– Sihle Isipho Nontshokweni
A couple of weeks before I moved to China, I bumped into my old boss on my way back from work. He displayed great pride at the thought of my prompt ‘career’ growth. His pride filled face beamed as he mused over the potential climb that I could make up this career ladder.
Without much hesitance, I excitedly told him the good new; “I’m moving to China soon,” I said. He couldn’t hide his disappointment.
He looked at me as a parent would when their child makes a key decision, thoughtlessly. With question. He then asked, “but why would you leave a good job to move to China?”
He’s face looked anxious, like the face of a man who had once lived through high levels of job insecurity. As though he were someone who had once experienced great economic distress. Doubting the prospects of a “better life…” after the great depression.
His sentiment preceded by the “but” echoed my other bosses, who had in the same tone asked, “but why China… you could get any other scholarship, one to the U.S or the U.K. Why would you choose to move to China?”
Growing up in a small town my only sense of China was formed through Bruce Lee movies and toys with the trademark “made in China.”
Since then, I understood that in Central Asia there were a people who appeared completely different to me. People who used sticks instead of spoons. I had always found this difference intriguing. This led me to curiously study the history of the Chinese revolution, and the events that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989. At a tender age, I remember imagining the vastness of the Great Wall.
Retrospectively, I realise that this odd curiosity formed at a tender age may be at the heart of why I applied for the Yenching Scholarship at Peking University. Ultimately leading to my move to China.
I must say though, there is no single reason for my decision to move to China. Whilst deciding-deciding, I remember thinking: “China is different, different to everything that I know.” This made it a good reason to plunge in. It was something new. Something riveting.
A move that would lead to a different kind of self-discovery. With the added learning quotient of studying through a non-Western lexicon. Despite laying the long list of known positives to my bosses, moving to China still gained its sigh followed by a “but why?”
South African President Jacob Zuma and Chinese President Xi Jinping. File photo. Image by: POOL / REUTERS
Despite the growing prominence of the relationship between China and South Africa, with “South Africa being China’s largest trading partner and the largest destination for Chinese investment in Africa.” Despite BRICS being a household name and China being a prominent player in Africa as illustrated through BRICS and the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Moving to China easily lends itself to a “but why move to China?”
China still stands as the unwanted step sister to the U.S and U.K prism of good move choices. Despite the efforts from these governments the Sino-Africa relationship is still bedevilled with misconceptions and stereotypes of the other.
These governmental efforts are notable in the growing international focus on the friendship between China and Africa. Most recently demonstrated by a book publication on China-Africa 500 facts. This book which is primarily about Sino-Africa relations begins with a foreword by Li Zhaoxing which reads “Chinese and Africans are brothers and sisters.” The book continues to detail interesting facts on the voluminous trade between the African continent and China, seeking to provide facts about the intimacy and history of a relationship that signifies a “brotherhood” or “friendship.”
If China and Africa are brothers and sisters, it seems strange to me that it’s still an anomaly to move to China as an African. Why is this the case?
I once heard an interesting story from my friend’s father, concerning the Chinese. In 1962, He moved to an area called Ezibeleni in Queenstown. Then, he’s community earnestly believed that the Chinese could eat people. If one ever entered the spaza shop and found the Chinese shop keeper alone; the given customer would slowly retreat back and go somewhere else. They had all been clearly warned. The Chinese “seriously eat people…full humans.” Funny tales such as these tell you of the many myths that muddle the relationship between most Africans and Chinese. Hence the, sigh “but why move to China?”
I suspect that this is why such legends have persisted… because China and Africa lack(ed) the necessary people to people relations to seal its relationship. I would thus argue that most Africans still see China as a country with a Confucius aka confusing Ch’ing Chong language; ‘fong kong’ products; clever little kids; green-teas that can heal your knees and ills. China is generally associated with high fashion and cheap weaves that are found in…nameless places. Any deeper thought about the Chinese may include the question of “how they manage to stay slim whilst eating bowls of rice daily?”
Whilst this maybe an oversimplification, it is apt to conclude that there is very little cultural exchange between the Chinese and African people. Even so, it is clear that without deeper people-to-people relations the biases and stereotypes will continue. The purported “brotherhood” cannot be achieved without greater people to people interactions. These interactions are a critical ingredient for rich cultural exchanges. These relations are the only way to cultivate mutual understanding and respect. Especially across cultures and continents.
Personally, moving to China was founded on knowing that my understanding of China and the Chinese people was barred to the four corners of my TV set, portrayed through Bruce Lee films and Climate Change documentaries.
Consequently, I felt it important and urgent to explore this ‘unknown world’. I felt the need to seek to understand the existing “friendship” between Africa and China. Especially when there is growing evidence that China could in future emulate Martin Jacques book title, “When China rules the World.”
 President of China Public Diplomacy association and Former minister of foreign affairs