Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

"So wait, you don't get to eat any food?"


"Well, OK, but at least you can drink water."

"Nope, no water either."

"No water?!"

That's how my third explanation of the week was going — this time with Tiger, one of my long-time students.

"But teacher," he spluttered, "if you don't eat or drink any water for a month, you'll die!" His big 11-year-old eyes widened. Surely, one of his favorite teachers wasn't attempting to starve herself.

So I explained.

No, I couldn't eat or drink anything — between 2:38 a.m. and 7:42 p.m. After that, I could eat and drink as I liked until 2:37 a.m.

Welcome to Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which ended Saturday evening.

And now to answer the questions all adults asked.

No, I do not practice Islam. I am not Muslim, nor was I raised to be.

No, I have no plans to convert.

Yes, I still observed Ramadan, and yes, it was all my choice.

Allow me to explain.

This all started with a conversation with Manfriend, a man who'd spent years observing Ramadan with his family.

When he announced his plans to fast, I was shocked. He didn't observe most other traditions. Sure, he didn't eat pork, but that suited this vegetarian just fine. So why this? I mean, were we really discussing how an Islamic tradition would be carried out in our daily life in China?


He made clear he never expected — or even thought — I'd fast, too. He just wanted me to know. He explained his reasons, and I listened, eager to understand.

Ultimately, though, I realized I couldn't understand what a month of fasting did for a person — what it taught them or how it felt. How could I? The longest I'd gone without eating was during an ill-fated juice cleanse.

So, in a rather stubborn sort of way, I made my choice.

A choice that surprised (but I think delighted) Manfriend. A choice I diligently and carefully observed every day for the past month.

Folks in China had plenty to say — comments on how thin I was getting or questions about why I wasn't eating dinner. In this largely atheistic country, my students were most confused. They knew zhaiyuè (Ramadan) only as a facet of some religion they understood academically at best.

Mostly, people — here and back home — were left wondering about the woman who would do this without even being a member of that faith.

I get that. But as I'd made my choice, for my own reasons, I didn't need anyone to understand. I simply asked that others respect it as my decision.

As Ramadan neared its end, I told Manfriend about Tiger's mother over a late dinner. Tiger had told her I'd been observing Ramadan, and she knew Eid al-Fitr was near. Tiger's mother called to say she'd love to take me out for dinner to celebrate, as she knew many Muslims would be doing.

Manfriend smiled.

I smiled, too. I, an admittedly nonreligious woman, had nearly made it through my first Ramadan, all while living in a country as foreign to me as the tradition I was celebrating.

And I'd found plenty of (unlikely) support along the way.

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