The Great Paradox of Religion in China

Coming to China directly from the Middle East is no easy task – you develop a taste for all things sweet, bread, and all around not great for your health in the Arab world, and suddenly you find yourself in a country where things that are sweet, bread, and not great for your health (other than cigarettes) are quite difficult to find. As our Davidson in China program began five days after my Arabic program in Amman, Jordan ended, I was thrown into this exact type of culture shock when I arrived in Shanghai.

However, when you know what you are looking for, remnants of the Middle Eastern caravans that found their way into China centuries and centuries ago, bringing their religion, culture, and cuisine with them, are everywhere. When we traveled to Yunnan province, I saw a number of restaurants that had the Arabic word for “Halal” on them. When we traveled to Gansu province (not on the program), I remember being shocked by the number of mosques I could simply see from my seat on a four-hour train ride through the mountains. I spoke Arabic to the owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Shanghai. In both Shanghai and Beijing, “Muslim” (yes, this is what they are called, although I place it in quotes here because I still find it odd to refer to a cuisine by the religious faith it is associated with) restaurants are everywhere, and good luck finding a table at one of them at dinner time. This continuous search for the things I missed from the summer kept me entertained while I adjusted to life in China, and all the things that come with it.

In November, I came across a website that talked about the Xinjiang street food fair that takes place in Shanghai, on Changshou Road, every Friday from 10-3 pm. It was located down the street from the Huxi Mosque, so I figured that I would go and eat all of the beef baozis, bread, and lamb kebabs my heart desired in the morning, and visit the mosque in the afternoon. When I got to the street in the late morning, I was somewhat shocked as to what I was seeing – it was a real street, with cars and motorcycles trying to meander their way through, and also literally hundreds upon hundreds of people standing in line at the make-shift tent restaurants on both sides of the street. I had to push my way through the crowd just to see what food was being sold, despite being on a two-way street. The smoke from the vendors filled the air so that, by the early afternoon, you could hardly see the buildings towering over the road. There were all types of food, and also, all types of people – mostly Chinese, but also some foreigners here and there. If you happen to find yourself in town, I would highly recommend the beef baozis – I waited over an hour in line for them, and I would do it again and again if I returned.

I went to the mosque afterwards. Despite it being a Friday, there were non-Muslim Chinese people touring it, who were not dressed in what is usually deemed appropriate attire for a mosque, accompanied by an older Muslim man and woman. At around 1:00, people began preparing for the Friday salah (prayer), and I stuck around, somewhat timidly, because I was interested to see how mosques in China operate, but unsure about the specifics unique to praying in this cultural context. I went upstairs to the women’s prayer hall, and watched as the women, who were mostly Chinese but some foreigners, did their individual prayers. I did not want to intrude because it had been quite some time since I had prayed in a mosque, but an older Chinese woman urged me to go in with her. I took off my shoes and she poked at my hair until none of it was showing, then brought me into the room, and led me through the prayers. She was from Sichuan province, and her name was Salimah. I don’t think I understood one word that she said (my Chinese vocabulary about Islam is obviously limited), but I followed her movements and was grateful for her patience and kindness. I was likewise grateful to hear the Chinese Imam who began speaking in perfect Arabic. But then he transitioned to Chinese, and once again I was lost.

Unfortunately, my classes this semester were more time-consuming than I was anticipating, and I did not get to learn about Muslims and experience Islam in China as much as I was hoping to. But this one day will always stick with me, especially in the context of current government policies toward Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in western China. Xinjiang cuisine is among the most popular in Shanghai. “Muslim” restaurants are always packed. There wasn’t one food stand at the Xinjiang street food fair that I didn’t wait at least twenty minutes for, despite there being probably close to 100 stands. I think about a song that recently came out, with a quote that says “You can’t love the culture and hate the people.” It makes me think about how heartbreaking it is to witness what is happening to many people right now in Xinjiang province, and compare it to the popularity their culture, food, and traditions enjoy in other parts of China.


The Great Wall (of Pingyao?)

