The Funeral of a Muslim

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A memorial gravesite I came across when visiting Hangzhou for a group of Muslim workers who died in the province.

Are you Malaysian? Neither am I! Who’d have guessed it? Anyone but China it seems.

Assalamu’alaikum, peace be on to you~ If you read my recent update you would know that I did end up leaving this post till ‘later rather then sooner’ as I’ve been a bit ill, but more so because I’m hesitant to write about a topic that I have such precise standards for. This shall be a lengthy post as I’ve been making small notes for it in my phone since the start of my (now completed) year in China. What I’ve come to realise is that as time goes by, the experiences that influence my personal development accordingly affects my writing style. With this in mind, allow me to share with you my take on ‘The Funeral of a Muslim’.

你猜, does the title sound familiar? It’s the name of a popular Chinese novel (shown in the commencing photo) that was recommended to me by a friend and then gifted to me by another😊 The story covers themes of history and love whilst illustrating some of the hardships faced by a Chinese Muslim family living in Beijing. I haven’t gotten too far into reading the novel for myself just yet, but I do want to know the story. I chose this title as a symbolic point for sharing my experiences whilst I was living in Beijing as a Muslim foreigner. Incase you don’t already know about my heritage I guess it makes sense for that to be my starting point…

First of all I’m British. I was born in and (off term time) reside in London. I am female and a Muslim, and have thus chosen to wear a headscarf. My family come from Bangladesh in South Asia, and so although I may be on #‘team light-skin’, my skin color is brown, not ‘white’.

In Beijing I stood out quite a bit. Most people could tell that I’m not Chinese because whilst my skin has olive undertones, it’s still a few shades darker than the average Chinese foundation. My headscarf tends to be another giveaway. What’s more, my love for art is often reflected in my fashion style, and thus could cause an additional moment of staring. I should point out that whilst getting stared at by Chinese people and being constantly photographed both knowingly and without permission is common ground for most foreigners in China, none of this bothered me so much. I would have to say that my pet peeves are having to repeatedly repeat myself, and being incessantly asked questions. In China I got both of these a lot…combined. Perhaps this should have annoyed me instead, but I tried to observe patience in answering the same questions again and again for two reasons.

Firstly I cannot be annoyed at certain remarks or questions if they come from people who have not been informed/do not have accessible means to be informed about much beyond that which concerns their country. Therefore in answering questions about my background etc I carried out the minimum of my duty to pass on knowledge. Secondly I hoped that if more people became familiar with Muslim foreigners through me, it would lessen whatever other Muslim foreigners may have to deal with in the future when they themselves go to China.

As I just noted, foreigners in China seem to share the feeling of being treated slightly differently for looking notably ‘different’. Sometimes this works in their favor and is instead unfair to the Chinese (i.e. in some job opportunities), however most of us get our share of Chinese-people-being-racist-to-us-without-realizing-it. Of course each individual will have different experiences of the same event, however I noticed that my experience of studying in Beijing was different to my classmates in some aspects due to the contrast in our appearance. For instance on several occasions when I was with some of my Oxford classmates and a Chinese person stopped to talk to us and asked us where we were from. When everyone introduced themselves as being British, it was only me who was asked again as I was the only person of colour in the group.

You would be surprised at how many people failed to believe my nationality due to the way I look. At one point I introduced myself as British and added that my family were immigrants from Bangladesh, as someone once told me that’s how I should explain where I was born and where my parents were born (although my Grandmother was born in India), a.k.a the where I’m ‘really from’. Towards the end of the year my landlady texted to ask for the nationalities of the people living in our apartment. Ignoring how it seemed a bit suspicious I simply reminded her that we were British. She then asked me about ‘the girl in the headscarf’. Awkward😳. I told her ‘she’ was me and that I’m British too. I asked her why, and she just said that people from an ethnic minority were a group that get extra protection. I recall one Chinese person telling my that I cannot be British since I do not have white skin and blue eyes. -In other news, Wechat (Chinese advanced messenger app) has created a ‘Facepalm’ emoticon, and at moments like this I wish it were more accessible-. Further to my surprise, this experience isn’t limited to China. I was recently conducting a private tour in Oxford and was stopped by a waitress in a café who insisted on asking me where I was ‘really from’ when I said that I was British. 😶🌴

