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Africa Is Inspiring These Chinese Transplants To Reflect On Their Culture

From Beijing to Cape Town, four stories of people in search of something different.

09/01/2017 07:27 pm ET

This is what the four people profiled in this piece have in common: They all come from China. They all ended up in Africa. They all made a home a continent away from home. And in the process, they all learned more about what it means to be Chinese in a world beyond the mainland. 

The exact number of Chinese people living in Africa is hard to pin down, with some estimates as high as a couple million. According to a 2017 McKinsey & Company report, “no other country has such depth and breadth of engagement in Africa” than China. The China-Africa relationship isn’t new, nor is the phenomenon of Chinese migration to Africa. Veteran journalist and scholar Howard French wrote in 2014: “Although there are no official figures, evidence suggests that at least a million private Chinese citizens have arrived on African soil since 2001.” But the level of engagement ― at a time when much of the West is retreating from the world ― has recently garnered more widespread global attention.

While a large proportion of Chinese people in Africa are economic migrants who have come ― and sometimes gone ― in pursuit of a “Chinese dream,” a number are driven by something else entirely: the promise of a competitive edge in their field, the search for a different type of cultural identity, or an education that allows students to learn beyond the constructs of China’s strict academic culture.

I spent time with four Chinese transplants living in four African countries, to find out what inspired them to embrace what many may consider a daunting transition. These are not the stories of business moguls or cultural influencers, but everyday people who make up a less measurable wave of Chinese individuals who have fashioned a life for themselves in Africa.

* * *

Tian Chen: ‘The Academic’

Courtesy of Tian Chen

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — When Tian Chen went to South Africa on a solo backpacking trip, he didn’t expect it to change the course of his life so intensely. He was 26 then, and he spent his first night there surrounded by nature, gazing at the majestic cliffs of the Drakensberg mountain range. He recalls feeling just as overwhelmed by the scenery as by the hospitality of the people he met, especially as an outsider.

“Suddenly, I’m placed in a culture ― well I wouldn’t use a singular form, I would use ‘a salad bowl of cultures’ ―  here in South Africa. ... there is black culture, white culture … and I’m learning from seeing the interactions between the different groups of people.”

A few days into his trip, the soft-spoken Tian met with a professor at the University of Cape Town to discuss his plans to pursue a PhD.

“We had a three-hour chat about the research project I wanted to do, and I just felt like: ‘This is the place.’”

Tian’s 10-day holiday ended, and he left South Africa. But he hung onto his bus card and some local currency.

“I knew I would come back,” Tian said.

A year later, he did.

Since February 2017, he has spent the better part of his days at the University of Cape Town, where he is a PhD candidate in the anthropology department. In his spare time, he manages a guesthouse at the foot of the city’s Table Mountain.

Tian was born in Beijing. His parents, relatively progressive in conservative Chinese society, encouraged him to pursue an education beyond mainland China. He enrolled in a handful of exchange programs while completing his undergraduate degree, studying in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Ireland, before returning to earn a master’s degree in cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

His time abroad sparked a fascination with the processes that have shaped his, along with many other Chinese people’s, cultural identity. Today, he is deep into a PhD dissertation on cultural identity formation, with a focus on the reverse culture shock that Chinese academics overseas often experience when they return to China.

“One reason I chose to do my PhD in South Africa is I think the country itself has a very complex society,” Tian said. “Identity is always the center of discussion [here], but it’s often centered around racial issues.”

It’s something he was not exposed to in China. Despite the trauma of apartheid, he believes South Africa is heading in the direction of “real freedom,” in all senses: human rights, freedom of speech and the ability to exercise agency — aspects which he finds lacking in China, especially among the youth.

“I think South Africa can give me a lot of things that were missing from my own education,” he said.

'Culture and identity are not usually visible to us until something happens -- either a transition process or conflict -- and that’s exactly what I’m experiencing at the moment.'

Receiving a conventional Chinese education is like being programmed, Tian explained.

“When it comes to certain sensitive issues, people just go into shutdown mode. That’s how the system was installed in our minds: If there’s a sensitive issue, we shut down. I have to undo a lot of things.”

But there have been obstacles beyond education that have forced him to rethink ― and even question ―  the world he grew up accustomed to knowing as well. For Tian’s grandparents, for example, having their only grandson move to Africa was unthinkable.

“They still think I am crazy. ‘Why do you want to go to South Africa when you could go to the U.S.?’, they say. ‘Do you need money?’”

Tian’s grandparents are used to life in relatively homogeneous China. Africa represents something very different, culturally and racially, he explained. They can’t quite fathom why, based on their relatively limited knowledge of life on the continent, someone would want to pick up and move there.

