China: a complex mix of opportunity and pain for African immigrants

Bridget Boakye December 18, 2018
Writer Bridget Boakye eats lunch with Chinese nationals in Shanghai -- Photo: Bridget Boakye

Like many of you who follow African development projects in the media, I have seen the growing influence of China in my country, Ghana, and the continent at large. My country, like the rest of Africa and its Diaspora, finds itself grappling with questions of neocolonialism anew as Chinese investment vis-a-vis grants and loans balloon. Yet, apart from the constant barrage of insults to our leaders on articles and social media, I see little in the way of active mobilization to understand or influence this dynamic. 

It is this curiosity and frustration that led me to apply for an opportunity for an expense-paid trip to Shanghai, China, for 7 days to undertake an independent project. I chose to study China’s labor market history as a way to learn about and understand the Chinese economy itself while exploring Africa-China relations. Shanghai, China’s financial capital, is an especially interesting place to think and reflect on the country’s rapid economic transformation, which has turned the country from a developing country to a global powerhouse in a little over half a century.

China: a complex mix of opportunity and pain for African immigrants
Jing’an Temple, “Temple of Peace and Tranquility” in the heart of Shanghai

Shanghai is also among the top destinations for Africans in China, many of whom are there for school. The lessons and insights I gleaned about Shanghai’s labor history as it relates to Africa’s employment/economic trajectory are especially important to tell, and I will do so. But this article focuses entirely on one aspect of the latter half of my mission, the experience of Africans in China.

To start, it is worth noting that there is only so much that I can glean from 7 days in Shanghai; in fact, I saw only a handful of Black people on the streets of Shanghai during the entirety of my trip. It was only at an all-Black party that a contact shared with me that I saw the mass of Black people, mostly students, in the city. This reflection is therefore mostly of my experience and that of one Nigerian man who became a close friend along the way.

China: a complex mix of opportunity and pain for African immigrants
Party hosted by Africans and largely attended by Black people in Shanghai

My Experience in Shanghai

As a dark skin African woman, I must admit that I had a surprisingly positive experience vis-a-vis my race in Shanghai. It is surprising because I expected otherwise. I was advised by friends who had visited that I may be touched, starred at, or pointed to. But these cautionary tales rarely manifested (I was never touched), and when they did, were non-invasive.

Perhaps, this is because I spent 90% of my time in downtown Shanghai, an area, which though largely homogenous, had much foreign contact. Moreover, I would think I mitigated some unwanted attention by being as much of myself as possible. For one, I went without my signature butt-long mermaid braids after a friend mentioned that her braids drew much attention during her time in Shanghai and parts of India. Armed with that information, I knew I could decide not to have that “fandom/ fascination” be a part of my experience, and I did.

The very few ‘racialized’ experiences I had, however, sensitized me to the fact that my African-ness could be a more pronounced part of my experience in Shanghai if I stayed longer. In one case, a young girl, no more than 5, looked and pointed at me with curiosity to her mother while asking “Blacccccck?” as I crossed the street on the only day I decided to wear my hair in a fro and not my go-to slicked back ponytail.

China: a complex mix of opportunity and pain for African immigrants
The hairstyle that got me the most attention I got in Shanghai

On that same day and on that same street, and in fact, within that same hour, a group of older Chinese men, perhaps in their 50s and 60s, who, strangely, sat on the curb stared at me for far longer than I was used to, even when our eyes met, and when I looked back long after I had passed them. It was clear to me that both situations were instigated by non familiarly/ curiosity rather than disrespect. Still, there could have been other words or slights directed at me but the language barrier which isolated me to a certain extent, protected me as well.

Rather, I consistently instigated race-based conversation with those (mostly Chinese and English-speaking) I came to know personally, asking about their perception of Africa/ Africans among the rest. All of those whom I explicitly talked with, held Africans in high regard; in fact, Mr. Yu in his 70s whom I interviewed in the park reflected jokingly that “Africans are rich, our women even leave us to live with them.” Still, many of my younger Chinese friends shared that though they had no bias, they observed overt racism or discrimination towards Africans/Black people. A friend shared an especially poignant comparison, that of reception of Chinese people to her mixed race baby – Chinese and white (Spanish) vs half black babies she had come across. 

China: a complex mix of opportunity and pain for African immigrants
My interview with Mr. Yu at Jing’an Park, friend Tracey

Daniel’s Story

Daniel (name changed), the 45-year-old exuberant Nigerian whose complicated experience of life as an immigrant in China left an indelible mark on me, probably has a story that is more salient for other Africans living in China. I met Daniel on the flight from Ethiopia to Shanghai. Daniel was back in Shanghai after a year break in Nigeria. He had lived in Shanghai five years prior and spoke fluent Mandarin. He minced no words about how much he appreciates, if not, downright loves, China.

On the two days we met, Daniel raved about the countless opportunities China had afforded him. Having briefly lived in Ghana then New York, he was certain China afforded opportunities to Africans they would not find elsewhere. ‘Hungry’, resourceful, and savvy, he had quickly adapted to the Chinese culture and tapped into its huge market for English learning by having a Chinese woman front for a children’s English language center he claims he now partly owns. 

He has used the wealth he’s acquired in China to build a massive estate of 3 hotels, homes, cars, and a poultry farm in Nigeria. While walking through the streets of downtown Shanghai one Friday night, Daniel recorded several clips of Shanghai’s good life for friends and family he had just left back in Nigeria to see via Snapchat. In a tirade of sorts, he rambled about how beautiful everything looks, as compared to the country from where he had just come.

Still, I noticed that Daniel could never be at home in China, no matter how much he loved it. He wore the green Ethiopian airlines pouch we had received on the airline around his neck everywhere he went. When I asked him what was inside, he said his passport, explaining that he was “constantly harassed by Chinese policemen”. A Chinese friend later echoed this harassment faced by Africans.

China: a complex mix of opportunity and pain for African immigrants
Daniel; yellow circle is his green pouch
 with his passport which he carries everywhere

Daniel also revealed to me a very sensitive story – that of his half Chinese daughter who had chosen to live with her mother. The short story of the complicated ordeal was that he had married a Chinese woman at some point during his experience in China, had a daughter, and the constant mix of harassment, side eyes, stares, and insults caused a rift in their relationship, with him eventually deciding to leave “his wife and daughter to be” so that they wouldn’t have to live under the shadow of what was the shame around his identity. He even shared stories of his daughter being teased in school when he picked her up, with kids taunting whether that Black man is her father.

Daniel’s story is for me a chilling case of the complexity of the African immigrant experience in China and the physical evidence of the painful consequences of racism and prejudice towards Africans there.

A 20-something-year-old Ghanaian friend I connected with online along my journey in China shared these words about her experience in Beijing on social media:

“On my way to Beijing and thinking about what a paradox China is. It can be an incredibly tough place to be African, but it is also where so many of us have found opportunity and created sparks. Beijing’s African community is entrepreneurial, dynamic, and down inspiring”.

From what I saw in Shanghai, her words could not be more true.

Last Edited by:Francis Akhalbey Updated: December 18, 2018


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