The question I was asked most about is my ethnicity and where I’m from. I’m somewhat used to people guessing where I’m from as I got it a lot whilst growing up (a classmate once thought I was from a Himalayan mountain when I was younger…). A few non-Chinese people guessed I was British because of my accent when speaking English, and an American Chinese person I once met in an elevator somehow guessed that I was British Bangladeshi. Besides those few, here’s the most memorable places everyone else thought I was from: Iran, India, Egypt, Arabia, Xinjiang, Nepal, Turkey, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Malaysia. The list is pretty much ranked in order of frequency, with the exception of Malaysia as I got that by far the most.

There were a few times where someone would ask if I was Indian and then mishear ‘England’ for ‘India’ and go on to ask a few more times (the first syllable for both countries is almost the same in Mandarin). Some people were shocked to hear me speak Chinese as they expected Arabic. On the day of University enrollment an Egyptian student asked me in two Arabic dialects if I was Egyptian and then also in English. I remember looking up in a daze and tiredly responding in Chinese that I don’t understand until the fourth round where I managed to speak English. One time also at the start of the year a friend was very offended on my behalf for being called out as Iranian whilst the rest of the group were accepted as British. She then proceeded to angrily explain to the man that I was British too, as I thought to myself; “I get that a lot”. I appreciated my friend’s support but I wasn’t angry at the time, the most these guesses ever did was annoy me due to their repetitive nature. It’s quite interesting for people to guess where they think you’re from, but as most parts of England are becoming increasingly multicultural it’s difficult to define our country by a specific ‘look’. The Chinese people I met did not grasp this concept, so long story short: I could not be British since I’m not ‘white’.

One evening I ended up sharing dinner with a clothes seller near my home. As we were talking she held my wrist and told me that my skin is a bit darker than hers, but we’re both yellow (in terms of skin undertones). What I’ll take from what she said is that we are all the same at the core. As a whole it was a truly precious meal.💛

One of the strange things that happened last year was being tricked into attending a nationally televised singing competition on the outskirts of Beijng. [Disclaimer: no danger was involved]. It seemed like from that day onwards people began assuming I was an ethnic minority Chinese. In an audience of a few hundred I was the only person in a headscarf (nothing too strange) and I was the only non-Chinese attendee. Due to this I was photographed like a celebrity during the filming breaks. When people talked to me they thought I was from Xinjiang as I was speaking Chinese and not a foreign language, and since I was wearing a religious headpiece they assumed I was part of an ethnic minority. People have explained to me that whilst there are small groups of Muslims in big cities like Beijing, it is in places like Xi’an and Xinjiang where Muslims blossom in number. Sometimes I got the impression that being from a major city in China and being Muslim was mutually exclusive. For instance the conversation with my landlady gave me the insight that some Chinese people equate being Muslim as being part of an ethnic minority. Fortunately I did visit two mosques in Beijing (the capital of China) and to me the most impressive thing about them was the fusion of Persian and Chinese architecture. I created a separate post to share photos of those mosques, click here to see them. A lot of the female Muslims in cities like Beijing either do not wear a headscarf or tend to style it as a type of turban. Most halal restaurants in China with Muslim staff have female waitresses wearing a headscarf and male waiters wearing a cap (known by some as a ‘toki’ or ‘topi’).

One of my most frequently asked questions (following the classic ‘where are you from?’) is why do I wear a headscarf. Just like the taxi driver I mentioned in a recent post, some people have even asked me if men have to wear a headscarf as well as women. The answer is no. In Islam wearing a headscarf only applies to women, however the grander concept of observing hijab applies to all genders. A headscarf is a piece of cloth that is used by women to cover their hair, neck and chest. An extension of the headscarf is for women (and men) to dress modestly, i.e. cover their figure. The simple reason is to prevent lustful behavior. Some people refer to the headscarf as a hijab; but to avoid confusion I only refer to the hijab as the spiritual concept of being aware of and accordingly controlling one’s actions and thoughts to prevent lustful actions. In sum, although a headscarf is limited to women, dressing modestly as well as the wider concept of the hijab does apply to all genders.

