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Hui youth in Xi’an face challenges to migration

By 23 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Kelly West

Dishing up change: Muslim youth in Xi'an look for new lifestyles | Photo by Kelly West

In Xi’an, you can hear the buzz of a Starbucks espresso machine and then, five minutes later, after a short stroll through center of town, experience the sound of a muezzin’s call to beckon the faithful to prayer at the Great Mosque. The area colloquially known as the Muslim Quarter swarms with tourists haggling prices for souvenirs and imitation merchandise with men in white caps and women in head scarves belonging the local Hui minority.

Yet as in many other minority communities in China and around the world, the migration of urban youth away from this quarter threatens a traditional way of life. In Xi’an, however, even though many Hui youth may want to flee l ancestral ground, they do so at a slower pace than in some cities due to special challenges faced when it comes to moving out.

Jia Bao Lan, mother of three children, the youngest being 21, cites property costs as one of the factors slowing the exodus. “My ancestors have lived here for generations… as far back as the Tang Dynasty,” she said, and her hope is to keep her two-story home here in an alleyway two blocks from the mosque within her family for at least a while longer. Given escalating property values outside the Muslim Quarter in booming Xi’an, Jia, 54, is likely to see her hope come true.

“I would not mind if my children moved [out of the neighborhood], but most people do not move away due to financial problems,” Jia said.

Moreover, Hui Chinese youth are forced to balance these economic pressures with cultural ones that encourage them to maintain their religious way of life.

Su Keqin, 49, runs a souvenir and accessory store in a posh location at the market. Resting his arms on a countertop laced with fake Gucci belts, he admits that he hopes his children find a future outside of the Xi’an’s Hui Muslim quarter. “If they can manage to earn enough money to move out, they should,” said Su. “It is not a matter of good or bad if they leave, as long as they stay in the same faith.”

Su has a son, 22, and a daughter, 20. While he speaks in the interest of his children, he does not fail to recognize what this implies for his religious community. “Their belief could be influenced [if they move out],” said Su.

Su acknowledges the government’s accommodations for his community. Members are not bound by the one-child policy to which the Han Chinese population is expected to adhere. Su says there is also a monetary “prize” for those Muslims who choose to have one child despite this freedom. Yet, he grudgingly admits that life for them outside the community could be difficult.

But none of these challenges stops the youth from wanting to leave. Zhao Baodong, 18, works a mutton barbeque stand in the same market in Xi’an and earns about 1,000 RMB (145 USD) a month. He moved to Xi’an about a year ago from his home province of Guangzhou in search of a more “colorful” life. He admits that, being a Muslim himself, the strong Muslim community was “one reason” that attracted him to the quarter.

Yet he too has his dreams of moving on. “I hope to earn enough money to move out of here in two years,” said Zhao, as he hurriedly ate his lunch so as to get back to working the barbeque stand. Zhao is confident in his ability to make that happen yet he remains less sure about how the community will cope as more youth like him move away in search of progress.

“Sometimes, you get tired of being in one place,” said Zhao.

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