men and no women, but as the prayer was already halfway over I decided to just pray behind the men.

After the prayer was finished, I was once more welcomed by very friendly people to sit down and have some food, and once more I noticed the absence of women. Actually I was not sitting with the other diners, I was sitting in a room adjoining the kitchen, with two other women, who were kitchen workers.

I was soon on my way again, and walked around the Muslim Quarter for some time, live streaming to my Facebook friends what I saw and heard. At 10 pm I went to the hostel to meet the driver who would take me to the airport and pick up Rora. Once I was in his car I checked Rora’s flight status – it should have left Beijing by then, but was labelled as “delayed”. This meant I had to wait for two hours at the airport, but what’s two hours after having waited for a month and a half?

Around 1 am Rora eventually arrived, and we got to the hostel around 2 am. We ate some simple food, and drank enough water before sleep to get us through the fast the next day. I think we slept until 2 pm, as we were both quite exhausted from traveling. The previous days had been rather hot, so I was relieved that the temperatures had cooled down, but we were not too happy about the constant rain that weekend. The first day we still tried to brave the weather without umbrellas, but at some point we gave in and bought a couple, before becoming completely drenched.

Rora was quite surprised by the big number of Muslims in China – there are about 20-40 millions spread throughout the country, and in Xi’an , a city with a population of 8.5 million, there are around 50000 Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. Even our much smaller Hanzhong has around 4000 Muslims in total.

On Sunday afternoon we spontaneously visited a mosque we were passing, and by chance we found some people with whom Rora could speak in Arabic. This mosque, believe it or not, had a beautiful prayer room for women! In the evening we went to the Great Mosque for prayer and iftar once more, and there, too, Rora was able to communicate with some people. We even met a Jordanian Muslim, who has been living in China for many years. This time we were at the mosque early enough to do a bit of sightseeing in this historical place – which usually requires some entry fee from tourists, but which is free to visit for Muslims. It’s certainly worth visiting!

This time I did not have to sit in the kitchen and instead was sitting with two other women and Rora next to all the other men. When it was time for prayer I was shown the designated prayer area for women – a small raised platform surrounded by curtains next to the entrance of the prayer hall: OUTSIDE the prayer hall! This was seriously disappointing, even more disappointing than the sauna-like prayer room for women in Hanzhong.

Once we were back in Hanzhong the rest of Ramadan, and the rest of the school term, passed rather quickly. We went to the local mosque for iftar once more, and Rora had a long conversation with the imam, who speaks Arabic fluently, and I chimed in with a mix of Arabic and Chinese. That night we were treated a bit like special guests, which I’m already used to, but which for Rora was a new, and slightly embarrassing experience. All eyes were on us, and many people wanted to welcome and talk to us.

In the upcoming third and last part of this Ramadan series I will talk about Eid el-Fitr, the big festival at the end of the holy month.

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Ramadan: Beginnings

This year Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which we abstain from eating, drinking, sexual relations, as well as negative habits from dawn until sunset, was from late May to late June. It was our first Ramadan in China, and the first Ramadan I, Cairene, was working. The last few years Ramadan either fell in my school vacation, or the students were already off, while we teachers sat around at school waiting for time to pass. Actually, I found it was not very difficult to fast all day and teach at the same time – instead it made it easier to get through the day!

The first week of Ramadan I was on my own, as Rora was still in Cairo. On the first day of Ramadan I spontaneously decided to visit the local mosque for iftar – the breaking of the fast – and evening prayer. Having left the house rather late, I rode my bike as fast as I could to get to the mosque on time. When I arrived, quite out of breath, I asked in my broken Chinese where to go to pray, and what time the prayer would start. A kind lady told me to follow her, and took me to the mosque’s dining hall, where on one side of a screen sat all the men, and on the other all the women. Many eyes were on me, as nobody expected to see a foreigner join them for dinner and prayers. The imam welcomed everyone in Chinese and gave a short speech which was followed by supplication in Arabic. We broke our fast that night with a local dish of of rice noodles, as well as some porridge. When it was time for prayer I followed the women to the prayer room.

