by Tahmida Zaman

A leap into the unknown China


I had set no less than seven different alarms that night. Travelling abroad during Ramadan, I was determined not to let it affect my fasting schedule. Tired from a long day of exploring, but barely awake, I rubbed my eyes and got out of bed. Asking around in broken Mandarin earlier that day, I had located a 24-hour canteen that would cater to my pre-dawn sehri needs. It wasn't far from the hostel, so at the godly hour of 2am, I set out to seek my sustenance for the day. Dodging way-too-bright signs in way-too-dark alleys, I had found hotpot heaven. Spicy hotpot was one of the proud specialties of Sichuan. While others gorged themselves any hour of the day, I knew I had to be more tactical in my choices. I was not disappointed. After a hearty meal peppered with curious stares at the sight of a lone hijabi gobbling down her soup and noodles with one eye on the clock, I left the joint just as the sky was starting to turn pink. In other parts of the world, the azaan would have been called out at this time, signalling the start of the fasting day. But here, the silence was only contested by the lingering heat of chillies in my mouth. Making my way back to the hostel at a languid pace, I felt awake and reflective. This was all so novel and yet familiar. The sights, sounds and smells were new, but the atmosphere and warmth enveloped me like I had always belonged. Almost back to the hostel for the rest of the night, I felt a pair of eyes on me. While I'd gotten used to the stares in the foreign country by now, this pair of eyes lingered longer than most. I looked back at them. An aunty, in her mid-forties maybe, also wearing a hijab, was looking straight at me with the most curious expression. She looked like she wanted to say something, but didn't have the words. In that instant, I knew exactly how she felt. My Mandarin, which I was getting quite proud of, suddenly felt inadequate. Finally, I broke the silence. 'Assalamualaikum', I offered. I come in peace. She gave me the widest smile. 'Walaikum salam' she replied, in an accent I had never heard those words being spoken before, but which made them special in their own way. Nothing else was exchanged but the understanding was enough. I was a Bangali hijabi from London walking back to bed in the twilight after just having had the spiciest hotpot for sehri at a roadside canteen in Sichuan. I was home!