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Breaking the Stereotype: A Practicing Muslim Surviving in China’s Megalopolis

His manager did know that Yong is a Muslim, perhaps the only one at the company, yet there is no prayer space available in the office. With huge loads of work, Yong rarely asks to be excused to perform his prayers at certain times since he’s still considered a new employee.

His manager did know that Yong is a Muslim, perhaps the only one at the company, yet there is no prayer space available in the office. With huge loads of work, Yong rarely asks to be excused to perform his prayers at certain times since he’s still considered a new employee.

China’s windows and doors remain closed from its outsiders, but this doesn’t stop its citizens from looking through the windows to connect with the outside world.

Although the Chinese government seems to have blocked almost all foreign virtual platforms [1], the citizens, specifically the youth, are quite skillful to get rid of the internet restrictions in getting access to the outside world. Interestingly, Muslim youth in China are not excluded from escaping the strict rules set by the Chinese government – they are eager to connect with people from other countries to share their life experiences. To be specific, on how they manage to survive as Muslims amidst Chinese Covid restrictions [2]. In addition, it is claimed that the Chinese Muslim minorities are also facing a tough time finding jobs due to discrimination [3]. However, it doesn’t apply to all. 

Hailing from the province where the ‘Little Mecca’ [4] is located in Gansu, Yong, a normal Dongxiang resident with hopes and dreams, has got himself out of the Muslim social norms of his hometown, Lanzhou.

Refusing to spend his youth in Lanzhou, Yong expressed that he’s one of the luckiest among the minor Dongxiang people to be able to pursue his studies at a university in Shanghai, majoring in Finance. His parents somehow half-heartedly had let him go, as they, including Yong himself, expected difficulties that might be impossible for him to endure.

However, Yong remained positive about his firm decision and left Lanzhou in  2017. As a student hustling in academics while maintaining his Islamic faith, Yong didn’t find his student life as difficult as he and his family expected in the first place. He managed to perform his prayers on time in his dormitory, shared with other non-Muslim friends.

His strong will in maintaining his positivity has also made him a key player on the university’s basketball team and given him an opportunity to travel internationally for leisure. Finding halal food was sufficiently convenient for Yong as he mentioned that the campus caterers are also Muslims. Sometimes, he did perform congregational prayers at the canteen with them. It is safe to say that he had been a confident Muslim throughout his student life.  

Blessed with excellent grades, Yong had been given a chance to continue with his Master’s studies, a 7-year of finance education in total. To sum up, his student life in Shanghai has been the best of his life. In October 2021, 24-year-old Yong kicked off his career at a finance company in Shanghai.

“I would have been married by now if I hadn’t moved out from Lanzhou,” Yong added when being asked about the impact of living in Shanghai on his marital status. “My (Muslim) friends and I want to seek our partner on our own, not through an arranged marriage like the rest of our families back in our hometown.”  

Coming from a practicing Muslim family, Yong admits that he’s been struggling as a working adult in Shanghai. He finds work-life is not as convenient as the student life he got used to before. Work then becomes his main priority, making him juggle his Deen.

His manager did know that Yong is a Muslim, perhaps the only one at the company, yet there is no prayer space available in the office. With huge loads of work, Yong rarely asks to be excused to perform his prayers at certain times since he’s still considered a new employee.

“Religion remains a very sensitive issue in China. My boss is the only person who knows that I’m a Muslim. I’m still new here, so I’m not ready to fight for my rights yet. But when there’s no one around and once allowed by my boss, I will immediately perform silent  prayers.”

They are performed while he is at his desk. To Yong, it’s the best method to perform the fardh prayers during working hours. Otherwise, he would perform all the fardh which he had missed as soon as he got home [5]

The only aspect that Yong’s manager would fully consider putting up with, as of now, is food. In Chinese working culture, it’s essential for the colleagues to have meals together (occasionally) to strengthen their corporate bonds. His manager would pick a restaurant that provides halal meals for him. With limited halal eateries around his workplace [6], most of the time, he would cook himself meals and have them in the office to keep him free from any haram food ingredients. Yong updated his situation with his parents, and they insisted he return home, but he keeps sticking to his principle, which is to overcome poverty.

“This is a great opportunity to avoid having a poor financial living, and I must keep going,” he explained.

Blessings in Disguise: Lockdown and ‘WFH’

Ever since the Covid-19 outbreak, travel restrictions have become one of the biggest obstacles in every part of the world. In some countries, when a particular region observes a rise in cases, restrictions are immediately implemented in order to stop the spreading of the virus, although the residents have been vaccinated more than once [7].

These days, most of the world’s residents are getting used to the abbreviation ‘WFH’, from ‘working from home’, while the lockdown is being enforced in particular regions. We have seen that many global work industries begin to be into the ideas of WFH, as it helps improve workers’ productivity and mental health [8].

WFH has been perceived as a blessing to lots of working adults across the world. It’s common to acknowledge this statement from residents in the West, however, it’s rare to get some insights based on a practicing Muslim who has been residing in one of China’s biggest megalopolises, Shanghai. While lots of other countries have been approaching the ‘endemic’ phase [9], China strives with its zero-Covid policy [10]. 