On a shopping trip to Xicheng, I was ushered into a shop by a seller who saw me pass by. I entered as I remembered seeing something cute as I walked past the first time. After a moment the lady began to talk to me and then sat me down and continued to converse. This progressed into sitting with all three store workers as they enthusiastically tried to get to know me. The first lady who was a bit elderly spent a while telling me to get married, and me telling her that I feel a bit young for that😅. We bonded over my preference for Huawei over Iphone (the only way is Huawei🙌🏽) and eventually she felt comfortable enough to ask about my headscarf. She told me that she doesn’t like Muslims because she ‘sees them hide bombs in their clothing on the news’. I explained to them that terrorists do not practice Islam and we should not generalize such things. She said that I couldn’t be a terrorist since I wasn’t wearing a black scarf. That day I was wearing a floral pink scarf, quite standard for me, but I know that a lot of women like to wear black for whatever reason. I save black for certain occasions, but everyone is free to do as they please. Unfortunately I have received a similar remark from a Professor at Oxford in the past. Worse yet, my classmates can probably guess whom I’m referring to.

My headscarf often sparked curiosity, a teacher of mine even asked me to put one on her one time as she thought they look pretty. On the flip side, my headscarf has also gotten me denied several job opportunities. I wouldn’t say this is because of prejudice alone; perhaps it’s also down to misunderstanding. I know I said earlier that being a foreigner sometimes works in ones favour for jobs, but I realized that’s mostly true for native English speakers with white skin. On one occasion I came across a role for participating in a TV show for China’s predominant state broadcaster; CCTV. After confirming some details with the organizer I was asked about my religion and whether it would be possible to take off my scarf for the recording. I said no. The organizer explained that hats are not permitted during filming, and I too explained how my headscarf is not a hat. I think she understood my logic but was cautious to relay it to her boss, so we said ‘next time’ instead. Another more complicated opportunity was to be an extra in an advert supposedly for ‘Urban Decay’. This time I was quite blatantly denied the job because of my scarf. The filming involved extras sitting in a dimly lit set drinking shots of alcohol, so it worked out for the best that I was not involved; however what bothered me most was the lack of professionalism of the liaison involved. A more positive experience was when I did someone a favour by being filmed for a promotional bank video. I was asked about my religion beforehand but this time it was because the workers wanted to be respectful.

The top question from my friends and family was about what I was eating in China. I’m pretty much a Pescatarian at Oxford anyway and this mostly continued into Beijing. To the surprise of many, there are lots of halal restaurants in China, and probably more in Beijing than Oxford (even if you were to shrink Beijing’s size down to match). Peking University even had a small halal canteen (open to Muslims only at lunch due to the meat expenses, and open to everyone at dinner) as well as a halal counter at one of the big canteens. This didn’t mean that I was eating meat all the time, as I don’t do that in England either, but I enjoyed having a few more options. Every now and then I would use leftover halal meat from a takeaway as a tofu substitute when cooking (ironic huh), especially from the meat skewers that are in every Xinjiang restaurant (and need to be in England). I also came across two food markets with counters selling meat in Chaoyang and Sanlitun (Beijing) and did some cooking with a friend. I visited Seoul and Tokyo at the end of the year and it must be said that it is far easier following a halal diet in China than in Korea or Japan. Although ‘Halal Resteraunt Week’ (I can expand on this in another post if you like) has been running for two years now in Korea, I’ve been told that it’s still difficult to even find vegetarian food in Korea let alone halal meat. In Japan you could at least follow a pescatarian diet a little easier.

