As I stood in the courtyard pointing out highlights for the group, I was reminded of my first trip back in 2005 to this supposed sacred spot. At the time I had just started studying the Uyghur language and was anxious to practice with anyone who would give me the time of day. This mosque not only severs as a place of worship for many on a spiritual quest, it is also home to those who want to dwell in its walls of safety. At the time they said upwards of 20 people actually called the mosque’s courtyard “home”. As my fellow travelers were lead into the kitchen area to hear the prepared speech, I broke away from the group to find someone to practice language with.
In a room off to the side I found six women sitting on the floor eating lunch. They kindly invited me to come in and join them. As I sat on the floor running through my list of first year language learning question (aka, “What’s your name? How many people are in your family? and so on), one women kept persisting that I eat some of their food. Rations looked scarce in this remount desert location so I shied away from eating someone else’s portion. This same old lady next to me, took a heaping spoonful and chewed away intentionally on it. After a several minutes she spit the softened food back on to her spoon and insisted again that I eat. I opened my mouth to protest once more, my gag reflex was at a high just looking at her pre- chewed food waving on the spoon in front of me. The spoon moved closer to my mouth and I gaped in surprise as I realized for the first time she was offering me her very own, straight from her mouth food. My open mouth stare gave her just the opportunity she needed to shove the spoon in. At which point, gag reflexes or not, I had no choice but to chew and swallow the food she had so generously deposited in my mouth.
I had seen Uyghur women do this before for their babies, softening the food by pre-chewing it and spiting it directly into their young child’s anxiously awaiting mouth. I have no idea what convinced this older women to treat me like a baby bird, but in her tender expression of care for me, she saw fit to share her own dinner. This event still tops the list as one of my grossest and most culturally abrasive moments I have encountered in my seven year here.