On Tuesday we started this interview with Jodie, an American who spent 4.5 years in a Muslim minority region of western China while her husband was doing ethnology research there. In Part A of this interview, Jodie talked about showing hospitality to Chinese Muslims, and we learned about some of the food preferences and customs of Muslims. In Part B, she's sharing about the hospitality they were shown by Muslims, and giving some ideas for having deeper conversations with Muslim friends. Thank you, Jodie, for sharing your story and pictures with us! —Julie
When we started talking about showing hospitality to Muslims, you told me that you were a guest of Chinese Muslim friends more often than you were a hostess. How would you describe the hospitality you were shown?
We felt very honoured as their guests. Whenever we visited someone, we were always served tea and something to eat, even if it wasn't a meal time. Sometimes I had to let my best friend in the village know that I would really rather talk with her than eat, as I would stop by to visit and she would spend most of the time in the kitchen cooking for me! They are very generous, servant-hearted people.
You talked about a large festival or group meal that was held in the village. Could you tell us more about that festival and the meal it involved?
Yes, that was the most interesting experience we had being hosted by Muslims! To give you some background, the population of the village where we were staying was about 2,000 and almost all of the residents are of the Bonan Muslim minority group. They are Sufis (Muslim mystics) and have a highly revered shiek for their spiritual leader. The current shiek is the fourth generation of shieks in that village, and the way people treated him reminded me of how people must have treated Jesus! The residents of the village believe the shieks have power to intercede on their behalf to Allah, and therefore the biggest events in the village each year are memorial festivals held on the anniversary of each of the previous shiek's deaths. Besides the 2,000 regular residents of the village, about 3,000 people from outside the village would attend the festivals, too—it was like the Chinese version of the feeding the 5,000!
Preparations for the festival would begin days before with the slaughtering of lambs and cows by the men, and the making of steamed buns by the women. It was amazing how everyone in the village knew what to do, without anyone clearly being in charge.
There seemed to be a general understanding and acceptance of each one's role in the festival. The young men prepared the first course of the meal (small plates of dried fruit and nuts) and they served all the courses of the meal. The older men served the tea and refilled the cups with hot water several times during the meal. We learned that keeping tea cups full is a very important part of taking care of guests! The next course was steamed buns with a sweet filling. Then plates with slices of tender cooked beef, and sausages made from lamb intestines. After that, steamed buns with beef and carrot filling. Then a bowl of beef noodle soup, followed by another bowl of soup made of miscellaneous lamb organs—nothing is wasted! After the meal every person recieved a plastic bag with a large round flat fried bread and a slice of beef to take home.
Were you considered guests at the festivals or could you also get involved in preparations?
After attending several festivals and learning the routine, our family was able to participate in the various serving roles and then eat in the last meal, with the extended family of the shiek. It was nice to be able to serve them and not always be the foreigners receiving special treatment.
You were also hosted various times by the revered shiek himself. Could you tell us a bit about that?
The shiek was a few years younger than my husband and me, and had three children almost the exact ages of our children. We connected with him right away and appreciated how welcoming he was to our family. He loved to laugh and we enjoyed both significant and lighthearted discussions with him. Sometimes he invited us to his “upper room” for tea, sunflower seeds, dried fruit and nuts and hand-pulled mutton. Once he invited us to a picnic that was definitely a big step up from our Western-style peanut butter and jelly picnics! A crew of five men accompanied us to do all the cooking, serving, and washing. We enjoyed large pieces of meat, noodle soup, fruit and steamed bread in a beautiful setting.
Did the shiek expect any particularly special treatment from you because of his position?
Maybe other shieks would be different, but he always made us feel very at ease around him. One thing we noticed is that people in the village would never turn their backs on him. If they approached him to request a blessing for their children or to give him money, they would back away from him as they were leaving. We tried to be aware of that, too. The shiek told us that his job was to take care of us while we were in the village, and our job was to let people outside of China know about their village and their people. So thank you for giving me a chance to do that through this interview!
One of the things I've noticed is that you have the attitude of a learner. Were there any hospitality customs that you learned in China that you incorporated into your own practice of hospitality?
We noticed that the youngest son in the family had the responsibility of filling the tea cups of the guests. So that was a task our youngest son (before we adopted two more) took on and did very well. Younger people treated their elders with a lot of respect (both in Muslim Chinese and Han Chinese culture). At the festivals, children would run to find pieces of wood for their grandparents to sit on around the tables that were just a few inches off the ground, and the adults would put food on their parents' plates for them. When my dad came to visit us in the village, they made him feel like he was a king. We tried to incorporate that custom by honouring our elderly guests in a special way as well.
How can humility make us better able to host and be hosted by people of other cultures?
I think humility in cross-cultural reationships is realizing that we are always capable of making mistakes or being misunderstood, but refusing to let either of those concerns stop us from building relationships anyway.
Could you give an example of a time when you learned from a cultural mistake?
One time we were visiting some Muslim friends and the husband, who was an imam, beautifully recited the Koranic passage about Mary's virgin birth. When he was finished, I asked the wife if I could see the Koran. She held it, but I reached out and touched it. She was horrified and rushed out of the room with it. When she came back in, the Koran was carefully wrapped in a towel. I apologized and felt really bad about defiling their holy book. But at the same time, I believed that my friend could forgive my mistake. I have never made the same mistake again, and actually that incident helped me to appreciate how much they value the Koran. (In many homes it is displayed on a special stand.) I have become more aware of how I take care of the Bible. We don't have it on display in our home, but before Muslim friends come over, I make an effort to be sure it isn't on the bottom shelf of our coffee table or underneath a stack of other books, so that they are not offended.
Have your Muslim friends been interested to talk about spiritual things?
Just as our Muslim friends have a wide range of devoutness in following Muslim practices, so they also have a range of interest in talking about spiritual things. Some are interested, some are not, but you can't know unless you ask a few questions in that regard.
What might be some interesting ways to initiate deeper conversation with a Muslim friend?
Asking Muslims about the meaning of their names can be interesting. Many of them are named after prophets and they enjoy discussing that person, whom they may or may not know much about. We met people named Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Jonah, Zechariah, John (the Baptist) and even Jesus. They might want to know about the origin of your name, too, or how you chose your children's names.
"Asking Muslims about the meaning of their names can be interesting."
Another conversation opener for us was simply discussing the topic of my husband's PhD—“people of faith together seeking the blessing of Allah.” Sharing this topic with friends and asking them what they consider to be His blessing and then how they believe they can receive it also led to interesting discussions. Maybe you have something similar in your life that is a simple lead-in to a deeper conversation.
We would share with friends stories of how Jesus related to people and parables that He told, and ask for their reactions. One time my husband shared the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the man who was overseeing the construction of the big prayer hall in the village. Every other time my husband had discussed this parable with people (in the USA or in China), the listeners identified with the early hired workers who felt cheated when the landowner paid all the workers the same wages. But this man in the village responded, “What a generous, compassionate landowner! He takes care of people according to their need, just like Allah takes care of us.” My husband was really surprised by this man's unusually insightful response to that parable.
Do you have any final encouragement you'd like to give to Christians with Muslims friends or acquaintances?
There is a strong message in our world right now that Muslims are our enemies. Our experience has proven that to be so untrue. I would encourage you to seek out and get to know some Muslims in your area. May God bless you as you step out in faith and build friendships with some of the most beautiful people we have come to know.