I am African, Ghanaian to be precise. Now, I also identify as Chinese. Before you roll your eyes at how cliché this article already sounds, can I just explain? I was on my merry way about life, traveling the road a hundred thousand African students had journeyed on before me. I did what was expected of me. I still do. I worked hard, gained admission to an elite women’s college in the US, decided on a major that I was fairly interested in but guaranteed bread for my children, and in my pursuit of higher learning, I stuck to the one other language that mattered to me as a West African: French.
Now, what they don’t tell you about an education in America is the painful way it challenges everything you value and all that you hold true. “Is there really a God? How do you know? How does anyone know? Are you sure you’re really a woman? Or were you just socialized as one? Why are you the sperm that won?” I understand and appreciate this system of education that allows for critical thinking and persistently calls you to challenge yourself to the utmost for it was one of these challenges that led me to China. Me, a die hard, dyed in the wool West African Chiquita in China.
It wasn’t me. It wasn’t factored into my life plans. It had never even occurred to me to study Chinese or visit China until I sat in that armchair across from my academic advisor at Mount Holyoke College and listened to her speech about Sino-Africa relations and how so few Africans seem concerned about China’s growing interest in Africa. “You’re going back home after graduation, aren’t you?” she had asked. “Of course,” I retorted. “I have no intention of staying here. My country needs me, my continent needs me more than America does.” Assuming America does. Anyway. She went on saying my interest in development economics and international trade combined with fluency in Mandarin Chinese and understanding China as a whole would place me in a position to provide greater service back home.
My eyes were opened. My ears were on the alert. My interest was piqued. I decided then and there I was going to learn Mandarin, go to China, understand how the Chinese think, live, and do business, go home and be a rock star. So I found my way to China, across the world from home. Or was it really? It definitely wasn’t the same. I got stared at a lot. Taxi drivers tried to rip me off, some people were definitely rude. Some wouldn’t sit next to me, others would ask me if I showered and how often…but wasn’t the sum of my experience in China.
I spent my first five months in Shanghai and my last three in Beijing. I had an awesome time with classmates in my study abroad programs, grew a friendship with my Chinese roommate, hung out with her friends, and travelled as extensively as I could. I also found myself having discussions with other African students and businesspersons I came across in China. As my Chinese improved, I began to have deeper conversations with Chinese citizens. What did they think about Africa? About the West? About their own country? How about Sino-Africa relations? Nelson Mandela? Economic development? The Olympic Games? Soccer? The one-child policy? Sex? Health insurance? Beyoncé? The answers I received ranged from being quaint to witty, hilarious and sometimes, downright outrageous.
The more I travelled, the more Chinese food I ate, the more stories I heard, the more Chinese history I read, the more I fell in love with China. I followed China’s medals at the Olympic Games with girlish pride and any time I went online, I always made sure to check what the BBC or CNN was saying about China. I had become Chinese.
Identity to me has come to mean more than the color of my skin, more than the way I pronounce my words, more than my stubborn tightly coiled afro hair and much more than the red, gold, and green flag that seems to remind me that my identity as a Ghanaian remains my nucleus, sitting smugly as the black star in the center of my country’s flag. I, too, am as Chinese as they come. Even if it all started by cracking my parents up by saying, “hello beautiful flower” in Chinese.
Written by: Nana Esi Hammah