While the men pray in the mosque proper, the women’s prayer room is in an adjoining building above the dining hall, rather small, and the imam’s recitation of the prayer is played through a speaker. The whole building is very new, and there is no air condition or fan in the women’s prayer room yet, which made the whole experience a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. I am not a fan of this separation of the sexes at all, and it is a global problem: many mosques around the world have no space for women to pray in, or if they do, they are often small and uncomfortable. During the time of the Prophet Mohamed men and women would pray in the same space – men on one side, women on the other…

In Egypt I’ve experienced that women line up for prayer as closely together as possible, which can often be inconvenient, when they try to take up each other’s space – elbows, ouch! In addition to that, many women recite the prayer in a rather loud whisper, which easily distracts one from one’s own prayer. In Hanzhong, on the other hand, the women spread out evenly through the room, and said their prayers in silent whispers.

There are different types of prayers, some of them are called fard, or obligatory, and others sunnah, voluntary. Whenever I went to the mosque in Egypt everyone prayed the obligatory prayer, of course, but only some people stayed for the voluntary prayer afterwards. That first night of Ramadan I was about to get up after the obligatory prayer, and take my things to leave the hot and stuffy room. I was, however, surrounded by women who performed the voluntary prayer – every single woman in the room performed it!

Through observation I learned that many of the voluntary acts of worship are performed like clockwork by the Chinese Muslims. They even have a signal, a bell for example, to begin and end supplication. Everyone stops in their tracks, lifts their hands, says a quiet supplication until the signal sounds again, and then continues with whatever they were doing.

After all the prayers were completed we returned to the dining hall for a proper dinner – that night we ate beef noodles, and whatever we had left from the rice noodles and porridge. One big difference that I noticed between China and other countries that night was that the leftovers, instead of being discarded, were all taken home by the attendees. People in many countries famously overindulge in Ramadan and serve too much food, celebrate excess rather than self-denial, and waste instead of save resources. The Chinese usually do this as well, which made it all the more surprising to me when I saw my fellow diners take out food containers or bags to put the leftovers in.

Before this post gets to long, I’ve decided to split our Ramadan in China into several posts, most likely three, that will focus on different aspects and adventures we had during this holy month. Instead of posting the next update in one week, I shall try to post the remaining parts in the next few days. Tomorrow is my last day of teaching before the summer vacation, which means I will finally have a lot of free time to write, read, and ride my bike.

Newcomer

My husband Rora arrived in China on June 2. It is only his second time to be out of Egypt, and while the first time was only a short vacation in Germany, he has now moved to China for good. This interview was conducted by me, Cairene, on the evening of June 8, less than a week after his arrival.

Cairene: “Hi Rora, after a few days in China, what are your first impressions?”

Rora: “My first impressions? Well, I was expecting a big culture shock, and the shock for me was that there was no culture shock. I feel that I simply moved from one area of Cairo to another area of Cairo somehow. Not that Hanzhong is like Cairo in any way, it is much greener, and much nicer than Cairo, but the general atmosphere, in my opinion, is not that far from what I’m used to.”

Cairene: “What would you say are the biggest differences?”

Rora: “The biggest differences are that there are Chinese characters everywhere and that I don’t understand them, which is nice, because now I don’t have to take care of so many things anymore.”

Cairene: “And what would you say are the biggest similarities?”

Rora: “Today we were walking in the street with some friend of yours…”

Cairene: “I didn’t know the person! …. Now she’s a friend!”

Rora: “… and I realized that we are walking in the middle of the street…”

Cairene: “Instead of the sidewalk…”

Rora: “Exactly. Because this is China, and it’s more like Cairo in this regard. If this were Berlin or some other European city we would have been walking on the sidewalk.”

Cairene: “What is the most difficult thing for you here?”

Rora: “The crappy internet. Ah, and the chopsticks. I’m still learning to eat with them. It’s difficult, but if I don’t want to starve I will learn it eventually.”

Cairene: “What do you think about the people?”

