Interview #3A: Showing Hospitality to Chinese Muslims

Many people don't know that there are Muslims in China. Today's interviewee remembers a time when she didn't know that either. Jodie, who originally hails from North Carolina, learned a lot about Chinese Muslims when she lived in a Muslim minority area of China for 4.5 years with her family. I hope you'll enjoy reading about her adventures (and misadventures) eating with Muslims, and learn cultural cues that will help you when you host or are hosted by Muslim neighbours. —Julie

Jodie and her best friend in western China.

Jodie and her best friend in western China.

Could you tell us briefly how long you lived with Chinese Muslims, and why?

We had been living in eastern China for about 15 years before we moved to western China for 4.5 years while my husband worked on his PhD in Ethnology, with a specific focus on Chinese Muslims. During those 4.5 years we lived both in the Muslim district of a large city, and then in a much smaller Bonan minority village for shorter periods of time, for my husband's field research.

Jodie's husband looking over the village.

Jodie's husband looking over the village.

What foods are people from western China accustomed to eating? Were you ever fed something that you were unable to swallow?

Noodles were the staple in western China (instead of rice, like in eastern China). There are many different types of noodle dishes and noodle shops. Across the street from our apartment in the city there was a huge statue of a bowl of beef noodles, which is what our city was most famous for.

Once a friend treated me to a Muslim specialty dish of fermented rice when we were out shopping together. I was having a really hard time eating it, so I told her I wanted to take it home to share with my children. That got me out of having to eat all of it in front of her!

Noodle soup and a very tall stack of steamed buns!

Noodle soup and a very tall stack of steamed buns!

In this interview we want to focus on showing hospitality to Muslims. What kinds of guests did you have in your home while living in western China?

In the city we had the opportunity to host a variety of guests: some of my husband's classmates and professors and their families, imams (mosque leaders) and their families, neighbour kids, a Muslim friend I met while on a walk and her family, and a group of female Muslim college students I met when I was taking a Saturday women's class at the mosque on our street. In the village we were shown hospitality but were not able to extend it as much, as we were guests in a host family's home.

Was it hard for you to learn to extend hospitality to people with such different customs?

After being on the receiving end of Chinese Muslim hospitality it really was intimidating to try to extend it. I was always thinking that I needed to fill the table with a huge variety of dishes like they do. Cooking has never been my forte. But I came to realize that being present with my heart was more important to our guests than an impressive meal.  It also helped when I realized that our whole family could be involved in meal preparation, taking some of the pressure off me.

Hosting a Thanksgiving meal for Jodie's husband's classmates in the city.

Hosting a Thanksgiving meal for Jodie's husband's classmates in the city.

Most people know that Muslims don’t eat pork, but were there other restrictions affecting food or mealtimes that you learned about through interacting with Chinese Muslims?

There was quite a range of what our Muslim friends were comfortable with as far as food goes. We would always let them know before they came over that our home was Halal ("clean" - meaning that we never cooked pork in our house). Some friends had no problem eating the chicken that we served when we told them that it came from the grocery store with a Halal sticker on it. Others told us that they would only eat chicken that was bought from a Muslim butcher at the market, to give them confidence that the proper prayers had been said when the animal was killed.

We learned that Chinese Muslims distinguish themselves from Han Chinese (ie: non-Muslim Chinese) by not celebrating Chinese ("pagan") holidays like Chinese New Year. They also don't celebrate birthdays, like we had been used to doing with our Han Chinese friends. The Muslim holidays like Korban (commemorating Abraham's sacrifice) and Ramadan are their big events. When we were with Muslim friends during their holy month, we didn't eat or drink in front of them to honour their daytime fast.

We learned that in group settings, men and women often ate in different rooms. However, when just our family was invited to an imam's home, we ate all together. So, when that imam's family (in addition to other guests) came to our house for a meal, we set up a table for the women to eat in my daughter's bedroom so the imam's family would feel at ease.

"We learned that in group settings, Muslim men and women often ate in different rooms."

Sometimes guests wanted to say their prayers during the prayer time that occurs around dinnertime. We offered our daughter's bedroom for them to pray in, as it was in the best location facing Mecca. We offered blankets for the them to put down on the floor, or sometimes they used their own jackets. We also removed all pictures that would be between them and the window while they prayed, as that is forbidden.

Jodie and her family eating a meal with their Chinese Muslim hosts.

Jodie and her family eating a meal with their Chinese Muslim hosts.

Did you have any hospitality disasters or disappointments in trying to host Muslims?

