Above me, ten thousand cars are racing unimpeded to ten thousand destinations. Down here, below the elevated highway, vehicular and foot traffic mingle seamlessly. I am standing on the edge of the sidewalk, my scrunched eyebrows betraying concern. I need to get to the other side of this turbulent urban river of noisy human technology, but I am afraid that I don’t have the necessary timing. A finger pokes my left shoulder and I turn around. It is Jeremy. He is pointing at a man behind a kebab stand.
“He wants to ask you a question,” says Jeremy, his mouth full of roasted lamb.
I move away from the busy road and over to the man behind the kebab stand. I get a good look at him. He wears an apron which used to be white, but is now more akin to an abstract painting in appearance; a reflection of the chaotic jumble that surrounds him on this busy Shanghai street. His face is suntanned and careworn, and his mustache claims a commanding position in the center of it. His eyes are dark, and they are regarding me thoughtfully. I greet him and look at him expectantly. He smiles warmly as he turns over several skewers of lamb.
“Are you a Muslim?” he asks.
I am sitting on the windowsill in a corridor at Hope High School in central Changchun, and I am fingering the smooth surface of a paper flag. I am not alone on the windowsill. Two students, both boys in the freshman class, are sitting to my left and watching me with anticipation. The paper flag is a gift from the boy farthest to the left. He is a thin boy with disheveled hair and shy eyes.
The surface of the paper flag is smooth because it has been covered with tape to protect it. When I look at the flag more closely I know why the thin boy wanted to protect his work. It is clear to me that the seven red stripes which stretch across the map have been created by a careful hand. Fifty very small stars are all visible, five points each. An American flag. I look up and thank the boy for his gesture. He nods.
“We are form Xinjiang,” says the boy sitting next to me on the windowsill. He has bright, friendly eyes, and a slight mustache sprouting just above his mouth. He seems very confident, very self-assured. he takes the paper flag from my hands and writes his name on the back of it. His thin friend does the same.
“I have two names,” he points out. “One is Uighur, and the other is Chinese.”
I look at he reverse side of the flag. The names of the two boys are written in three languages: Chinese, Arabic, and English.
“I want to study in the US,” he says.
“Which schools are you interested in?”
“All of the best. Harvard, Princeton, Yale.”
He asks me what college is like in the US, and I begin to tell him about my experience. But he becomes distracted by a thought, a question on his mind. He interrupts me.
“Are you a Muslim?” he asks.
Beijing Haulian is right across from my Fourth Street apartment in Changchun. That’s why I like it so much; I can get there in exactly one minute. Beijing Hualian also has everything I need: rice, chicken, vegetables, chocolate.
The one minute walk to Beijing Hualian may be brief, but my senses are bombarded every second of the way. The pathway leading out of the apartment complex is uneven due to construction, and often muddy. Occasionally, a migrant worker can be seen squatting—trousers down—in the shadows under the scaffolding. Next is the sidewalk, teeming with foot traffic. I must negotiate my way through the unpredictable, charging throng of school children, housewives, businessmen, determined, frizzy haired old women, and their vicious lap dogs. The traffic on the street is unyielding, and raises a terrific din as luxury cars, buses, and taxis all jockey for position. The peddlers of various nick-knacks have positioned themselves advantageously in front of the Beijing Hualian, and so I must pass through a stagnant crowd of vociferous hagglers.
Usually, I take the path of least resistance. There is often a passable gap next to the kebab venders. Every time I pass through this gap, I am greeted by a tall kebab vender with a very affable air.
“As-salamu alaykum,” he always says.
I know that one day I will stop and buy a few kebabs from him. I know that we will chat while he processes my order, and I know what he will ask me before I go.
“Are you a Muslim?”
Many of the conversations I had with Chinese centered on what was different between us. Yet these few focused on a similarity, albeit one that did not exist. Those encounters poignantly showed me one of the benefits of travel. From a distance, I could only make out a monolithic blob. The details and complexities of China—the region, the nation—were invisible. But upon closer inspection I realized that China was far more diverse than I had imagined, and that these and masses of others were in a very real sense Chinese, with an indelible place in the region. The recurring question of my religion broadened my conception of China and Chineseness.