Ramadan: Celebrations

Not all of Ramadan was a good time for us this year, because Rora has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which often causes him sleepless nights and physical pain throughout the day, and for me, because I caught a cold, and even had to vomit one day, probably because I ate something wrong. To be honest, we were somewhat relieved when Ramadan was finally over and we could go back to a normal sleeping and eating schedule.

Ramadan, however, is not complete without Eid el-Fitr, one of the most important Islamic holidays, which takes place at the end of the holy month. Everybody goes to the mosque for Eid prayer, and many people celebrate all day long. I always look forward to Eid, but in past years I was prevented from attending the prayer sometimes – last year we arrived a bit too late at the mosque and had to pray outside, the year before, when I was at home in Germany, there wasn’t any space for women at the mosque, etc…

This year, for the most part of Ramadan, I thought Eid would take place on a Sunday, so I did not arrange to have a day off from work. We found out on the Friday before Eid that the prayer would not take place on Sunday, but Monday morning. I accepted my fate of not attending it once again, as I was under the impression that I had to teach my kindergarten students on Monday morning, and there wouldn’t have been any chance of going to the mosque first and reaching work on time.

Somewhat saddened, but not in a bad mood, I went to the kindergarten to start my classes. On entering the classroom the teaching assistants were looking at me like a being from outer space, surprised to see me. They brought another assistant, who speaks a bit of English, only to tell me that I would not have class that day, as the kids had a preparation for primary school. That’s when I lost it and was close to tears. All that was needed was a simple text message a day or two before, informing me that I didn’t have classes that day. I mean, everyone else seems to have been informed about the schedule change, but is it too much to ask to also inform the teacher whose classes have been cancelled? Naturally, by this time it was too late for me to ride to the mosque to attend prayer – it’s a 30 minute ride by bike, and prayer had begun at 8 am.

After reaching my apartment, and closing the doors behind me, a flood of tears broke loose, and didn’t subside for some time.

Rora, on the other hand, had a chance to attend the prayer. There were many people at the mosque, he spoke to a few of them, was greeted by the imam, who speaks Arabic, attended the prayer, took a few videos with his phone, and rode home.

The rest of the day was uneventful, until we attended the high school graduation ceremony in the evening. There were several performances on stage, and a splendid, half-hour long fireworks display after sunset. Rora and I watched the lights in the sky while holding hands, sitting close to each other, and with a smile on our faces.

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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.

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.

Photography: Xi’an

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

 


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Breakthrough

أُولَـٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

THOSE ARE UPON [RIGHT] GUIDANCE FROM THEIR LORD, AND IT IS THOSE WHO ARE THE SUCCESSFUL. [Al-Baqarah 2:5]

On March 17, 2017, I, Cairene, finally got on a plane from Cairo to Guangzhou. The days before I received my visa, I had been busy with checking flight schedules and prices. After some digging, I eventually found the perfect connection: a direct, red eye flight from Egypt to China on Friday, a hotel for the night near Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, and an onward flight to Xi’an on Saturday morning. I could have found cheaper options, but they would have been less convenient, as not only would they have been very exhausting due to several long transits, but also would not have allowed as much luggage as Egyptair does – 46 kg plus carry-on.

As I had reserved an emergency aisle window seat, I had all the legroom I could wish for, and was able to get about 5 hours of sleep above the clouds. This amount was enough to get me through Friday afternoon and evening, and ensured that I could go to bed in a timely manner in the evening. I spent the remaining flight time eating and watching the Academy Award winning musical “La La Land”. Despite the high praise from critics and success with the audience, I found the movie a little boring, and the music average; I think there are much better musicals out there, “Dancer in the Dark” is one example.

Once I reached Guangzhou, it was time for immigration, baggage claim, and customs. As Guangzhou is quite a busy airport with many flights arriving simultaneously, the waiting time to go through immigration was about an hour; reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies helped pass the time. The immigration officer was friendly and quick, something you don’t find at every border, and there was no further wait for luggage or customs. Make sure to have a pen ready to fill out the arrival form.