Yes, a few! Once when my husband and sons were out of town, I invited a group of female Muslim college students over for lunch and my daughter prepared a Halal lunch, so we were very surprised when they politely refused to eat our food! They didn't even drink the tea we offered them, saying it was because we weren't clean. So, they had a spiritual discussion with us for about an hour, and then they said they needed to leave.

I had thought “being clean” meant the food we were offering them was clean, but I realized later that when we had entered our apartment together they did not see me wash my hands, and I didn't offer them a place to wash, either. A friend I consulted afterward helped me to understand the importance of washing my hands so guests could see, and the need for me to offer our guests a place to wash.

Another time, I cooked spaghetti for our host family in the village. It was a disaster because they really don't like tomato sauce! After that, they declined my offers to cook, saying that they “didn't have the same taste as we did”. My daughter enjoys cooking and learned from our friends how to make some noodle dishes that we served to neighbours. It helped when we learned to make things they were already accustomed to eating.

Jodie and her family with their Chinese Muslim host family in the village.

Jodie and her family with their Chinese Muslim host family in the village.

If someone in a Western context wants to invite a Muslim over, what should they know?

Well, the most helpful thing you can do is talk with your guests about food before they come over. Express a desire to honour their customs and make them feel most comfortable. If there is no Halal market in your area, they may not eat Halal. But two good questions to ask are:

  1. Is there a certain international market where you shop? (Then you can shop there for the food for them, too).
  2. Would you feel more comfortable with a vegetarian meal? (In this case you can avoid the Halal meat issue altogether).

"Generally speaking, Muslims tend to think of non-Muslims as immodest and unclean. This can make them hesitant to accept a meal invitation from us."

Generally speaking, Muslims tend to think of non-Muslims as immodest and unclean. This can make them hesitant to relate to us or accept a meal invitation from us. Show that you are clean not only by serving Halal food, but also by making the washing of your hands public if possible. Be modest in dress around your Muslim friends. In western China, I realized that women covered their arms and legs and avoided low cut shirts or tight fitting clothes, so I did the same. With Muslims friends in the West, perhaps you can take your modesty cues from how the friends of your gender typically dress. (For example, do you ever see your friend wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts? If not, perhaps it would be better not to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts around them, either.)

You might find that Muslim friends feel more comfortable having you over so they can cook what they know they can eat. We had that situation with a neighbour—they had us over several times, but politely refused our invitations to have them over. 

Jodie's family hosting and playing games with Chinese Muslim friends.

Jodie's family hosting and playing games with Chinese Muslim friends.

What should a person do if a Muslim refuses to come to their house? For example, should they stop trying to invite them, or should they talk about how they'll make sure the food is Halal? 

"Follow your Muslim friend's lead. Be open to new possibilities."

If the idea of coming over for a meal seems to make your Muslim friend uncomfortable, it could be that your friend is extremely devout and eating food that came from your kitchen (if pork has ever been cooked there) would violate his or her conscience. Suggest some alternatives, like coming over for an afternoon to play games (instead of coming at meal time), meeting at the park or eating out at a restaurant of your friend's choice. Don't take a refusal to your invitation personally. If someone is concerned about their conscience and what might make them unclean, honour that and follow his or her lead as to how they might want to develop the friendship. Be open to new possibilities.

Would you say that most Muslims you meet in the West are conservative?

"Making assumptions your friend's level of devotion might make your friend feel guilty, like he or she is not a good Muslim."

Some are, but you can't assume that. My husband once asked a Muslim friend who came over during Ramadan about the fast he assumed she was doing. She politely informed him that actually she doesn't practice Ramadan, and she would like a glass of water! That was an awkward situation, but we all laughed about it. It's good to be unassuming about new friends and sensitive to the range of devoutness that exists. Making assumptions about how devout someone might be can make your friend feel guilty, like he or she is not a good Muslim. Some of our Chinese Muslim friends were simply non-pork eating Muslims and that was the only thing that made them different from the Han Chinese. We can talk in generalizations about Muslims, but the most important thing is to get to know your particular Muslim friends and learn what suits them best.

What is the best lesson you'd pass on to people who are starting to share their table with people of other cultures and religions?

If we enter a new situation and are easily offended or quick to judge what we encounter as “wrong” instead of “different,” we'll end up building walls instead of bridges. Humility, a learner's heart, and the ability to laugh at yourself all really help in crossing cultures!

Read the second half of our interview with Jodie here.  She's talking about unique experiences she had while being hosted by Chinese Muslims. She also shares about how good questions can help your conversations with Muslim friends go deeper.