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.