Are you wondering what halal even means? Halal refers to that which is permissible in Islam. The antonym of halal is ‘haram’. In Islam things are deemed as haram because they are harmful for the body or the mind. Halal meat refers to the way the animal was slaughtered. Proper slaughtering involves performing a short prayer before the slaughter and then killing the animal in the way that would cause it to feel the least amount of pain and produce the least amount of blood. Therefore Muslims eat halal meat because it is cleaner for the body and the mind. However not all meat is halal. Pork is haram because pigs carry out actions that make them unclean. Certain types of seafood are also considered haram because their bone structures do not class them as typical fish, but many people differ on what this list includes. Some of the seafood seen as haram by some are: squid, crab, lobster, octopus, oysters and prawns, which I know is the same for some strict Christians. For this reason I tried to be a ‘pescatarian with limits’ and avoided things like sea cucumber, but I’m guilty of trying some other seafoods. The main substance besides food that is haram is alcohol. Alcohol is haram because it harms your body and alters ones state of mind thus turning them away from God. In addition to what I have just tried to explain, I also learned about the general Chinese understanding of halal. You might learn it for yourself if you go to a restaurant in China as a Muslim and ask if there are any vegetarian options. Expect the response that there are in fact halal options as there is chicken and beef on the menu. A lot of the people I met understood halal food as being anything besides pork, which complicated ordering sometimes. Ordering vegetarian food isn’t always the safest option either as the food is often sprinkled with bits of spam meat. Spam is a fitting term here🙄. A lot of people were shocked when I explained that its more to do with the preparation of the meat than the meat itself, and one person asked me if there is a “halal milk oil”. 🤔

Last year I also spent Ramadhan in Beijing. Ramadhan is holy month in which Muslims fast by abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, as well as limiting activity that draws them away from God. I was able to find a timetable for when to start and end my fasts, but I found it more difficult than fasting in England due to the temperature being so hot (context: maximum heat in England is 30°C, at the time Beijing was around 38°C on average). Although I had a group of Muslim friends, we didn’t meet for Iftar (the meal at which Muslims break their fast) as they lived quite far. Oxford at least has people in the Islamic Society, but in Beijing I was the only person fasting that I knew of around me. It was a new feeling. I sometimes had iftar with friends outside or by ordering takeout, other days I cooked at home. For those who insist on a substantial suhoor (meal before sunrise taken to fuel the next day’s fast), there are a few steamed bun shops that open at early hours, as well as street venders selling food from late at night till early in the morning.

I would like to reassure you that whilst my tone may have come off a bit negative at times, my general outlook on my experiences in China is not negative. The main reason that I created this post is similar to what I said earlier about my attitude to answering questions. Friends and family from England often asked me how I was coping in Beijing with being alone or finding things to eat, and now some of my answers are embedded in this post. In that sense I wanted to share my experiences with other people who may ponder on similar questions. Since coming to England, there’s a lot I miss about Beijing, and actually I was never seriously homesick whilst I was staying there last year. On another note, I will soon be uploading a similar post written in Chinese, so if you can read some Chinese then I invite you to wait for that. The topic remains the same but the content will differ slightly due to the different purpose and audience. I do hope this has been informative to you and if you want me to expand on any points then please let me know~

The title I chose for this post is powerful to me because it’s symbolic in a few personal and public senses. Although my family was worried about me being one of the few Muslims in a place where religious views are suppressed, I felt safer in the East than West as I came across articles throughout the year of increased hate crimes against Muslims; some of which were scarily close to home. Therefore the times we are in do feel like a mass ‘funeral of Muslims’ due to the rise in Islamophobia across the globe, but we should not surrender to fear. It is not my intention to feed negativity, as there are more important things that need attention right now than the racism and ignorance I faced at times last year. I pray that we can all live in peace rather than pray for people to rest in peace once it is already too late.

If you overcome mental blocks in order to write a post that was envisioned under a year ago, good luck 世界。

(此致敬礼) 欣妍 – اَلسَّلامُ عَلَيْكُم – From Xinyan.

