A Land in the Far East – by Takudzwanashe Mundenga
It was in the twilight of 2016, which was my final undergrad year at Midlands State University when I got selected as a delegate to represent my country on an exchange programme in China. The decision was reached by the Zimbabwe China Youth Forum in conjunction with the Chinese Embassy in Harare after noticing my contributions to the China-Africa development discourse through my commentary articles. I was scheduled to have my final exams around that time but however, permitted a rare exception to write special exams upon my return from the Asian climes.
As my countdown began tick-tocking to the day I would board a plane to Beijing, my heart pounded with excitement with a day hardly passing without glancing my eyes over the travel itinerary. My brain was laden with a lot of misconceptions sown by people and the reality around me. One of the myths that I strongly believed was that products in the Asian country are made of poor quality, nondurable and they are cheaper. I concluded that using the yardstick of a lot of things I had seen labelled ‘Made in China.’ The urban dictionary has a pejorative term for such products. It’s ‘zhing zhong’ in Zimbabwe and ‘fong kong’ to the rest of the world. Anyways, when I finally the board the Ethiopian Airways Boeing from Robert Mugabe International Airport to Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, reality drew closer and closer.
I had been traversing far away from home to a land in the Far East where people curtsey, nod and bow when greeting, as a sign of respect. It’s a country where one-fifth of the world’s population lives. I had to substitute my “hello” with “ni hao”; ”thank you” with “xiexie” and my “sorry” with “duibuqi”. “Gao shingrenshni” was going to be my “nice to meet you.” Another mountain standing before me was learning to eat using chopsticks when all my life I have been acculturated to knife and fork as the highest standards of civilisation.
I had to utilise the six-hour layover in Addis Ababa, enrouteto Peking International Airport on shopping. I had to buy a few gifts at the airport for my now ex-girlfriend who had recently moved to China. It has been two solid months of long-distance chatting and craving for each other. I didn’t know what to bring her besides the exorbitant Ethiopian souvenirs bedecking the airport in every cardinal. My confusion emanated from the idea that everything is made in China, therefore, no human innovation from any other part of the world would equate a surprise. If you know the modern aphorism that goes, “God made man in his image and everything else is made in China.” I was missing the whole essence of gifting in the first place.
Anyway, I eventually board my ten-hour flight to Beijing, made friends and had a glimpse of the beauteous and famous Asian chain mountains. Upon arrival, I got my torrid moment associated with being a first timer. The airport security picked me for a manualsearch. That sucks considering that other travellers will be giving you those suspicious investigative looks, inquiring if you are a drug trafficker. “What is going on here, ma’am? Why am I being randomly selected for searching?” I asked. “Because you are a first-time visitor, it is a procedure,” the security officer responded as she rummaged my luggage.
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Walking out of the exit doors, my eyes clapped on a picture of the Zimbabwean flag held by two smiling Chinese young ladies who immediately noted my reaction and beckoned at me. That marked my welcome in China. These likeworthy girls, Melodyand Haleywere part of the organising team hosting us for the Seminar on Chinese Language and Culture for South-South Cooperation from Developing Countries. As my custom, I connected to the free WiFi at the airport to utter disappointment. None of my Google-linked applications worked; no Facebook, no Gmail, no Instagram, no nothing! That was weird. Anyhow, that was just the beginning of many surprises to follow.
Hell, is there any place where I can’t access the internet. I think that’s the main reason why I feel that precious resource should be added to the human rights handbook. I couldn’t find a substitute quickly to recover my sanity. My ex-girlfriend then gave me an idea. She installed a VPN application in my smartphone to bypass the firewall but to no avail. Perhaps it wasn’t compatible. I had to endure until I bought a new phone. It gave me cringes. While I still wondered how 1.35 billion people on this corner of the globe coexisted without Facebook, Google and YouTube, someone introduced me to WeChat, Baidu and Youku / Tudou. All these apps are equivalents of the Western Google-hosted apps. What a wonder? However, they were far from the category of user-friendliness since some Chinese Pinyin kept popping up.
