Like Tasnim, I’m going through Ramadan in a relatively new and unfamiliar city. Though I’ve stumbled a few times, my fears have not entirely come to pass and I reached the halfway point with the intention to complete the remaining fasts. Generally, Ramadan is a lonely experience for me. I don’t have a Muslim family to celebrate with, and I haven’t found a masjid that I feel comfortable in. Combine that with my residence in a predominantly non-Muslim country and you’ve got a recipe for solo suhoors and unceremonious iftars. In short, Ramadan feels like any other month, except that I know it’s holy and I have an extra religious obligation to fulfill (not that I’m complaining about the latter).
Recently, though, I found out that the halal restaurant on campus opens its doors for suhoor. While I don’t actually like that restaurant’s food very much, I was curious to see what it would be like to eat with other people in the morning. The first day I decided to go, I agonized over what to wear. The restaurant opens around 2:30 AM, so I wanted to wear something that was modest (it’s a mixed gender gathering) and presentable, but not too overdone for what is essentially a midnight snack. After throwing on some gym clothes, I set out for the restaurant.
The darkness and stillness of the campus at that hour literally sent chills up my spine. I knew that realistically, I’d be pretty safe. Chinese students tend to be in bed by around 10 PM, and most of the working adults are in bed by 12 or 1. Still, having been raised in the US means I’ve learned that going outside alone at odd hours of the night usually ends badly. I was going against all the alarm bells in my head. It only takes five minutes for me to walk from my house to the restaurant; I was sure I could handle it.
I made it to the restaurant safely, alhamdulillah, and found it brightly lit and buzzing with quiet conversation. There were only a handful of students there, in addition to the family that owns the place. The family was busy cooking while the students were setting the tables. Thankfully, I recognized a few of the students so walking in didn’t feel too strange. The students I recognized introduced me to the others and they continued setting the table. I watched, trying to figure out what to do with myself.
After the students finished their tasks, we sat down and chatted with each other. There was the usual “where are you from and how’d you wind up in this city [as opposed to Shanghai or Beijing]?” line of questioning, then everyone settled into what I assume was their normal conversation. When the food was ready, we all helped bring it to the table, then began our feast. We all helped clean up afterward and a few guys escorted me back to my apartment complex, after I told them I felt a little nervous about walking alone.
I entered my apartment in relatively high spirits. I was glad I’d gone, and I’ve continued to go to the restaurant on the days that I’m fasting. For once, I began to understand a little bit of why some Muslims look forward to time with family and friends during Ramadan. My high spirits were soon to be brought down, though. Over the past couple of weeks, the students and I have discussed a number of topics, including my family background. For some reason, nearly every non-black Muslim I meet (and quite a few non-Muslims) feel the need to ask me if my family is Muslim. This question always makes me nervous because on one hand, I’m unapologetic about my decision to accept Islam, but on the other, I know black reverts are perceived differently than white reverts and that it feeds into many Muslims’ notions that there are no black American-born Muslims.
Seeing as I don’t plan on renewing my contract and probably won’t be seeing these people after the end of July, I went for the easiest answer. I told them that my family is Muslim and rattled off a few “Ramadan family traditions,” which were pretty much just things I did by myself or came up with on the fly. Even if I had the vocabulary (we hold our conversations in Mandarin) to explain when and why I accepted Islam, I don’t always feel comfortable explaining myself. I become vulnerable every time I tell the full story, and my emotions remain raw for quite a while after I’ve finished. I didn’t want to subject myself to that in front of virtual strangers.
Though I lied to simplify things for myself, I actually wound up making things much more complicated. I still go to the restaurant in the morning for the sake of company, but my enjoyment is slightly tainted by my having to maintain the fiction. I’m also now forced to think about whether I’m ashamed of my background, or at the very least I have to consider whether I feel my background makes me somehow inferior to born Muslims. For quite a while now I’ve been trying to figure out whether I should simply drop the “revert” descriptor altogether, and I wonder if this was my strange-yet-subtle way of doing so.
I don’t think I’m consciously ashamed of my background, but my discomfort with sharing it makes me think that perhaps I am at least a little bit embarrassed by it. While I know being a revert does not in and of itself make me inferior to born Muslims, my awareness of how we’re perceived makes me feel that way. Part of me wants to drop the “revert” from my self introduction because it’s been just over three years since I pronounced my shahada, but three years isn’t a long time. I’m still a toddler as far as Islam goes. I know the basics and can confidently answer a few questions here and there but I know I’ve still got a lot to learn.
Since the students asked my about my background, I’ve been self-conscious about my Islam. I worry about making a mistake that’ll make it obvious I’m still relatively new to this, or worse, a mistake that will make it seem like I’m a fake Muslim who’s only coming to the restaurant in the morning for a heavily discounted meal after an all nighter. I realize my worries are largely the result of my anxiety, yet I also feel that these questions and concerns are worth resolving. Only after I’ve figured out where my Islam stands can I truly begin to grow.