AYSHA Xiong, 23, one of only a few Han Chinese to have converted to Islam, admits it was a shock to her parents.
Although Yunnan (雲南) province is home to a large number of ethnic minorities, Xiong grew up in the town of Binchuan, where most residents were Han.
She said she always respected Islam and read books about it while at school. She started to think about converting after learning more about the religion from ethnic Hui classmates in high school.
Xiong went to university in Kunming ( 昆明 ), the capital of Yunnan ( 雲南 ), where she became friends with a Hui student whose cousin was a local imam.
Through the friend, Xiong expressed her desire to convert, and the imam agreed to hold a ceremony for her. On a Friday in November 2013, Xiong officially converted in a Kunming mosque in front of about 100 other believers.
The imam gave her the Muslim name “Aysha”, which means “woman” in Arabic and derives from the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s favourite wife.
Xiong said that for her parents, religion was little more than people burning incense sticks at Lunar New Year; their only knowledge about Islam came from news about terror attacks.
“My father was worried I was being tricked into this and would take a wrong path,” she said.
While her mother came to understand her decision, her father still insisted she should quit.
“He won’t say it to my face, but I know he is worried at heart,” she said. “He often asks my mother to persuade me.”
Xiong said she never wore a headscarf or performed prayers when visiting her parents in her hometown. “I don’t want to give my parents any more pressure,” she said.
“If the neighbours start gossiping about how I have changed, my parents will get hurt a lot.”
In the three years since her conversion, Xiong has been looking for a suitable job that would allow her to wear a headscarf every day. Because of that special request, she has had many “awkward moments” at job interviews.
She spent three months as an accountant at a Muslim-run firm earlier this year, working with her headscarf on, but she left recently because it was not her ideal job. She will soon start working for the human resources division of another company, where religious displays are banned.
“I have to make a living first,” she said, adding that she puts her headscarf back on after work every day.
On The Hijab social media channel she helped found, Xiong wrote: “As long as I work hard, one step at a time, I will one day gain freedom of belief at a job I love.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post