I then proceeded to the hotel information desk in order to find out about where to board the free hotel shuttle. The nice lady behind the counter told me where to find it and I followed her directions, only to find out that her directions didn’t make any sense. The next person I asked was from the bus ticket office, and her directions – different ones – weren’t helpful either. Fed up with being misdirected, I figured I could just as well take a taxi for the short distance. The nice driver helped me with my luggage and asked me whereto I was headed. In response I showed him the address on my phone and asked him to call the hotel for directions. They connected us to an English speaking lady who told me to get out of the car and wait for a few minutes where I was, a driver from the hotel would come and pick me up. The taxi driver unloaded my bags, we said goodbye, and a very short time later I was picked up by the shuttle. I would like to note that the taxi driver did not ask for any money for his help – in Egypt the same situation would have required some baksheesh.

Another thing I would like to mention is that the hotel I originally booked for the night is one that only accepts Chinese guests, not foreigners; a fact I wasn’t aware of at the time of booking. Nonetheless, they arranged a room at another hotel for me that would accept foreign nationals, albeit at a somewhat higher price, but with great service. (I’m speaking of a price difference of roughly 15 Euros, so no big deal.) The hotel provided the airport shuttle both ways, a wakeup call, and a private ensuite room; all in all it cost around 25 Euros and proved to be more convenient and only slightly more expensive than spending the night at the airport on a bench, eating expensive food, and paying for a shower and luggage storage over night. After a long, hot shower I was quite refreshed, and got a good night’s sleep. The time difference between China and Egypt is six hours, and I was easily able to adapt to the difference.

On Saturday morning the hotel staff woke me up, I packed my bags once more, and was taken to the airport. All went well and I boarded the plane, a Hainan Airways flight to Xi’an. Rarely have I been on such a turbulent flight! There must have been strong winds above the clouds, as we were shaken about half the time. Regardless, the plane was comfortable with enough legroom, and the staff professional and courteous. The pre-departure flight safety video was more interesting than that of many other airlines, as it showed the beautiful Hainan beaches, and emphasized protecting the environment. On arrival there was no wait for the luggage, and I proceeded to the exit, where I was to be picked up by Rita from Buckland.

I was in for a surprise!

Setbacks (May 2016 – March 2017)

إلا الذين صبروا وعملوا الصالحات أولئك لهم مغفرة وأجر كبير

“Except for those who are patient and do righteous deeds; those will have forgiveness and great reward.” [Hud 11:11].

May 2016

Encountering setbacks is not as bad as it may seem. We recently had one on our path to imbibing China. It could have been easy, we were rejected, now we need to get over it and find a better way, even though it might be more challenging.

Sabr is the Islamic virtue of “patience” or “endurance” or more accurately “perseverance” and “persistence”. […] It teaches to remain spiritually steadfast, […], specifically when facing opposition or encountering problems/setbacks/unexpected & unwanted results. Source: Wikipedia

What would have been easy? Well, we applied for teaching jobs with my former employer, Buckland, and we would have known exactly what to expect from our new life in China. We would have known how reliable they are, what would be expected of us, and we had already built our plans for imbibing China on the presumption that they would hire us.

We did not get a response.

We were rejected.

But we didn’t give up!

I, Cairene, applied to other schools. Very quickly I received positive answers from possible employers. All seemed to go well, until one recruiter pointed out that I would need the original of my university degree certificate in order to be granted a working permit, and that the certificate had to be notarized. In May, however, I had only just finished my exams and was still waiting for my results and the certificate. My university was unable to expedite my results and certificate, and we thus decided to postpone our move to China from September 2016 to February 2017.

August 2016

Exam results came out, and I was officially done with my studies. No certificate in sight, though. According to my university’s website, certificates would be issued THREE to SIX months after graduation. In other words, I could expect to receive mine some time between November 2016 and January 2017.

December 2016

My degree certificate finally reached my mum in Germany, who mailed it to a friend, who then brought it to Cairo a few days later. I sent out applications again and posted my resume on Dave’s ESL Cafe. Within a short time I had many great offers, much more promising than half a year earlier. It took me several days to work through all the responses and weed out the uninteresting or unsuitable ones. Not only had I received many offers based on my applications, but my resume also created a lot of interest from other employers. One of those e-mails put a big smile on my face – from my former employer.

In my answer I told the recruiter that I was happy to hear from them again, after my previous application had not come to fruition. Knowing their salary range, however, I thought they would not be able to offer me the position I was looking for at that time. Imagine my surprise when two or three days later I received their answer that they could match all my expectations with a position in Hunan province!

