“I haven’t been home for a few years.”
In an African restaurant in Guangzhou, a Ugandan businessman waved goodbye to his wife and children on the screen while telling me.
His helplessness and difficulty reminded me of those Chinese workers in Africa who also left their hometowns for a living. There is no difference between us.
The Start: From Uganda to Guangzhou
I am Harry, an eleventh-grade student from Guangzhou, China.
During the Spring Festival in 2020, my classmates and I went to Uganda for a volunteer teaching project. Before the trip, I didn’t expect that “China” would be everywhere in this faraway country.
As soon as I got off the plane, I saw a security checkpoint labeled “China- Aided.” On the way to the hotel, we drove on the highway built by Chinese corporations and saw billboards with Chinese writing along the way.
What I saw made me take it for granted that there must be a brotherly friendship between Africans and Chinese. However, after I got a deeper understanding, I found that between Chinese and Africans here, there is no deep friendship and communication, but more about money and profit.
Most of the Chinese in Africa are here not for long-term settlement, but work and money. Therefore, Chinese people do not have the motivation to integrate into the local culture, and they are likely to be a little arrogant towards African employees.
At the same time, some Africans are also hostile to the Chinese because of the lack of communication and understanding. On the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, an African called me “Chink” directly. In the mall, a Ugandan vendor asked me, “What do you make?” When I looked puzzled, he added, “You are from China, and you only make things. All these toilets, tiles, you make them.” In those cases, I felt more helpless than angry. China has a profound culture, but the stereotypes of “Made in China” have become the only label for Chinese people in Africa.
At that time, I didn’t know much about Africa-China relations but only had a vague idea that there was something “wrong” about the relationship between Chinese and Africans. Later, I meet China House. In an interview with China Philanthropist, the founder of China House, Mr. Hong said something that summarized what I saw in Uganda: “Although we Chinese people have gone out, we haven’t gone in.”
Soon after returning to China, the word “Africa” came back to my life.
In early 2020, COVID-19 emerged in the African community in Guangzhou. Strict epidemic prevention policies and the fear and rejection of some residents caused many difficulties for Africans. A McDonald’s posted a “No Blacks Allowed” sign. Some Africans became homeless because of their householder’s rejection. A screenshot of a Weibo user scolding Africans caused a heated discussion online and even a diplomatic storm.
The news brought great shock to me. As a boy born in Guangzhou, I had never tried to gain a deeper understanding of the African community who have also lived in Guangzhou for so long. As a person who also experienced discrimination, I deeply understood the pain involved. At that time, many questions came to my mind: What is the relationship between Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou? Was it similar to what I had seen in Uganda?
I decided to find the answers myself. In October 2020, I joined the “Africans in Guangzhou” field research project launched by China House.
Research: Exploring the relationship between Africans and Chinese
To scientifically and objectively research the racial attitudes of Chinese and African people in Guangzhou, we introduced the Implicit Racial Attitudes Test developed by Harvard University.
I also tried the test myself. I have always believed that I am not a racist, but my first test told me that I “disliked black people very much.” With skepticism, I did the test again, but the results were the same.
It seems that even though I have many African friends, I still have some prejudice against black people deep inside me. The result made me curious about the test results of the interviewees.
The conclusion was the same as my prediction, but also worrying: both Chinese and African people have a preference for people with the same skin color as themselves, but have a more negative attitude towards people with different skin color.
Findings from interviews also confirmed this conclusion: there are many prejudices and contradictions between Chinese and Africans.
For example, several local taxi drivers had negative comments about Africans. One driver, for example, told us that most of the African passengers he carried were rude and impolite: “As soon as they get in the car, they urge you to ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’ Some of those who know the way will tell you to ‘Go straight! Go straight! To the left! To the left!’ As a driver, I’m sure you’re not happy.” Another driver also complained to us: “Africans don’t pay you highway tolls and toll fees, they are stingy.”