When you think of walls and you think of China, the Pingyao Ancient City Wall probably isn’t what comes to mind. Nevertheless, the ancient city of Pingyao, located about 600 kilometers from Beijing, remains one of China’s best hidden treasures – a place not many visitors to China have the opportunity to travel to, but one that we in the Davidson in China program are very grateful to have witnessed for ourselves.

The wonderfully preserved walls of Pingyao that we see today date all the way back to the Xizhou Dynasty, placing their construction at about 2,700 years ago. Originally built to shield the city from invaders from Eastern Mongolia, the ancient city walls have survived the test of time (and, most incredibly, evaded the destruction of the Cultural Revolution) to capture its current status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The wall encloses the city inside in a square, and measures 10 meters high (for reference, that is very high) and is over 6,000 meters long (likewise, that is very long).

The drive from the train station to one of the wall’s main gates (we stayed at an inn within the walls interior) feels like a drive through time. Outside the walls, you see western clothes stores, McDonalds, and newly constructed buildings lit up in different colors. But as you approach the wall, you walk through the main gate and it feels like you are walking into another century. No western clothes stores, no McDonalds, no towering buildings. Instead, small shops selling Shanxi Province specialty dishes and sweets line the cobblestone streets – the only reminder of the country’s rapid climb to modernization while perhaps leaving its thousands of years of history and traditions behind can be seen in a knock-off Starbucks coffeeshop, seemingly attuned to the tastes of the few foreigners who make it inside the city.

The next day, we walked along the top of the wall, overlooking the roofs of the houses and hundreds of years of history below. Later that night, we walked through the very bustling streets of Pingyao’s ancient city, trying the local snacks (fried cookies with brown sugar inside!!), looking through souvenir shops, watching what the people were doing to see what makes the city so popular with tourists from all around China.

All in all, if you happen to be in China, I think all of us Wildcats would definitely recommend getting off the beaten path and taking a trip to Pingyao!!

3/3 The Views Make Up for the Flight Delays

Looking back on my two months in Asia, I had many incredible experiences and learned a few lessons along the way thanks in part to my first year at Davidson College. One of my goals for this trip was to improve my fluency and confidence in speaking Chinese. What began with me hesitating when trying to speak Chinese during daily conversations such as ordering lunch and buying a train ticket quickly turned into me being able to hold conversations I never imagined possible. Long flights to destinations that I did not know existed before arriving in China often turned into Chinese practice sessions. Whether the passenger seated next to me was a schoolgirl from Chongqing, or three teachers from Mongolia headed to Guilin, or a flight attendant on a Cathay Dragon flight departing Hong Kong, I found myself delighting in the shocked expressions of people throughout China who were excited to learn about who I was and what had brought me to China, while I was able to learn about their life and our cultural differences in return.


Caroline, Alex, and I at the top of Elephant Hill in Guilin, China.


More than practicing my Chinese, this ability, along with an East Asian History class I took my freshman year at Davidson, landed my friends and I in situations and places that were as incredible as they were, for lack of a better word, quite sketchy. My friends and I were wandering through the city of Guilin one night trying to enter a park when a simple “hello” on the street turned into a man telling me that he wanted to show us a temple that was a twenty-minute walk from where we were. While we followed him through a run-down, dimly lit alley alongside Guilin’s Karst Hills, I was feeling considerably uncomfortable as this man did not speak any English and I was not sure if I was even correctly understanding where he was taking us. After walking in near silence for a while, we came across this beautifully detailed and elaborate Buddhist temple nestled into a cave. From what I could understand, the man explained to the monks that we were foreigners and simply wanted to take a look around the inside of the temple. We were shocked when the monks allowed us to enter the temple since only a few weeks earlier, we were denied access to a temple in Beijing (the monks believed we were Christians and therefore said we could not enter). For some reason, the monks allowed us to enter this temple, walk around and take pictures, which I am grateful for as I have not been able to find any trace of this temple existing in Guilin anywhere online. I was able to understand from our new friend that the temple was built about 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty after connecting the dots between the word “Qing” because of learning about it in my East Asian history class and the Chinese word for dynasty, which I did not previously know.