Ultimately, I found a compatible VPN app called Psiphon which enabled me to get back on social networks in full swing. That made it easier to post updates and pictures of the ongoings. I could make some postings of my tourist expeditions in Beijing without encountering challenges. All the breathtaking sites such as the Badaling(Great Wall of China), the Tiantan(Temple of Heaven), Tiananmen Square, the Gu Gong(Forbidden City) and the Beijing Hutongs. I can safely say, if you go to Beijing and visit none of these sites, your voyage couldn’t be worthwhile.
On our first outing to the Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, most of us expected to see just a handful of locals and the majority being international holidaymakers. However, reality defied expectation again when we met up with thousands and throngs of domestic tourists touring the sites. Some folks we saw at the historical monuments seemed mesmerised and unconvinced by the fact that human beings can come in black. I noticed some Chinese guys trailing me to the washroom to verify if I was not wearing makeup to look black.
As days glided towards the end of our trip, we also visited the Beijing Bell and Drum Towers – two brick and wood structures that were first built in 1272. Inside the Bell Tower on the ground floor, we received some wonderful explanations on the various types and tastes of the Chinese teas. Amazingly, over a hundred types were shown to us, however, we had a chance to taste only thirteen of them. We also got an opportunity to climb up the famous tower where we enjoyed the beautiful panorama of the Chinese capital.
Afterwards, we strolled down to another touristy location characterised bynarrow streets and alleys called the Beijing Hutongs. No automobiles are allowed in the alleys, only tricycles that can accommodate the tricyclist and his two passengers. This is so in order to relive the experiences of the ancient Beijing. I paired up with Sakra, the Ghanaian delegate whose headwrap style evoked memories of the former Zimbabwean first lady, Sally Mugabe nee Heyfron. The tricyclists took us to a particular old home where we met a Beijing elder who narrated to us about the old city. In her memorabilia, she had banknotes of different currencies left by tourists who visited her. I also paid similar tribute by leaving the Zimbabwean currency.
In spite of China being the manufacturer of a wide array of gadgets, some of the America inventions that the Chinese people have a notable obsession with, are Apple products. To the majority of them, you don’t have a cell phone to show, unless you have a new iPod, iPad or iPhone model. Both the young and old have similar tastes when it comes to these gadgets. They are timeless.
It was an autumn season when pale clouds, clear skies and milder and warmer temperatures are expected, but Beijing had been smothered with smog most of the time. Seeing thefull discof the sun could be considered a miraculous moment. The air was dense due to the heavy smoke belching from industries. Most Beijingers wore facemasks to lessen air pollution exposure. However, there are rare days when there was no industrial activity and the blue skies over the city were renowned like Christmas. These clean air exceptions are celebrated as “The Blue Days of Beijing.”
As an international visitant in the Chinese capital, I wanted to see as many places as I could, creating memories and collecting souvenirs. That could only be attained by learning to use the Beijing Metro first, where I would experience the high-speed train in the world, known to many as the bullet train. Again, English is not everyone’s language and China is one of the countries where you don’t need to flaunt it.
If you don’t speak Mandarin, you definitely need a translating application in your smartphone. If not, don’t ask for directions in English. All the same, using sign language is not a great idea. Gestures are not universal, after all. The best advice I can give is that you study your Subway Map very well before embarking on your journey using Metro. At some point, I got lost and the first black person I bumped into and inquired for directions was Zimbabwean. Incredible! It’s a fact Zimbabweans are looking for greener pastures everywhere.
When I thought I had it all together with the Beijingers, they pulled another stunt. They gave me those odd looks in public spaces. Some even braved asking me what happened to my skin and kinky hair. They looked even more stunned when I told them that I’m African and everyone from my country is like this. Countless strangers approached me for selfies in shopping centres, subway and tourist resorts. Initially, I held it to be a symptom of systematic racism, however, a lot of them looked unknowing and above suspicion. Being ebony made me feel like a celebrity. Sometimes I felt like a demigod or a cherub lost in China.