And at the same time, we also saw many stereotypes and prejudices against Guangzhou people in the African group. For example, when mentioning that some Chinese had expressed curiosity about their skin color, F, a Nigerian student, said, “They are uncivilized, those people have not received a good education.” When knew that one member from the research group had studied in the United States, an instant gleam of approval came from the eyes of Nigerian businessman T: “Chinese people who have studied are Enlightened.”
Initially, when I heard these words, I felt just a little uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the group discussion that I realized that Africans also have a prejudice against the Chinese. After discovering this, we turned our research ideas into the two-way stereotypes between Guangzhou people and Africans, hoping to draw a more comprehensive picture of the relationship between the two communities.
There are many reasons for bias. Among them, the lack of communication is the main factor.
The Cause of Prejudice: Lack of Communication and the Gap of Information
During the research, T, a Nigerian businessman, told us a story about he got lost in the airport because he didn’t understand Chinese, can’t find an English translator, and no one helped him when he asked about the direction. This small incident reflects the communication barrier, a common problem faced by African people in Guangzhou. Especially during the epidemic, many Africans don’t know what is happening, why they can’t leave home, and what’s the quarantine policy.
The same problem exists among the Chinese people. Because of the lack of objective channels to know Africa, many Chinese people can only learn about Africa through media platforms such as TikTok. However, the contents on those platforms are subjective and one-sided. The widespread dissemination of information with stereotypes has deepened Chinese people’s prejudice against Africa.
A Chinese vendor in the Yulong Fashion Plaza said, “I saw on Tiktok that Africans are so far from civilization that they eat with their hands.” A Guinean student also complained, “My [Chinese] friend even asked me so I wear shoes in Africa.”
Action: Build the Bridge of Communication
To eliminate prejudice, we need to build the bridge of communication at first. And in our research, we had some stories of successful communication between China and Africa.
At the African restaurant in Sanyuanli, Guangzhou, we ate authentic African food by hand with Africans. This action helped us close the distance between each other, and we chat from dusk until late at night.
One Nigerian friend invited us for a football game, and we joined and enjoyed beer and bread and chatted with them after the game.
In the Yulong Fashion Plaza, one of the merchants told us that the owner of the store next door to her had become a good friend with an African client, who also attended the owner’s wedding and his child’s full moon celebration dinner.
To further promote communication between Chinese and African people, we also launched an Africa-China Dialogue event.
In the first event, we invited dozens of friends from China and Africa to express their views on each other and enhance mutual understanding. At the event, many African friends said excitedly, “I have been waiting for such an opportunity for a long time!”
The second series of the event was themed on African culture, giving Chinese people a taste of the colorful African culture in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Over a hundred people showed up that night to taste African food, enjoy African dance and music, listen and share their own stories with Africa. Amid laughter, the barriers no longer existed.
During these two events, I gradually realized that labeling people who have a prejudice against other cultures as “racist” can not solve the problem. If we are willing to listen to and understand each other, communication between Chinese and African communities will naturally emerge, and prejudice will spontaneously be eliminated
Looking Ahead: Understanding and Intergration
Finally, I would like to tell a short story.
When we looked for interviewees in Tongtong Trade Center, almost all the stores were closed because of the epidemic. The dim lighting and the labyrinth-like design made the whole floor look unusually eerie. Just when we thought we couldn’t find anyone, a sound of laughter and talking came from the end of the “maze.” Turning our heads, we saw several strong African men laughing and carrying boxes. They were bare-chested, revealing their muscular bodies.
To my shame, my first reaction was not to interview but to “run”, and I did instinctively retreat to a corner. However, when I got up the courage and talked with them, I found that they were very friendly and welcoming, and did not match the image of “violence” in my mind.
After this experience, my stereotypes of Africans were gone. Just as what the merchant in Yulong Fashion Plaza told me, “Once you take the first step, what you gain may be a new friend or even a brand new world.”
Looking ahead, I hope that there can be more communication between Chinese people in Guangzhou and Africans. I also hope that Chinese people in Africa can better understand Africa and “go into” Africa.