“Race isn’t something that we often discuss or are confronted with in Chinese culture, so I never knew that my grandparents were racist,” Tian said. “They are lovely people, but they said some terrible things about Africa.”

Tian, on the other hand, has come a long way. He recognizes that South Africa is racially unique to the rest of the continent, and its history has helped him to examine his own country’s complexities.

The way Tian sees it, South Africa and China went down two different paths in the 1990s, with China making huge sacrifices for its economy above all else.

“One day when we all realize that the economy is not the only thing we need to be worried about, South Africa will be standing strong,” he said.

South Africa appeals to Tian on a deeper, metaphysical level as well. Traveling, studying abroad, and now living in Cape Town have changed who he is, and how he sees himself.

“It’s a process to search for freedom,” he said. “And when I look at China, I do ask more questions: What is Chinese culture? What is a Chinese identity? What does it mean to be Chinese?”

It’s a matter he is still pondering.

“Culture and identity are not usually visible to us until something happens ― either a transition process or conflict ― and that’s exactly what I’m experiencing at the moment.”

Master Liu: ‘The Kung Fu Teacher’

Courtesy of Claire van den Heever

LUSAKA, Zambia — Master Liu moved from the capital of Hebei province in northeastern China to the capital of Zambia in 2012 to join his wife, where she held a post at the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia. Liu had taken up his own post at the institute, teaching Mandarin. But soon after he arrived, his wife’s contract came to an end and she had to return to China.

Today, five years later, the stocky 50-something-year old still lives in Zambia, and he jokes about how his wife abandoned him. But it’s clear that he enjoys his life in Lusaka. He’s decided to stay for the duration of his contract, and feels just as compelled to continue teaching Mandarin as he does to share his love for kung fu. Although kung fu is his true passion, he takes pride in sharing both his language and martial arts — and Chinese culture in general — with the people in his home away from home.

“My task is not finished ― I came here to teach you!” Liu told a recent class of four advanced Mandarin students.

There are over 40 Confucius Institutes in Africa, where Chinese state-funded language and culture classes are provided on local university campuses. As Africans increasingly perceive China as a country of economic opportunity, more universities offer Mandarin lessons to the public with the help of Chinese funding. In recent years, China has embarked on what some call a “soft power offensive,” with Beijing’s sights set on becoming Africa’s number one partner in areas like education, culture and innovation. Scholarship and education programs are central to this cultural diplomacy.

Master Liu teaches extracurricular Mandarin lessons at the Confucius Institute in the afternoons, but he has become best known as the kung fu teacher, a role that he takes very seriously.

“Kung fu class is Monday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.,” he told me excitedly. “You should come!”

'You must be flexible! Soft, like water. Without self-defense or fighting, martial arts is just dancing.'

Some of his kung fu protégés were inspired to learn the martial art after taking his Mandarin classes. But Liu has seen the reverse happen, too, with kung fu students developing an interest in the Chinese language.

It hasn’t all been easy though. During the first term, only two students enrolled in Liu’s kung fu class, which cost about $22 for the semester. Liu wasn’t paid extra for teaching the evening classes, and waived the fees to encourage people to attend. The master has remained positive, and today he’s extremely proud of the results. Lusaka’s Confucius Institute now has an impressive troupe of martial artists, who occasionally perform at the Chinese Embassy and at cultural events.

Back at the center, a Zambian student began playing classical Chinese music on his phone, signaling to a troupe of 17 men that it was time to begin. Master Liu, dressed from head to toe in a white satin uniform, demonstrated that he could still get close to successfully performing full middle splits.

“You must be flexible!” he told his students. “Soft, like water. Without self-defense or fighting, martial arts is just dancing.”

It’s a lesson in nuance that perhaps he’s learned living as a migrant in Zambia, too.

Zizhu Zhang: ‘The Journalist’

Courtesy of Zizhu Zhang

NAIROBI, Kenya —  Zizhu Zhang’s parents sent her to the United Kingdom for her final year of high school to improve her chances of getting into a British university. Six years later, with a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics, she returned to her home in the southeastern city of Shenzhen, in China. She had her sights set on working in Beijing, but found that she had no competitive edge — was “unwanted,” even — in a job market that she described as overly pragmatic.

China’s pervasive political system was a factor, too.

“It wasn’t likely that I’d get into government-affiliated Chinese institutions because of [China’s] unwritten rules,” Zizhu, now 26, said. “I wanted to work in an area that was dynamic, where I could have a social impact.”

Zizhu took a chance and joined a friend in Nairobi who was running a nongovernmental organization, but soon realized the job wasn’t right for her.

“I was frustrated. I started to doubt whether coming to Africa had been a good decision.”

