You always spoke your mind :) Missing you Serser.
In Xiaobei, the neighbourhood where I live in Guangzhou city, there is a McDonald’s next door. McDonald’s seems to be an interesting constant that allows one to know that he/she is still on planet earth—a “global mark” of sorts. There, whether morning or evening, I see lots of Africans sitting on the chairs at the front area next to the ice-cream section; some are deep in thought, holding conversations, or sleeping. If one pays close attention to those tables at the front, one will find segments made of hollowed-out metal that act as embedded ash trays to accommodate the needs of smokers who visit; nearly a third of China smokes .
There are about 20,000 estimated Africans in Guangzhou, and majority are there for business . Although some, based on conversations with some Africans, also visit to take care of their health, including surgery (transnational healthcare). Many of the Africans are Nigerians, but there are others from Mali, Ghana, Congo and other parts of Africa including the northern, eastern, and southern regions . During business hours, despite language barriers, numbers click, money speaks, and transactions are made. Recent research that explores Africans’ experiences in China and the emerging “bridge” for Africa and China relations through these businessmen and women, here in Guangzhou and in other parts of China such as Hong Kong and Yiwu, discusses the use of calculators and body language as a means of communication. A seller can type the price on a good on a calculator, and with a nod or shake of the buyer’s head, the trading partners are able to communicate and come to an agreement . Others also utilize translators’ services, including those for communication at health facilities.
While interactions between Africans and Chinese seem to be thriving in the business world, their relations outside of the business arena are like oil and water—connections made are often surface-level and very layered. The general perception of Africans are enshrouded by stereotypes and biased negative portrayal of the African continent as a whole. There is even a banned soap advertisement that depicts an African man with a dirty shirt who is not wanted by a Chinese woman, but has his pursuit/love requited once he is put into a washing machine and comes out Asian and clean.
Based on informal conversations with some Africans living in Guangzhou and from my own personal experiences, the Chinese (at least in Guangzhou) are often indifferent or condescending. Some Chinese take photos or touch without permission; some assume it is ok, others do it out of fascination. I am chill with the fascination part. I myself was fascinated by the old women and men (who made me think of grandma and some of the cast of Jewel in the Palace) and cute babies; I would smile widely at them and say hi out of the blue. But the remaining take pictures out of rudeness, because they somehow think they have the right. There are those who move away from Africans during train rides and others who are very condescending in their mannerisms and communication with Africans. “Black/Darker” is perceived as lesser. Skin tone matters; that’s why many Chinese women and some men have an umbrella over their heads rainy days as well as sunny days, to protect their lighter skin tone.
There’s been one particular experience that has stayed with me: one morning as I was leaving to my internship site, I watched a French-speaking African woman who was trying to seek directions to a Western Union branch, try many times to talk to a Chinese person. All (yes, everyone she tried to talk to) just completely disregarded her or ran away like she was some sort of plague.
And why not?
Africa is often displayed as the epitome of what is poor and sick, and Africa-other-country relationships often depict the development, infrastructure, loans, healthcare and health resources African nations receive. But, what about what is gotten from Africa? A 2017 Guardian article on a financial analysis ran by a UK and African coalition, discussed the fact that $203bn left Africa in the year 2015 (through multinationals taking back profits, illegally movement of money into independent countries/locations where taxes are low, and the costs of the effects of climate change), while Africa only received $162bn . Who is really benefiting? Is Africa poor?
But these are just numerous single stories and personal experiences that don’t wholly encompass the general—although they do hold truth. Like anywhere in the world, there is bad and there is also good. There are some Chinese I interacted with who are nice and kind. At my internship, my colleagues are welcoming and considerate. Right next to McDonald’s, there is a local phone shop run by an open-minded Muslim Chinese man and his family; he is well traveled and has seen more outside of the “Great firewall” that blocks and makes certain applications inaccessible to people in mainland China. Once, while I was trying to find a building that held salsa dance class, a young boy also helped me with directions and even walked me toward a building. One man even selflessly spent about 30-40 minutes helping me find my missing phone, which had accidentally fallen into a taxi I had taken to the train station. So, there are good and non-indifferent people here. Also, there is a local cultural center that assists Africans transition into China, including offering Mandarin courses taught by teachers who speak French, English, and Portuguese. During one of the sessions at the cultural center, I was asked to consider filling out a survey made by China's CDC—who basically wanted to know about the barriers facing Africans’ access to health.
These social dynamics as well as the legalities associated with healthcare make Africans’ access to healthcare just plain difficult. There is little service available for Africans who need health services, often because of language barriers, differences in expectations, cost of expenses, lack of health insurance, and tenuous legal status —where every foreigner has to register within 24 hours upon arrival; where given lengths of stay on visas are sometimes short for these African business men and women, with no guarantees in renewal applications; where some Africans stay illegally and fear the police to the point that an African man jumped to his death from a story building trying to escape the police , although the intensity of the police seemed to have dulled, during my time here.
Research into African migrant’s access to healthcare in Guangzhou points to a huge gap in communication. The Chinese medical staff can’t speak English or French and the Africans can’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese; both are at an impasse and with fragile trust between them. So many rely on the community leaders of their respective countries to offer information to a good health facility—where there might be an English speaking physician—and others resort to visiting pharmacies for their ailments. I was able to meet an English-speaking Chinese physician of an international clinic, who also worked with other African medical personnel. He saw patients from all parts of Africa with different health issues. For Africans who are able to visit a health facility, they have the option of accessing either modern or traditional Chinese medicine—with origins from nature and Chinese philosophy—which focuses on the balance of yin and yang in an individual’s life.
Despite this variety in medicine, as stated earlier, access is limited. It is even more difficult for vulnerable populations like African sex workers who are often brought in illegally through trafficking. A study that looked at Ugandan sex workers in Guangzho discusses the fear the women interviewed for the study had due to the lack of a good legal standing and the fines that comes with being caught if one were to visit a health facility where legal information is required. Many had not renewed their visas or had lost their passports, and they had to work in environments that were risky to the physical being and their health .
For the huge African population in Guangzhou (the third largest city in China) to be able to access health services, something needs to be done to improve access for Africans here. There is a high need for formal interpreters or at least some form of automated translator device, given the fact that China is so tech-oriented and holds “mutual” relations with numerous African countries. I am surviving and communicating via Google Translate—which might not be the most effective, considering the nuances in language translation, in health communication, and in the medical jargon used by medical personnel. But it is something that allows for at least a little bit of communication.
Despite these health challenges and the fact that many of the Africans are here for business, there are also Africans living in Guangzhou as housewives, barbers, cooks and singers, including a Senegalese singer/guitarist who sang one of Tracy Chapman’s songs at a bar I visited with friends during one weekend night. There are also great African restaurants around. The restaurants range from Ghanaian to Ethiopian to Senegalese to Somalian, and more. A study that looked at the process of community formation and its link to communal food-eating habits, found that there were more west Africans along with more western African restaurants in Guangzhou than Yiwu, which has more North Africans . I have been able to visit some of these restaurants including a Ghanaian restaurant called “African Pot”; I really enjoyed good jollof (tomato-based rices) and fried plantains. A “Fufu Diplomacy” at the African Pot restaurant might be a way to develop “cross-cultural bridge builders between Chinese and Africans,” because they attract Chinese and Africans to their restaurant. They even had Chinese workers who were surprisingly very welcoming when I visited. And there is an innovative dish called the “Jungle feast”, which is a unique blend of many of the African dishes created to offer Chinese customers a broad taste .
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