The Hollywood silver screens have always portrayed Chinese nationals as gifted martial artists to an extent whereby we associate all Chinamen with Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Contrary to what is often depicted in movies, not everyone in the Asian country is a proficient fighter, even though those who can, do it to the best of their ability. It’s just the same way some European visitors think of us all as talented acrobatic dancers of African traditional music. Unbeknown to them is that we also watch and wonder.
My hope to buy some priced-off nondurable creations got shattered upon seeing trendy shopping outlets, selling some international high street labels like Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Cartier and many more. The prices were much higher than most people’s paychecks back home. I wanted to purchase somewhere I could bargain, but initially, it seemed like the place only existed in my imagination. Later on, I learnt that there are only two places for that in Beijing: the Xiu Shui(Silk Market) and the Hongqiao Market(Pearl Market). These places are filled with everything and overwhelmingly touristy. You can bargain and the merchants there can accept your lowest bid if you have the knack.
After spending almost two weeks in Beijing, the seminar organizers took us to the northern coastal city of Tianjin to tour some industries as well as sightseeing. We had a refreshing ship cruise for an hour in Hai River, the mother river of Tianjin. It was such an invigorating experience you couldn’t afford to miss. Everyone in the ship clasped to either their digital camera or a selfie camera, recording memorable moments. I stepped to the deck of the ship to watch the trail of agitated water bubbles. I fell in love with how the gentle yet saturated breeze spastically brushed our sides. The ship voyaged past a gigantic 120-metre tall Ferris wheel built above the Yongle Bridge called the Tianjin Eye. The Hai River hosts a lot of anthropic wonders over and beneath itself. It amazingly sits on top of a marvellous underwater road tunnel. The annals have it that this is the city where the last emperor of China, Pu Yi sought refuge in after his ouster from the Forbidden City in Peking (now Beijing).
Tianjin is not very different from Beijing. A lot of people are awestruck upon seeing Africans. At one point I wanted to purchase some goodies in some shop in Tianjin, where an interpreter was called to simplify communication between me and the salesperson. The process proved to be so long and complicated. Then I figured it out later that it was an intentional delay to keep me around so that they could have more time of seeing me. The challenge with most Chinese people is not only that they can’t speak English, but that they have never seen an African before. Even if some people can still argue that its low-key racism, the Chinese experience has taught me that black is exceptional and beautiful.
Back to the purpose of the visit. The delegates for the 2016 Seminar on Chinese Language and Culture for South-South Cooperation from Developing Countries were a bunch of mixed characters. The Africans, Asians and South Americans. There was this Panamanian guy, Abdielovic who fell in love with China at first sight. He literally worshipped the magnificence of the land. Throughout the ship cruise in Hai River, he screamed and waved at the fishlymen and women anglingfrom the shores. Happily, they returned the favour, smiling and waving back. Tianjin another Chinese city, full of very friendly citizens.
We also had Sandile, the South African. He is someone you can’t beat in arguments, no matter the topic. That’s the kind of guy you would want to agree with and never to go against. Very contrarian, extroverted and full of humour. If there’s anything he will be best remembered for, it’s his proverbial oxymoron, “You will miss me, but I will never miss you, only that I won’t forget you.” Sandile doesn’t believe in the truth that hurts, therefore he generously shares it during those crazy moments of humour laughter. “Africans have a polite way of telling you to go to hell and you will go home celebrating thinking that you have been praised,” he saidwhile describing himself. Something he grossly dislikesis having you across the table tapping your smartphone while he is talking to you. Attention is his currency. The Sierra Leonean brother, Sesay tried it and got addressed.
We had a delegate from Ethiopia, named Sama. He speaks fluent Chinese like a cousin of Confucius. He played the interpreter each time we went out for errands or seeking clarification on behalf of African delegates. Everyone loved going around with him because he knew every street corner and could ask for directions using fluent Mandarin. Sama told us that he had been in China before. He spent four years in Guangzhou, studying his first degree, hence the secret behind his articulacy of Chinese language and ways. What made him even more peculiar was his great scouting for shopping hideouts. He knew where markets with cheaper products were found. However, he didn’t hesitate to register his displeasure in Shenzhen when our tour guide warned us from crossing to Hong Kong because our visas had single entries.