Rora: “Well, there are two kinds of Chinese I have met until now. The one kind are in big cities like Xi’an where people are basically ignoring you, and might even bump into you sometimes – this seems to be the same in every big city in the world, though. And the other kind are people from a smaller city like the one we are in now and they are more curious about you, they smile at you and they are more relaxed and nicer.”

Cairene: “And they might even start a random conversation with you in the street like the lady today. How do you like the food?”

Rora: “It’s Chinese food. It’s delicious! I like it a lot. Even the spicy stuff. Well, until now I haven’t eaten anything really spicy, but I like it!”

Cairene: “What do you miss most about Egypt?”

Rora: “My family of course, but so far nothing else really.”

Cairene: “Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?”

Rora: ”Next time you come to China make sure that your roaming and internet service are actually working, because if not you might get lost in a big big country.”

Cairene: “That’s coming from an IT guy.”

Rora: “Exactly.”

Cairene: “From an IT who didn’t make sure that it’s working before he left… Hehe… One last question: what is the weirdest thing you’ve seen so far?”

Rora: “Little kids peeing and shitting in the streets. That’s nasty!”


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Settling: City

China, also known as the People’s Republic of China, consists of 31 provincial-level devisions, among them the province of Shaanxi. While Shaanxi is commonly regarded as a Northwestern province, it is located more or less exactly in China’s center. And if I had to name China’s most central city, I would name Hanzhong 汉中, which translates to “middle of the Han River”.

Hanzhong has been my home for a bit over two months now, and I very much enjoy living here, as the quality of life is high, the air, compared to many other Chinese cities, very clean, the city very green, and the food great! Hanzhong is located in a basin, surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges: the Daba Mountains in the south, and the Qin Mountains in the north. The Han River and several tributaries flow through Hanzhong, which offer splendid opportunities for walks and bike rides along the river banks.

To be exact, Hanzhong is a prefecture-level city, which is further divided into ten counties and one district. As I live south of the Han River, I live in Nanzheng County, and the more densely populated urban area north of the river is called Hantai District. Wherever you look, Hanzhong is rapidly modernizing, and high rise apartment buildings are shooting from the ground like the mushrooms in Sylvia Plath’s poetic forest floor. Some older living quarters can still be found throughout the city, but I am sure they, too, will soon be flattened to make space for modern apartments.

At the moment Hanzhong can be reached by long-distance buses, slow trains, and a few air links. Traveling to Shaanxi’s provincial capital, Xi’an, currently takes around four hours by bus – a very scenic route as long as one is in the basin; once one reaches the mountains one tunnel follows the next. I have, however, heard talk about a high-speed rail connection, said to commence operations in autumn, which will connect Hanzhong with the rest of the country.

To get from one part of the city to another countless city buses operate all day – though I must say that 8:30 pm is really not a good time to finish operations. If one is not inclined to walk after the buses retire for the night, there are countless taxis as well. I am independent from these forms of transportation, as I have my own bicycle, and Hantai District is small enough to be crossed on two wheels. Living south of the river, I am close to the countryside, and can easily go for rides out into the green valleys and hills.

Hanzhong has a long history, dating back to times before 220 BC. During the time of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD) Hanzhong was an important location for military strategy, and the Han Dynasty is named after the area. Despite the many years of settlement in the Hanzhong Basin, not many ancient structures, with a few exceptions, remain.

Hantai District satisfies shoppers’ every need with one shopping mall adjoining the next. My heart is made happy by the countless cafes that can be found throughout the city, and I often sit in one to do research for this blog and write new posts. Wherever you look restaurants, ranging from little hole in the walls to five star hotel food temples, can be found, which offer all the local delicacies, as well as international foods. Trees line next to every street here, and several well-kept parks can be found as well. Overall it is very clean here, and public and private places seem generally well maintained.

At the moment I could not imagine a better place to live in! Hanzhong is big enough to host all necessary facilities, and small enough to not be too crowded. Having lived in the mega-city of Cairo for the last four years, Hanzhong’s small town life is quite a welcome change.

After last week’s post on my job, and today’s on my city, I will write about the locals’ and my leisure time activities next week.


