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: Leisure

Working only 20 hours per week, I have a lot of free time. You might wonder what I do with all that downtime, and what Chinese people usually do when they don’t have to work – many work long hours, often 12 hours per day, 6 days per week.

For one, I love reading and listening to audiobooks. Since coming to China two months and a half ago I have finished 18 books, and, by the time I publish this post, I might have finished another two. The audiobooks I’m currently listening to, with a few exceptions, are autobiographies, and the books I’m reading these days are either collections of short stories, novels, or non-fiction. The books relevant for this blog, i.e. China related, that I have read in the last few weeks are W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, On a Chinese Screen, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words. Betimes I will write reviews for them and publish them on this blog.

Chinese people like reading, too. Many of my colleagues read books in the office once they are done with lesson planning and grading. I, too, frequently read e-books on my  phone during breaks. There are bookshelves in each classroom and in the hallways, and many kids read when they find time to do it – some even read during class time… Bookshops are popular and often crowded, and while the foreign language sections are usually not well stocked, I still enjoy browsing them.

Another important part of Chinese people’s daily lives is physical exercise. At school most students use all the free time they can find to play some sport or other. My students have a 30 minute PE lesson every morning, as well as another one throughout the day. During their other breaks they can be seen in the hallways playing catch, hide and seek, shuttlecock, dancing, or inventing their own kind of games, or they are outside playing table tennis, basketball, badminton, football, rope skipping, or running. Many teachers join them in the activities, or play sports during their own breaks.

Whatever time of day one goes out into the streets of Hanzhong one can find people playing sports. In the mornings grandmas and grandpas can be seen in parks and squares practicing tai chi. Throughout the day people exert themselves at outdoor gyms or go for a run along the riverbank. In the evening aunties and some uncles can be found dancing in the squares and parks. Even at night people still play sports: the local bike club, for example, meets at 7:30 pm every day, and returns well after nightfall.

I frequently ride my bike around the countryside or explore parts of the city. Sometimes I only take short 10 km rides to the city center and back, at other times I ride up to 30 km through villages, rice fields, up and down hills, along the river or tributaries, on proper streets or dirt roads, through open spaces and forests. I love this way of exploring my surroundings, and now that I own a lightweight hammock, I’m always well equipped for comfortable breaks with a view, provided I find two trees that grow close enough together.

On weekends and particularly on national holidays, Chinese people will flock to the countryside to go hiking, see colorful flowers in bloom, climb a mountain, visit some historical sights, or have a barbecue far away from the city. In short, Chinese people love the outdoors! And given the fact that the countryside is simply gorgeous I can’t blame them. This, however, often leads to the scenic spots being crowded, the ways to and fro clogged with traffic, and the natural places full of litter.

Chinese people also love spending time with their children and grandchildren. Families are close-knit, and grandparents often live in the same home as parents and children. Not only do they spend time together at home, but also outdoors: when you see Chinese parents with their little child you can be sure that the grandparents are nearby.

Chinese elders seem to be very well integrated into social life, and wherever I go I see elderly people. This is a stark contrast to other countries where old people waste away in retirement homes, hidden from the public eye. Nearly every day I see groups of old folks playing cards, Chinese chess, or mahjong under some big tree on the pavement, in parks, or on squares. As I mentioned above, many older citizens engage in physical exercise on a daily basis, and are thus quite sprightly.

With my internet addiction I fit right into Chinese society. I spend many hours of my day online, both on my laptop and smartphone, usually surfing on Facebook, chatting with friends on WhatsApp or WeChat, watching movies or clips on Youtube, or reading the news. Chinese people LOVE the internet. They do a lot of online shopping, order food, taxis, or many services from their phones, pay on the go with their WeChat Wallet, play video games, share selfies, livestream their activities, blog, comment, and watch films. Of course Facebook and Youtube are blocked here – yet still accessible through VPN and proxy servers – but China has QQ and WeChat, Sina Weibo, Taobao, Baidu, Youku, and many other websites instead.

Last but not least is of course food. I, and the Chinese, love to eat. Which comes as no surprise, because Chinese food is just extremely delicious, and offers a lot of variety. In only a short time I’ve had a barbecue with my friends at least three times, hot pot at least once a fortnight, and random other food outings with others at least once a week. While food at restaurants is usually quite good, it’s even better to be invited at some family home. These Chinese aunties really know how to cook up some treats!

This account of leisure time activities is of course not exhaustive, as there are many other things that can be done here, and that I do here. I will surely write about others in the future, but for now this shall suffice.


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