She took an internship at a marketing research company, and later in an environmental program with the United Nations. In 2015, just before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Nairobi, she heard that the privately-owned, Hong Kong-based broadcast company Phoenix TV was looking for a Nairobi correspondent.

Her English skills were essential for interviews, and she speaks Mandarin with a refined accent, equivalent to the sophisticated English of a BBC correspondent. After a successful pilot broadcast on Obama’s visit, she was hired as a stringer, broadcasting news across the greater China region.

“I never realized that I could find a foreign-based job in journalism outside China,” Zizhu said. “I think living in Africa definitely made me think differently about lots of things.”

'China, in my perception, is very class stratified. What you do, or your job title, is massively important. In Nairobi, I had nothing to lose. I only had my curiosity.'

Kenya is a major Chinese media hub in Africa, with Chinese state broadcasters often presenting more positive coverage of Africa than many Western media outlets. And nowhere in Africa is Chinese media presence felt more strongly than in Nairobi, where the largest state-owned media have bureaus.

“When Kenyans saw me doing on-camera reporting on the streets, I often heard people saying ‘CCTV!’ [China Central Television]. That’s the only Chinese media they know.” 

Usually, she continued, “when [foreign] people talk about Chinese state media, they think it means total control, censorship, etc.”

This wasn’t the case with her experience in Kenya.

However, complete freedom of speech was still slightly beyond reach, Zizhu recalls of her Africa stint at the private media house.

“Although Phoenix gave me a lot of freedom — I wasn’t told what I can or cannot report — as you know, if your main audience is in mainland China, there is a certain line you wouldn’t cross.”

But even with those reminders of the boundaries of home, Zizhu still found an element of liberation in her life in Africa. Her job facilitated contact with a broad spectrum of society, from street vendors to government spokespeople. It was a refreshing change that to this day isn’t lost on her.

“China, in my perception, is very class stratified. What you do, or your job title, is massively important. In Nairobi, I had nothing to lose. I only had my curiosity.”

George Shum: ‘The Entrepreneur’

Courtesy of Claire van den Heever

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — I first met George Shum, the owner of Pagoda Restaurant, surrounded by ubiquitous Chinese restaurant paraphernalia: red-tasseled symbols of good fortune, golden good luck cats and a fish tank, in which lobsters and other sea creatures awaited their fate. It is the only Chinese restaurant in Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar City.

At first glance, I assumed that the 44-year-old entrepreneur belonged to the substantial community of Chinese citizens that had begun to forge a life for themselves in recent years in East Africa. But when I asked where he was from, he replied in a thick Cantonese accent: “Wo shi sang ji ba er ren” — “I’m Zanzibari.” 

George’s Cantonese grandparents were sent to Zanzibar in the 1950s to harvest sea cucumber for export to China. High quality sea cucumber was plentiful in those days, said George, and soon the couple started their own business. They had six children in Zanzibar, including George’s mother. Years later, she and her Chinese-born husband took over the family business and had three children of their own.

George was born near Stone Town’s port in 1973. He attended a Swahili primary school, but returned to China with his family during his formative years and completed high school in Macau, China. After working in China for a few years, he then joined his aunt in Kenya, where she had opened a restaurant in the coastal city of Mombasa. But ultimately, Zanzibar was home.

“I was born here,” George said. “All my classmates and my neighbors are Swahili people. I never felt different. In fact, when I arrived in China, once I talked my dialect, they knew I wasn’t from there.”

His parents and siblings eventually emigrated to Australia, but George stayed in Zanzibar.

“I’m the firstborn,” he explained. “My family has business here, houses here ... At least one must come back.”

When I asked where he was from, he replied in a thick Cantonese accent: 'Wo shi sang ji ba er ren' — 'I’m Zanzibari.'

This sense of duty led him to return to Zanzibar in 1993, where he opened Pagoda Restaurant a few years later.

After all these years born and raised away from China, it would have been easy for him to forget his roots. Instead, George honors his Chinese family’s traditions, while embracing the cultural diversity that life in Africa has offered him.

“We have quite a mix of everything in Zanzibar.”

Still, George hasn’t forgotten his heritage. Figurines of guardians from ancient Chinese folklore have prominence in his restaurant. And his children are being raised to speak Cantonese and Mandarin along with Swahili and English.

In many ways, George embodies Zanzibar’s multifaceted identity, yet — unlike most of the Zanzibaris I spoke to — he wasn’t concerned about his hometown losing its identity to outside influences. China had shown him what rapid change really was.

“Say you live in Shanghai or Beijing: If you don’t go there for two years, when you go back you won’t recognize it,” he told me. “In Stone Town, apart from more shops and hotels and restaurants opening, the pattern is exactly the same. For me, Stone Town never changes.”  

And maybe that’s why he calls it home.

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