*I know that some of my readers and friends really are Malaysian, so my commencing statement does not apply to you, but I’m sure you understand why I started in this way~

**Eid e Ghadeer Mubarak. 💚


八月三十一号 - 31st August



这是我第一次独自旅游,只有一些同学跟我一起 (坐在一样的飞机). 我觉得今年的经历当然会给我们更多的独立,已经快要过两个星期而且我觉得自己长大了很多。比如最近我们给了房东付钱。。。那么多钱啊都在我手里 x_x都给她了,看起来省钱没有办法 T.T 但是我总是说‘杯子是半满’是吧?~所以办法就是星期一去北大登录以后我打算去银行开户头,希望将来能减少上个星期的困难一下(其实我们经历了很多嘿嘿)。

在这个阶段我认为同学之间的支持和鼓励很重要。我很幸福得可以告诉你我们都安全。而且我想,除了一些压力以外我们都开心。我自己也很激动因为我特别喜欢说汉语所以住在北京已经给了我很多机会提高我的口语~ 并且很多人(我同学和不认识的中国人)告诉过我的汉语很棒原来如此我也很开心😊

我最近的帖子包括比较一样的内容可是我想翻译成中文(但是我就开始了从写着中文哈哈)。分享什么故事?噢,几天以前一位女人给了我工作。我在衣服商店站着跟服务员问问题当时这位女人就来给我回答。然后她跟我一直在聊天,觉得我的汉语听见北京人一样 o.o 简单的说她对我很有兴趣^^结果她想我给她女孩儿教学英语(帮助她考试的准备)。第二天我们就见面了在她的办公室!她在清华大学做工作,太牛了!不过因为我被北大录取所以我觉得北大是第一名!我和她女孩儿的个性有很多一样的特色但是我不知道我们的计划。我对这份工作没有那么好的感觉,一方面我能继续这份工作练习我的教学能力另一方面如果我退职这份工作我相信将来能接受另一个更合适的机会。





Beijing beginnings


It’s been just over two weeks since I’ve come to Beijing and I can’t believe we’ve managed to 办so many事’s. Unfortunately the domain of my blog seems to be one of the many sites blocked in China (shout-out to the people who I see reading my posts from within China…I see you👀), which is why this post is coming to you later than I had planned. I’ll leave it at that for now but this does tie in well with my previous post~

Whilst I’ve travelled a lot in the past (within the UK and to other countries) there’s usually been at least one ‘adult’ figure travelling with me, so this was my first time taking a flight on my own. But China is only around the corner, right?

Our course can seem a bit strange for many reasons. It’s very independent in that you have to book a plane ticket and organise your own accommodation etc. Whilst it may seem like this is because it’s an Oxford course, this seems to be unique to Chinese Studies o-o 好奇怪 For the first few nights a few of us stayed at a hostel we booked in England prior to arriving. It wasn’t amazing, but it also wasn’t bad. For one night there was a complication with my booking and due to that I can now at least say that I’ve experienced what living in a Chinese dorm would be like. I’ll leave it open to your imagination😉

Every year a handbook of ‘Studying at Beida’ is given to students at the end of first year before embarking on their Year Abroad. The year above has the task of editing the handbook with details that may have changed each year and I think I will put forward a note to warn that there will be a lot of walking. We walked a lot during the first week especially, but I guess its good it was before the health-check…

On our first night we went out to have dinner with the rest of our classmates who had also arrived in Beijing. Perhaps the restaurant we went to had a busy day because the waiter kept returning to our table to let us know that a meal we ordered had sold out. Most of our food eventually arrived and it was quite nice, but quite an interesting experience for most of us xD I think the waiters were equally confused since we ordered singular meals as it’s common to share dishes in China.

The first few days involved looking at apartments, looking for banks and 找到-ing Western Union for classmates to withdraw money, and then withdrawing the maximum from ATMs to save up for our initial instalment of rent. Due to all of this money business I had to restrict my purchases, but I recently went shopping with a friend from Oxford who came to Beijing^^ I also went to the ‘Electronic City’ in last week with a classmate to check out things like phone-cases (although all the nice ones seem to be for Iphones -.-). I hope to explore that area more since it’s nearby to 北大附中 – The Affiliated High school of Peking University, which is where I stayed last time I came to Beijing. –Btw we’ve now rented a penthouse apartment!