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Photography: Xi’an

Pictures taken in and around Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter

 


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Surprise

Walking towards the exit, I saw a big sign with my name on it, and the Chinese woman who held the sign, Rita, was smiling and waving at me. Approaching, I noticed that there was an older foreign lady standing next to Rita, doing the same thing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed who the lady was! J. from Australia, who has been living in China with her husband A. since 2012. We used to be living close to each other in Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi for several months when I was still in China, and often met each other. We had stayed in contact for some years, but as I am somewhat lazy when it comes to responding to e-mails, I hadn’t heard from them in some time, and wasn’t sure whether they were still in China, had moved elsewhere, or gone back home to retire. They moved to Shaanxi province some eight months ago, and by chance J. had heard on Friday afternoon that Rita was picking up some German teacher from the airport the next day.

After check-in, I spent the afternoon at See Tang Hostel near the Southern Gate, getting to know some Buckland employees, and catching up with J. and A. over some tea and Muslim noodle soup. On leaving the small Muslim restaurant, I noticed that I had been in that street before – six years prior, on my first trip to China, I had visited a tea shop there.

Later that day, after the two Aussies had left, I was joined by university student Heather, who has been a friend since my teaching days in Yongzhou, Hunan, and one of her classmates, Ava. In the evening we went to one of my favorite places in all of China: Xi’an’s Hui Muslim Snack Street! We shared many delicious, local specialties, such as 羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo), a mutton stew with pieces of bread, also known as my favorite dish in China, 肉夹馍 (rou jia mo), aka. Chinese hamburger, 菠萝 (bo luo), aka. half a pineapple on a stick, some rice cake, and some other snacks. While talking to some friends in Egypt later that night, I commented that I had eaten a bigger variety of flavors in one night in China than I had in four years in Cairo!

On Sunday morning I had some sheep intestine soup for breakfast – it tasted much better that it sounds!

J., A., and Heather were not the only friends from bygone days I met so soon after my return to China. Sunday noon I met my Hawaiian friend B., who has been living in Shaanxi for five years, and he introduced me to R. from the US and J. from Scotland. Our plan was to have biang biang noodles (aka. belt noodles) for lunch, and I’m pretty sure we told the waitress the correct thing in Chinese, but we were served some bowls of 羊肉泡馍 instead. We then headed to one of the countless shopping malls, ate donuts, and the others bought some imported goods they can’t live without. B. and J. soon headed back to Weinan, while R. and I explored some more shopping malls and haggling markets. After a short stopover at a cake shop we decided a foot massage would be the thing to do.

Oh, what a pleasure!

In Egypt massage parlors are hard to find and treatments only for the wealthy. Not so in China: most neighborhoods have at least one massage parlor, and they are often very affordable – but some can charge a fortune, too. R. and I opted for a foot massage, which cost 30 RMB (a bit over 4 US$) each, and lasted about one hour. The perfect thing to do after flying halfway around the globe!

R. proved to be a good resource for information about my new school and home in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, as she previously lived and taught there for two years. As there are not many foreign residents or travelers in Hanzhong, online information about the city in English is rather scarce – a circumstance that will change with this blog. I had many questions that R. was able to answer, and I became more and more excited about finally reaching my new home.

Sunday evening I went to the Hui Muslim Snack Street for another round of food, and on Monday morning I packed my bags once more. Before departing to Hanzhong, however, it was time for the mandatory health check. Five years prior I had to take the health check in a grubby, cold hospital in Guilin, Guangxi, where people were smoking inside the doctors’ offices. Not so in the hospital in Xi’an: clean, organized, people waiting in lines, nobody was smoking, the rooms were heated, and the doctors spoke English!

After that was out of the way I had lunch with Rita and Joanna from Buckland, and then was on my way to the bus that would take me to Hanzhong.

Departure: 40 minutes delay.

The bus ride was quite comfortable, and I was very much surprised that the bus not only had seatbelts, but that use of them was mandatory!

Four hours, fifty two tunnels, and some stunning mountain vistas later I was home: Hanzhong, Shaanxi, People’s Republic of China.


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