By Sihle Isipho Nontshokweni
Nǐ shì nǎ guó rén? This is one of the first socially useful questions that I learnt to ask and answer in my Chinese class. Whilst making small talk with the Chinese guy at the dinning hall, I eagerly showcased my ability to answer this question, in Chinese; “Wǒ shì Nánfēi rén.” To which he responded “Aaah, oww you come from Africa.”
Yes, yes, South Africa….have you–ever–been–anywhere–in…. Africa?
“No-no-no, Africa too hot, too hot.”
The ideas that germinate and take root in the minds of people when you say ‘Africa’, often include a desert like region, one that’s “too hot, too hot.” This distressful weather is usually compounded by her chaos and poverty.
The question of how China regards Africa and how Africa regards China is a weighty and complex question, one worth exploring in our conversations… The character for the Chinese word for Africa, “fei” (非), means “to not be; not have; not; wrong; incorrect; lack.” Zahra Baitie in her blog asks the poignant question, “why (was) another character with the same sound and tone but a more positive meaning not used instead?”
My time is China has forced me to engage the complex ways in which Africa has been seen and written about. As a black African in China, as a black African anywhere in the world– I suppose, one commonly carries the weight of such stereotypes. As though one were a part time ambassador for the continent and race at large. On this diplomatic mission, the aim is to dispel theories, recounting lists of men and women who have demonstrated “black excellence” as though that would finally validate and assure the listener of the continents capacity.
“recounting lists of men and women who have demonstrated ‘black excellence’ as though that would finally validate and assure the listener of the continents capacity.”
Books such as ‘Africa is not a country’ by Margy Burns Night and talks such as ‘the danger of a single story’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have sought to dispel these inaccurate representations.
Representations of a people whose only job is picking fruit and growing corn. A people who live in the wild-wild, roaming the streets in the company of elephants, tigers, lions, zee-bras, giraffes. Men with spears hunting for prey to feed tribes. Men so occupied by the wild. So ravenous in their desires, that after a day of being followed by the sun, they indulge… fighting wars on beds with their multiple sex partners.
Others often ask me what it is like to be an African in China? Once, after a strange encounter at the subway I described the stares I received from two jolly looking ladies as: “It was as though, their souls popped out of their eyes when they saw me.” This was the best way to explain the experience. It seemed they were horror struck or… in awe.
In a country where light skin is prized and pursued, I wasn’t sure if they thought I looked burnt or just unusual with my brown skin and nappy hair. This is a strange thought for someone who usually qualifies as a yellow bone in Winter. The stares have not stopped, they usually follow with stolen snap shots. Despite these issues, people touching your hair, souls popping through eyes, I have felt a warm welcome and friendliness in this country. Smiles on closed looking eyes.
Growing up in South Africa where skin colour shaped my identity and reality, it would be easy to associate the snap shots and stares with racism. But more often than not, I suspect its ignorance than a racist attitude, from never having interacted with a black person before. This perspective makes being a perpetual attraction, less burdensome.
I have been fortunate enough to meet several Africans living in Beijing. Our conversations closely engage this question of being an African in China. What I have found, is that being different can bolster ones opportunity to learn more intricately both about themselves and society. The contrasts experienced here, make living in China as an African a curious, frustrating yet a fascinating learning experience.