What else has happened? I turned a water canister into a recycling bin using a cleaver, a craft knife and a lighter. I was offered a job by a woman who was impressed with my Chinese sounding ‘like a Beijing person’ and subsequently met her daughter the next day to teach her English. A lot of cool things happened that day (I got to see Qinghua University which is to Beida how Cambrige is to Oxford) but I don’t plan to continue with that particular job. We registered our residency at a Police Station, and we plan to register at Beida as soon as possible. We have Collections taking place fairly soon (Oxford termly assessments)…which is just cruel T.T

I’ve also been speaking a lot of Chinese, which is great fun! I engage best with spoken elements of a language and speaking Mandarin has always been my favorite part of learning Chinese. The rest if my class prefer the written element of our course like our history paper the ‘East Asia Survey’ and practicing written Chinese. However I’ve been trying to create a lot of opportunities to practice my spoken Chinese like in Taxis for instance and I’m grateful to have been complimented on it quite a bit^^ People have been telling me to make vlogs (video logs) with my new camera and so it’s something I’ve been considering. My flat mates also told me I should start a blog about fashion or photography but I’m not so sure 😅 I’ve been told to make vlogs and a fashion blog in the past, but we’ll see *害羞*


Another interesting thing that happened was our health checks. It seems like people staying in China for a long duration are required to take part on a health examination. A friend of mine who is doing an internship in Beijing over summer was required to do a health check aswell. It was quite strange and parts of it definitely were not accurate. We took a taxi to the center (we got there an hour early😴) and filled in a form, once that was given in we went into different rooms divided between two floors in which different examinations were set up. We had a blood test, x-ray, ‘eye test’ (the doctor just pointed at a letter on a board and let us walk off once we immediately identified it), ECG and more. All of this for £40~ But at least I now know my blood type!

The theme of the day (that I originally wrote this at least) is probably otherness and optimism. As I’ve mentioned before I’m on the team of the ‘glass being half full’ and so whilst there may have been stresses about things like adjusting to our new life I’ve been reminding myself and others of how far we’ve come and that we needn’t worry about things that are out of our control so long as we continue trying our best. Also people have rightly been a bit self conscious for sticking out as a foreigner, which brings me on to the theme of otherness. Personally I don’t find it a big 问题 since I’ve pretty much always been different, but I have been asked things like ‘你是哪国人’ (where are you from) a lot more than my classmates, and have had a lot of questions about my headscarf and religion. It can be awkward depending on the situation but I see it as pursing my duty to educate people about a curiosity sparked from lack of opportunity to experience other cultures. -Although I have seen quite a few Muslim women wearing headscarves since being here~ During the taxi ride from the health check our 司机 asked about my scarf and why my friend in the backseat wasn’t wearing one as well despite her being British like myself. He was in disbelief when I simply said that it’s because we’re different people. Adamant as he was and also curious as to whether my dad wears one as well as my mother (a headscarf is only worn my women but the concept of the hijab of general modesty applies to both gender, fyi), to which I asked if he was ‘the same’ as the man in the car ahead of us since he was presumably Chinese. He claimed that he was because they both had black hair -.- but sometimes you cant win. My point is that no two people are exactly the same and that’s amazing. Your differences make you as unique as your fingerprint, so embrace them ^-^ A quote that came to mind today is that you should be yourself, since everyone else is already taken~ Ameen.

A lot has happened since we’ve been here, and whilst it’s nice being occupied it sort of makes you feel like you’re losing your head sometimes. On a side note I’m quite pleased with how my writing style has been progressing. It fluctuates along with my general progression, but that’s kind of like growing up, and lately I’ve felt more and more like an adult.

If you have moved to another continent and have to be an adult, good luck 世界。

此致敬礼欣妍 – From Xinyan.

Also I’ve just uploaded a similar post written in 简体字 Chinese, check it out here if you want to try reading it!~