I vividly remember the other day when I went to the barber with Sama, Sandile and Callistus (from Kenya). Sama took care the inquiries of what we wantedsince none of the barbersunderstood English. I didn’t want the haircuts that everyone was suggesting, therefore, I asked, “May I have a catalogue with a list of haircuts so that I can choose what I want exactly.” Sama and Sandile looked intently into my face and rocked with laughter. They thought I was too demanding and being unfair to these guyswho were still trying hard to ruminate why our hairs were kinky. Callistus hasa smooth bald patch, but to our surprise, he was charged twice the normal price. That got me in stitches! The price was supposed to go half down since the poor dude doesn’t have hair. Sama sought for a justification and he was told that they had never seen a special art of creation like Callistus’ head, hence he was supposed to pay more. Even today, I still wonder why they overcharged him when God had already shaved some parts of his head.
After two days, we then embarked on a three-hour flight in and above the clouds from Tianjin International Airport to Shenzhen Boan International Airport. The China Air airbus hovered at forty thousand feet, against the windy skies to a magnificent city located in the Southern Coast of China near Hong Kong. Its name is Shenzhen. Those who know the city very well say it was just a fishing village in 1976, but today’s match of the fastest growing cities in the world. From an aerial view, the beauty of Shenzhen could be vividly observed and coveted. Beautifully designed architectures, tall towers pointing to the heavens and the blue sea waters licking the edges of the city left us awestruck and lusting to see more.
Inside the airport, arrivals and departures were equally hurrying. Each minute you wink, there were new faces in sight. I and my team packed our luggage in the coach and left. By the way, in our team, we had Sudanese brothers and sisters whose inwardness couldn’t be broken. They enjoyed their own circle, and spend most of their time together, conversing in Arabic. However,on that day, they did something very unusual. One of them gave everyone in the coach some little hard-kernelled fruits with a soft, sweet pulp that are somewhat shaped like olives. “These are dates from a date palm. Don’t you have them in your country?” Some guy seated next to me asked, spotting my chary facial gestures. “No, we don’t have them, Sir!”
Our chat got cut short by the new tour guide who wanted to tell us a few things before we arrive at the Proudly Hotel. She recited the economic history and transformation of Shenzhen from a fishing village to a cosmopolitan city that it is today. She hinted about how the scarcity of land challenged the city growth before the city fathers came up with a robust plan forreclaiming land from the sea. We perkedour ears, attentively listening to every squirm of her lips. Throughout her poignant presentation, I wanted to hear the city’s peculiarity from Beijing. Thank heavens someone asked a question related to that. She answered bysaying, “Shenzhen is a special economic zone under the Chinese opening-up policy, majoring in technological development, while Beijing is an administrative capital”
Nonetheless, she told us that she had never been to Beijing and didn’t have immediate plans to visit. That was a shocker though she even justified it stating that the equal development in the 21stCentury China has scrapped off the recurrent need for internal migration. She argued thateverything that she needed and wanted could be found in Shenzhen, hence nothing compelling her to stopover in the metropole. She was right according to what I subsequently witnessed during my errands.
In this city, people are busier and each minding their own business. The Chinese folks there are not as astonished to see blacks as they do in Beijing and Tianjin. Quite a few Chinese people there speak fluent English, perhaps because of its closeness to Hong Kong. After all, Shenzhen is situated just across the Hong Kong border on mainland China, therefore the city hosts a lot of Hong Kongers, who visit for shopping. Shenzhen is also known as a recipient of several foreign tech industries. I began to realize that the Mandarin that I had learnt for Beijing was no longer useful in this part of Chinese. It’s the home of the Cantonese language. Though, some words look like some slightly updated Mandarin, such as “neihhou” which is “hello” in Cantonese, whereas its “ni hao” in Mandarin.
