The Chinese assign countries names based on their perceptions of that place. For them, Pakistan is Pa-gi-si-taan – the beautiful land.
This I learnt on a recent trip to the neighbouring land. Of the 14 members who spent 10 days in Beijing and the eastern province of Shadong, on a trip organised by the ruling Communist Party, I was the Pakistani representative.
China is, quite literally, embracing the ‘open door policy’. For the first time ever, representatives from various countries were given the opportunity to spend a night with a Chinese family.
Know a family, know a culture
University teacher Zhang Fusong, 41, and his wife, PhD scholar Wang Xia, 40, graciously opened their Beijing homes, and their lives, to me. Through our interactions, and the attention the bestowed on me, I came to realise some that we share a great deal with our neighbors than just a border.
In Chinese society, the family is the basic unit, with age and rank still highly respected. Fusong – also known as Alan, his English name – also houses his mother-in-law within the three-bedroom apartment.
The couple’s eight-year-old daughter, Lu Zhang, is their prime focus. According to Fusong, there has been a relaxation on the strict one-child policy for farmers and ethnic minorities.
Of faith and the future
The couple chose me as their guest from the list of delegates for two reasons: Firstly, because Fusong was born into a Hui Muslim family, and practiced the faith until he was a teenager; and, secondly, because Pakistan is still the ‘mysterious friend’ across the border, one that many Chinese are keen to know more about.
Sharing his personal story, Fusong explained how most of the Hui – an ethnic minority – in the Hebei province are Muslims. His wife, although from the same province, is a Han – a majority group, comprising over 90 per cent of the country’s 1.30 billion-strong population.
According to Fusong, he now does not believe in any religion but does believe in God, a stance that is not an aberration in China. The socialist authorities simply do not encourage religion.
However, like many things, this too is gradually changing. Fusong said that more youth in his native province are increasingly inclined towards religion now. Many people during the last few decades have sent their kids to faith schools, and the government has also become more tolerant. However, for most people in China, economic well being still takes precedence over religion.
And yet, some beliefs linger on. Fusong still does not eat pork, and has made sure that his daughter is not served pork in school – a request the management has honoured.
He also took me to an ancient mosque in the city, the Niujie mosque built in 966 AD, one of the oldest in the nation.
In many ways, these home visits indicate great societal change in the offing. In the Chinese culture, guests are rarely invited home as, under the socialist system, interaction with foreigners was strictly regulated.
However, things seem different now. The burgeoning middle class, eager to travel and know more about the world, has started to voluntarily register with NGOs for a chance to play host.
It is clear that the once a traditionally conservative society is transforming. More and more people live in cities have adopted the bourgeois lifestyle.
Much like Pakistan, the rural-urban divide is still very evident in China, despite the overall increase in living standards. My host couple makes more than 10,000 RMB, which exceeds the annual income of their family members in the villages.
Fusong and Xia the two people that offered me the chance of a lifetime, belong to different ethnicities but happily chose each other as partners in 2004. Their families agreed. In the past, parents would choose the groom for their daughters, but this practice, too, has become archaic.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2013.