“After 8 Years in China, I Still Feel Like an Alien” – Abroad Life

September 23, 2022

The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.


This week’s subject on Abroad Life was excited to move to China to study medicine in 2014, only to get bumped through three different schools within two years. She talks about studying in China as a black woman, the crazy system of control there and why she hopes Nigeria would work so she can move back.

What’s your travel history like?

Coming to China was my first trip outside Nigeria, but I used to go on a lot of road trips with my parents before then. I’d always been interested in going to other countries though. There was this channel on DSTV when I was younger. I think it was called ONE Gospel or something like that. I really liked it because it showed what life was like in South Africa. It made me fall in love with the country. I still haven’t been there, but it’s on my list.

When did you decide to move abroad?

I’d say 2014. I finished secondary school in 2013, but I failed JAMB the first time. I passed the second time and got admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but my mother was scared of all the news of cultism in the school. 

So we started thinking about private schools. It was at that point we discovered the cost of studying medicine in some foreign countries was around the same as in a private school in Nigeria. Another thing was most private universities at the time had issues with accreditation, so my parents weren’t comfortable letting me attend them.

Why did you choose China?

I already had friends and family there. So it was natural that this was where we’d look into. Also, the school fees in China were pretty low compared to other countries and that made it seem like a no-brainer.

How did the application process go?

My school application was actually handled by my cousin. I didn’t know anything about China’s education system, but he’d been there for a few years. He helped me find schools to apply to, asked for my documents and handled every other thing. 

For the visa, that’s where I faced small wahala. It was 2014 and the Ebola outbreak was still a thing in Nigeria. The Chinese embassy wasn’t granting visa interviews to Nigerians because of that. So I went there multiple times without getting an interview. 

Eventually, my dad had to go with me. He’s a high-level civil servant, and so, he had the blue ECOWAS passport which I guess commands some kind of respect. They let us into the embassy. Funny thing is, they didn’t even ask me anything. When they saw my father’s passport, they were like, “Civil servant? I’m sure you’re very busy right now”. My dad said yes. They just told us we could go, and I got my visa approved. What small nepotism cannot do doesn’t exist.

LMAO. How did you feel about going to China?

I was 16 at the time, so it was exciting for me. As I mentioned before, my dad and I liked to explore different countries on DSTV, so we basically did the same thing here too. We spent a lot of time watching one of those Chinese channels, and we enjoyed it. I liked how friendly the people seemed and how in tune they were with their culture. I’m Efik, so that resonated with me. I thought this was what I’d see when I got here. LMAO.

Expectations vs Reality: China Edition

Where do I even start? When I landed in Beijing, I was slammed with their fear of Africans and Ebola. They basically treated me like I had the disease. They seized everything I had, and they separated all who came from West Africa from every other person. After asking us so many questions and wasting our time, they eventually let us go.

After that, I had to buy airtime to call my cousin that I’d arrived. I later found out I paid more than I was supposed to pay for it. I didn’t care sha. I called my cousin, and he told me he just got a notice that the school said I shouldn’t come anymore because of Ebola. 

Mad

LMAO, yeah. But he’d thought this would happen so he applied to different schools. I had a backup admission to study Mandarin at another school. I wasn’t planning on taking it before, but it had now become my main option. That’s how plans changed and I bought a plane ticket from Beijing to Shenyang.

Having been in China for so long, I know I was duped on that flight ticket price. I paid RMB1,000 when the actual price was around RMB290. Even now, a first-class ticket from Beijing to Shenyang is just RMB900. But I’d definitely remember it if I was in first class.

LMAO. What happened after that?

I got to Shenyang and a family friend I’d called before getting there came to pick me up. I stayed with him in his apartment for a few weeks, and he was my guide throughout that time. He was also a student so he knew how everything worked. Going to school, navigating the city, everything was easier because of him. Whatever I needed to do, he’d help. Settling into Shenyang was also easy because the school was very welcoming. You could tell they had a lot of experience with international students, especially Africans. So that’s how I started studying Mandarin.

What was that like?

I know a lot of people talk about how hard it is to learn Mandarin, but that wasn’t the case for me at all. Maybe it’s because I was already very interested in Chinese culture before I left Nigeria. I also find it really easy to learn languages. I’m about to start learning French. 

They taught us the basics of the language in a very structured way. We also learnt a lot about the culture. 

Everyone was going at the same pace, so it never felt like I was slacking or anything like that. The teachers and the environment were very helpful, and I had a good time at the school. 

Had? You mean, you’re not there anymore?