During the two days we had to quench our wanderlust, I had an opportunity to visit Dongmen Shopping Street, a very popular local shopping destination in the heart of Shenzhen. The natives of the city coined a saying that goes, ‘no visit to Dongmen Shopping Street, no visit to Shenzhen’. This is the place where you go to upgrade your wardrobe. You will find some very affordable apparel with the flexibility of bargaining. I paid a courtesy to Dongmen Shopping Street is sandwiched between Luohu and Lychee Parks, and is a short walk from Laojie Station on Line 1 of the Shenzhen Metro. A wide range of items is found, such as fashionable clothing, jewellery, seafood, electrical appliance, digital products, furniture, etc. Even if you are not going to buy anything, this is a great place to experience the sights, sounds and smells of Shenzhen.
In the same attitude that made them reclaim land from the sea, the Shenzheners have built a tourist spot that showcases about 130 replicas of some of the some of the most famous tourist attractions in the world squeezed into 48 hectares. The site is called the Window of the World. Some of the masterful reproductions you would see in the Window of the World are the Eiffel Tower, a miniature Roman Colosseum, the Egyptian Pyramids and the White House. Other popular landmarks are the Windmills of Kinderdijk and the Niagara Falls. The Window of the World is a theme park located in the western part of Shenzhen.
Even though Shenzhen is a multicultural city, not so many blacks do you see in the streets. I remember some day when I bumped into a young African lady in Starbucks. She looked surprised to see a male counterpart of similar skin pigment. The lady even stopped tapping her cell phone and gazed at me in disbelief. She sat there, her eyes accompanying every wiggle I made. This kind of attention was a bit off course to what I was used to having. I expected the Chinese to be mesmerized at seeing a black human being, not a fellow African sister. Her eyes recursed back to the cell phone when I delivered an impeccable smile and said, ‘Hi sister?’‘I am fine,’ the response came pat.
The air in Shenzhen is not dense with industrial smoke as that of Beijing, hence no need for wearing a facemask. Much environmentally friendly in terms of air quality, however,the abundance of sunshine in November beats Africa. Grilling hot weather deprived me of the opportunity to look fly in some of my new suits. That was an acrimonious experience. The main difference between the flea markets in Beijing and those in Shenzhen is that the consumer doesn’t have much bargaining power in the latter. In Beijing, the merchants want every coin of yours even if it is way lower than the initial price, while in Shenzhen they don’t sell their products for peanuts.
The food in Dongmen Shopping Street looked delicious and tantalizing to the eye, but the African in me and my rigid taste buds disliked the idea of having a herb called cilantroin every dish. I remained a persona non gratato the Chinese food world. I had already started skipping some dinners with other delegates by making myself unavailable on the table. I remember in Tianjin where we had our dinners in Food Street, where apparently everything was found there expect some typical cornmeal dish we call sadza/sitshwala/papaback home and the Swahili folks calls it, ugali. People were frenzied and tasted different kinds of food relishes but I remained adamant, disliking the taste of everything. Nevertheless,inthe end, I fell for their fried rice, mixed with eggs.
Even at the end of the 21-day trip, I had absolutely no worries about my weight like most colleagues who apparently ate everything set before them. Those who were close to me knew how much I loathed bonbonchicken. Of course, I was not alone. I had two colleagues with picky tastes likemine. Sandile and Nolizwe. I loved China, its unique landscapes and architectural designs, but my taste buds were homesick. Africa was calling me home.
Goodbyes are never easy, but after the end of every trip, they have to be said. I saw tears rolling down as we all the way back to Peking International Airport. Hugs, smiles and tears were the emotional gestures used to explain how people will miss each other as we bade farewell. I will never forget the experiences that I had in a land in the Far East.
Takudzwanashe Mundenga is the Zunde Afrika Media Trust. A Land in the Far East is a trip review of one of his visits to China as a country delegate on the Seminar on the Chinese Language for South-South Cooperation from Developing Countries. For feedback, please reach him at email@example.com