January 2017

After thoroughly discussing all options with my husband Rora, and secretly having made up my mind probably as soon as I had the first e-mail from Buckland, we decided to sign with my former employer at the end of December. I spent all of January collecting, translating, and certifying all the necessary documents that were requested in order to process the working permit. On top of that, I was busy selling all our belongings, which, fortunately, worked out surprisingly well. The plan was to finish all the paperwork and be ready to leave Egypt in mid-February.

I encountered several setbacks when I was trying to get information from the Chinese Embassy in Cairo. From their not very informative website I knew they are open until 2:30 pm on workdays. I reached the embassy at 12:05 pm, only to be told that the consular section closes at 12 pm. The next day I visited the embassy much earlier. I was glad to find out that the waiting times are minimal, compared to other embassies and government offices I had dealt with in the past. The clerk was friendly and able to give me a lot of information, but, as it turned out later, missed telling me several important steps that caused further delay.

One such delay was trying to get my university degree certificate notarized. At first I wasn’t told that I needed some stamps from the British authorities, as that is where my degree is from, and from the Egyptian authorities. Imagine my annoyance when I went to the Chinese embassy to have my certificate notarized, only to be told: “Not today. Get some other stamps first.” Taxi. British Embassy. “Can’t help you, go to the British Council.” Taxi. “Hello, yes, we can help you. Go online to pay 15 GBP, get the confirmation number, then come back.” Taxi home. Online payment. Sleep. Next day: taxi. British Council. “Ok, we see you paid the fee to your university. You also have to pay us money. Come back in one month when we have confirmation from your university.”

Wait, what?

ONE MONTH???

There must be some other way.

I have an eye for detail, and noticed that the sample notarized degrees my employer sent me both said “this document is a true, correct, complete and unaltered COPY”… I tried to clarify this with Buckland, and while in their answers they still wrote about a “notarized degree” but their samples clearly said something different, I thought why not give it a try, and find a notary who can notarize a copy of my certificate. This was easily done and set me back 50 US$. I handed in this notarized copy as soon as I had it, and Buckland said it was all right that way. By the end of January it was confirmed that I had handed in all necessary documents, and that my working permit could be processed. This was supposed to take around one week. Enough time to ensure a mid-February departure.

Shortly thereafter I received another e-mail that informed me that we had to have an official health check after all. “Oh, and Chinese government offices will be closed for a week because of Chinese New Year.” Good-bye mid-February departure!

February 2017

We surpassed this obstacle, too, and once more were told that all the documents were in order, and the working permit would be taken care of within a week. On the day I thought I would receive an e-mail that says “Good news, we have your working permit!”, I received an e-mail that said the following instead: “Bad news. We can’t process your working permit for Hunan province. They say you would have to notarize your degree in your home country.”

ARGH!

This, however, was not all. “We can send you to Shaanxi province instead! We’ll get your working permit in a week!”

Another week… By now it was already February 20th!

While I did not mind the change of place, I was shocked when I saw the pictures of the supposed teacher’s apartment: no more than one room that included a bed, a microwave, a fridge, several tiny classroom desks, and a locker. How are two people supposed to live in such a small space?

Fortunately this misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, and it turned out that the foreign teacher’s apartment is actually a 2 bedroom apartment with a huge dining/living room and a separate kitchen. Much better for a couple! We agreed to this change of place, and, believe it or not, on March 3rd the working permit was issued and on the way to Egypt!

By this time the British Council was able to certify the authenticity of my degree certificate, and Rora took it to the Egyptian authorities to do the same. They managed to get ink all over the front of my degree. Not nice. Really not nice! Eventually I got the notarization from the Chinese embassy, too. Not that it was needed anymore at this point, but who knows what the future might bring.

March 2017

The next plan was to go to the embassy as soon as the working permit and invitation letters arrived and apply for the visa. I would have liked to get the next-day visa, then book a flight, then be off to China. By this point you can imagine that, once more, things did not go according to plan. Rush service for work visa was not available, as issuing the visa depends on a confirmation from the Chinese authorities.

We were told the visa might be ready in a day or in a week.

I got it on March 14th.

And some more problems at the embassy.

Let’s just say that if you need submit proof of payment for several things to the embassy, it is best to get several invoices from the bank, as one invoice with the total amount confuses embassy employees.

The only thing left to do now was to book a flight to China and say goodbye to everyone.

Sabr!