The year of 2022 marks Yong’s first Ramadhan as a working adult. The best part is, he doesn’t have to go through it in the office, as China’s most populous city has been under lockdown due to the surge of symptomatic Covid-19 cases, since March 28th [11].

Yong expresses his gratitude for being able to work from home. He could finally perform his prayers on time alone, sometimes with his roommates. He also deepens his studies in Quran and Hadith. It could be exhausting to work in a fast-paced environment while fasting. Plus, there might be other temptations within the non-Muslim working surrounding too.

At home, Yong and his roommates cook for iftar each day which he described as comforting to himself. The Shanghai lockdown has prompted anger among the residents, but Yong seems to be fine with it since this is the moment that he could seize to prioritize his relationship with God.

As the city aims to ease lockdown [12], Yong is yet to make continuous adjustments to accommodate his prayers at work. In the near future, he is hoping that his manager could be more respectful and understanding of him in fulfilling his needs and rights as a practicing Muslim.  

Credit: Photo provided by author

Yong can be considered just as patriotic as the rest of the Chinese citizens since he mentioned that he won’t migrate to another Muslim-friendly country. To him, China is being well governed so that every citizen could still live peacefully. The challenges that he is facing today can be resolved and to be made an example to the next Muslim generations in China.

“When I have a child, it is Islam that I will be teaching him or her,” he explains. Yong’s life experience is proof that there are still hopes for a positive future for Muslims in China. At the moment, it has been reported that most Muslims aren’t accepted to serve corporately in urban cities, but Yong and his friends have already proven that the report should be re-studied from now on [13]. 

Being Muslim in non-Muslim countries has always been viewed as a never-ending challenge by many Muslim residents who live in Muslim countries. To us, worshipping God could be performed as easily as breathing. Adhaan can be heard when it’s time, and we are allowed to perform prayers anywhere. Convenient prayer rooms are available in schools, on every floor of shopping malls, and in workplaces. Most of them are cornered with ablution-only spaces.

Indeed, it has been a real privilege to live in a country that Islamic culture is widely accepted and practiced among the residents, to the extent of non-Muslims also confidently express Islamic phrases such as ‘Assalamualaikum’, ‘Alhamdulillah’, ‘Allahuakbar’, and the like when catching up with both their Muslim and non-Muslim friends.

May Allah accept all our deeds as well as ease the challenges faced by our Muslim brothers and sisters across the world and grant us taufiq and hidayah to practice His Shari’a accordingly.


Footnotes

1. Freedom House. 2022. China: Freedom on the Net 2021 Country Report | Freedom House. [online]  Available at: <https://freedomhouse.org/country/china/freedom-net/2021> [Accessed 20 April  2022]. 

2. Fathil, F., 2019. Islam in Imperial China: Sinicization of Minority Muslims and Synthesis of  Chinese Philosophy and Islamic Tradition. Kemanusiaan the Asian Journal of Humanities,  26(Supplement 1), pp.167-187. 

3. Hou, Y., Liu, C. and Crabtree, C., 2020. Anti-muslim bias in the Chinese labor market. Journal of  Comparative Economics, 48(2), pp.235-250. 

4. Soundislamchina.org. 2022. » The Public Soundscape of China’s “Little Mecca”. [online] Available  at: <http://www.soundislamchina.org/?page_id=1282> [Accessed 20 April 2022].

5. Lexology. 2022. Let us pray: the challenges of accommodating Muslim prayer in the workplace.  [online] Available at: <https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=e3a833eb-73d6-4dfe ac7e-bd42284715f8> [Accessed 20 April 2022]. 

6. Moonen, Y., 2015. Impressions of Islam in China. [ebook] p.A single page. Available at:  <https://www.nordangliaeducation.com/resources/asia/_filecache/f84/454/22086-islam-in china.pdf> [Accessed 20 April 2022].

7. The Straits Times. 2022. Malaysia may allow activities, home quarantine for those fully vaccinated against Covid-19: PM Muhyiddin. [online] Available at: <https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se asia/malaysia-may-allow-activities-waive-quarantine-for-those-fully-vaccinated-against-covid>  [Accessed 20 April 2022]. 

8. Nibusinessinfo.co.uk. 2022. Advantages and disadvantages of employees working at home |  nibusinessinfo.co.uk. [online] Available at: <https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/advantages-and-disadvantages-employees-working home> [Accessed 20 April 2022]. 

9. Limited, B., 2022. Endemic switch on track. [online] https://www.bangkokpost.com. Available at:  <https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2296626/endemic-switch-on-track> [Accessed  20 April 2022]. 

10. Li, Z. and Diplomat, T., 2022. What Keeps China’s Zero-COVID Policy Going. [online]  Thediplomat.com. Available at: <https://thediplomat.com/2022/03/what-keeps-chinas-zero covid-policy-going/> [Accessed 20 April 2022]. 

11. The Guardian. 2022. Shanghai begins locking down millions as China’s Covid cases surge. [online]  Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/28/shanghai-to-lock-down millions-for-mass-testing-as-chinas-covid-cases-surge> [Accessed 20 April 2022].

12. The Guardian. 2022. Shanghai prepares to ease Covid lockdown as factories reopen. [online]  Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/19/shanghai-prepares-to-ease covid-lockdown-as-factories-reopen> [Accessed 20 April 2022].

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