For most people, the Chinese engagement with Africa is an enigma. The combination of these two peoples, cultures and, increasingly their politics, are just so foreign to most of us that we do not have the necessary reference points to form an opinion. Instead, what emerges, is a series of emotional arguments that mistakingly lay a Western colonial filter over a lack of understanding of Chinese culture on top of deeply-ingrained stereotypes of Africans themselves. From coffee shop conversations to newsrooms to college classrooms, the misunderstandings of the Chinese in Africa are pervasive. And I think I know, in part, why…
The Faceless Monolith
The prevailing perception of the Chinese in Africa is one of the massive international conglomerates doing shady deals to extract the continent’s natural resources with no regard (e.g. No Strings Attached) for politics or human rights. While there is no doubt some truth to that, as is there is with all stereotypes, it is entirely misleading. The hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have emigrated to countries across Africa are individuals that are too often hidden behind physical and cultural walls that prohibit meaningful interactions between the Chinese and outsiders (Africans, Westerners, etc…). This lack of engagement leads to journalists, academics and others to extrapolate based on what limited information is available and that leads us back to these huge generalizations that too often mislead the outside world.
Regrettably, the Chinese in Africa story does not fit neatly within the traditional narrative structure of western journalism. It is just too complex a story to portray within the traditional protagonist/antagonist formula that has come to define so much of contemporary Western journalism. To understand this story, you have to get know the individuals who live it.
While perusing through the online classifieds posted on the Chinese in Africa BBS I came across an entry from a user named “Kafka” (卡夫卡) who emigrated a few years ago from the Eastern Chinese city of Qingdao to the Cameroonian city of Douala on the West Coast of Africa. In his signature on that post, he included a link to his blog on the popular Chinese portal site Sina.com (the 17th largest website in the world incidentally, according to the internet ranking service Alexa.com) that features entries that are essentially a diary detailing his experiences managing a small hotel and restaurant in Douala.
Kafka is typical of many young Chinese expatriates who find refuge online from the rigors of daily life in Africa. As with all expatriates everywhere, there is obvious relief being among your own people who share a common language, values, and experiences. Chinese bloggers in general, including Kafka, are far from shy and reserved as they so often are in the presence of foreigners. So blogs like Kafka’s are an invaluable resource to get to the personal level that is so often missing from the standard coverage of the Chinese in Africa.
“Time moves so slowly,” Kafka wrote in a June 2010 blog entry, “that it makes your brain go stupid.” In this particular entry, that is representative of a lot of the posts from young Chinese living in Africa, Kafka shares his struggles of dealing with the monotony of daily life for young emigres in often remote parts of Africa.
“Everyday, all I know is to go online, eat, work, sleep and don’t even know what the point of reading or studying are. Occasionally, I see online when the annual college entrance exam starts and finishes — all now faint memories of when I left school. I once had tremendous opportunities [written with the Chinese idiom of a ‘thousand soldiers and tens of thousands of horses’] to cross those bridges (into a different defined by academic success), however today I have probably forgotten everything.
“Before I heard people say, after work then you can become lazy, for me that’s ridiculous as I have become so lazy [all the time], I just need to find a reason to stop [being so lazy] and when I go to work to not feel that this isn’t always the case. Every day I feel so lazy, lazy when I wash, lazy when I leave the house, lazy when I’m walking down the street… I just don’t know what to do with myself.
“The work life here in Africa is obviously not the same as it is back in China. Here [in Cameroon] you don’t work from 9am to 5pm, you don’t need to check in with the boss every day, don’t need to wear a tie; but here things just don’t work very well and there’s not the security there is back home and sometimes I am held-up at gunpoint and blackmailed. There aren’t the conveniences that there in China where whatever you want you can have — if you want a certain kind of entertainment you can have it. [Here] there’s just nothing to do but stay home, surf the web and watch TV.
Looking through the blogosphere
Kafka’s isolation and disappointments appear to be quite common across the Chinese in Africa blogosphere. There are dozens of posts published in the just few weeks alone that reveal that same sense of personal despair. Obviously, it is hard to tell how representative Kafka is of such a large and diverse expatriate population, however, his and the other blogs do offer a rare, first-person view of the distinct challenges confronting this new immigrant population in Africa.