I only spent a year there before moving to a medical school in Shenyang. I mean, I came to study medicine, not learn Chinese. So, I applied to another school, but after a short while, I left there too.

Why?

When I got admitted to the school, the value of the naira started falling and my school fees literally doubled. I was supposed to pay RMB35,000 per year, which was higher than the school I was coming from. But the value of the naira dipped from ₦23 per RMB to ₦50, so my school fees went from around ₦1.2 million to ₦3 million. 

My parents wanted me to stay, but I honestly couldn’t. I knew they could afford to pay the tuition but it felt too expensive. So I applied to transfer to another school in Ganzhou city, and I was accepted. Changing schools the second time was pretty smooth. My school gave me a letter I’d give to my new school so they can allow me continue in my second year. But they didn’t allow it. I had to start all over.

Enough about school. Let’s step outside and touch grass, please

LMAO. Ganzhou  is a metropolitan city like Shenyang or Shanghai. People in the city are used to seeing foreigners, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be nice to you. Some people mind their business and act indifferent towards you, while others are downright nasty. For example, if you sit beside a Chinese person on a bus, they’ll most likely stand up and leave. Especially if you’re African. I think they always assume we have some kind of disease or something. It used to be Ebola, but now, it’s Monkeypox and there’s this weird behaviour of, “Oh, don’t touch foreigners”. It’s just rubbish sha. They even still excluded foreigners during COVID. 

Europeans probably experience this too, but the bulk of the exclusion happens to black people. Things like covering their nose when they see you, or outrightly running away, doesn’t happen to Europeans. But I’ve learnt the language so if anyone tries shit with me, I’ll insult them or shout at them.

How have you managed to stay sane in situations like this?

I’ve made Chinese friends, so when I’m in a particularly weird situation, I can just text them for what to do. They’re very petty so they usually just send a voice message insulting these people instead of helping me. Some Chinese people also ask all these weird questions that make no sense.

I remember a guy asking my friend, who had really dark skin, if she showers. She speaks very good Chinese, so she told him, “I showered this morning, and I’m going to shower this evening. I’m very sure you haven’t showered this whole week”. He just stood there dumbfounded.

LMAO

They wash their hair more than they shower. So having them ask that question was just funny. Lots of weird things like that. My friends and I have actually had our hair lit on fire before.

Wait, what?

Yeah. It was back when I used to have braids on often. I was on a bus and suddenly started smelling something burning. I turned around and saw that my hair was on fire. I was so confused. I stopped doing braids after that. The hair thing is stressful because they’ll start asking you if your hair is real. One time, I was about to get on a bus and someone dragged my hair. I had to get down. I was already pissed off and asked her why she did that. This woman was angrily screaming at me saying, “I wanted to see if it’s real”. I was livid. 

You’ll be on your own and one woman will warn her kid saying, “If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll ask that black person to come and carry you”. So, I’m ojuju or what now? There are just so many things that make me feel like an alien even after living here for so long.

Omo, China is cancelled. But is there anything you like about the place?

Oh yes. I like the fact that everything works here. And I mean everything. The power, the subway, the roads, the police. It’s like a giant machine. I feel really safe here and I can actually walk around at anytime. This is something I can’t even do in Nigeria. 

It’s so safe here that you could forget your phone on a bus and come back to find it. Nothing goes missing unless you just don’t have the energy to look for it. There are cameras everywhere, and everything is so orderly. I think part of how they achieved this is if you commit a crime, you’re not the only one who’d suffer for it. It’ll affect the social standing of the people in your family too. It’ll affect their ability to get an apartment or a job. So there’s an incentive for everyone to keep themselves in check. 

Even in their politics, they have this system in which a city gets governed by someone from another city. So if you mess up, it’s a stain on the reputation of the people from your province. That way, everyone stays in check. The orderliness and safety is quite freeing. It makes me wonder if being a democratic country is really worth anything. I mean, this is a communist country and public services are this good.

Do you think you’ll stay after school?

No, please. I’ve done enough. I need to move on to other things. I’m currently in my final year, and I’m doing my medical internship. I had the option of doing it in Nigeria, but that’s obviously not the better choice. When it comes to when I’ll go back to Nigeria, I’m not sure yet.

It really depends on who wins the next elections. I can’t come and be eating cassava and agbado. I really hope Nigeria works soon sha because there’s too much we’re missing out on.


Hey there! My name is Sheriff and I write Abroad Life at Zikoko. If you’re a Nigerian and you live or have lived abroad, I would love to talk to you about what that experience feels like and feature you on Abroad Life. All you need to do is fill out this short form, and I’ll be in contact.

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