Abroad Life: What’s It Like, Being A Black Immigrant In China?

April 17, 2020

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.

For weeks in April 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, sure to change the world as we know it — black immigrants in Guangzhou China, with a seeming majority being Nigerians, were the subjects of relentless attacks that saw them barred from fast-food chains, hotels and even their homes.

We spoke with an anonymous source living in China, but away from the points of the attack. He speaks on usual life in China as a black man, and his opinions on the injustice the immigrants had to face. Here’s what he had to say:

This question is divided into two parts. First, what was your impression of China before you moved to the country?

Honestly, and this is one thing I pride myself on: being honest, being real — I was prepared for a China that was racist to foreigners but incredibly so to black foreigners. I had spent hours back in Nigeria, watching the videos of a Ghanaian content creator. He was always very vocal about the racist treatment he had been subjected to in China, so I was ready for the worst and determined to adapt. What I met was a little … different.

That’s very interesting. Before we get to the second half of that question, how is it that you came to live in China?

Hmm, about this. I’ve been a student in China for two years now. On my first attempt to process admission to a University here, I was swindled by a Nigerian friend. Like, my own guy oh. I don’t talk about it. But yes, that happened.

Oh wow, I’m so sorry about that

Well, that’s in the past anyway. After getting over it, the application process itself wasn’t very hard. I went to Abuja, followed the usual procedure. I had my documents ready, especially my admission letter and the JW202 form from the university, which I took to the Ministry of Education. After that, I presented myself to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for more documentation. All of that wasn’t complicated. Once you have a valid letter of admission, it’s a seamless procedure.

Got it. So in the two years since you’ve lived in China, what has changed about your original impression about the country?

Good. Remember how I said I expected it to be incredibly racist? Just take that ‘incredibly’ out. I have experienced first-hand racism. No doubt. I’ve jumped into a bus and watched everyone on the row I was leaning towards, stand up and switch seats to avoid being close to me.

My goodness. I can’t even imagine how that must have made you feel.

See you! Small thing. When a black person enters a Chinese establishment, you might hear something that sounds like ‘hay rain’, which is a very drerogatory way of saying ‘black person’. White people also get theirs, they’ll hear something ‘bey rain’. It’s better or maybe worse for me because I speak some Chinese, and these people are very vocal. They will outrightly insult you standing next to them because they believe you don’t understand.

When I call them out on it, they’re always quick to apologise, but the damage is already done. This is a very, very common thing that happens.

Oh no!

But then again, I’ve also been on a bus where a Chinese person stood for me so I could have a chair to sit on, I have a lot of kind-hearted friends who have shown me nothing but generosity. It isn’t the extreme, very hateful scenario I was prepared for, and it might be because China is opening up more and more to the outside world.

I hear that. We’ve spoken to a Nigerian who had only positives to say about China. But every so often, we hear about the ill-tratment black immigrants face, so it’s hard to be sold on it. What encounters have you had with the Chinese that changed your impression of the country?

Let me start with this so you get an idea of what the Chinese are like. You know how a foreigner comes to Nigeria and immediately, Nigerian brains stop working and they make that person a small god?

Yes, that sounds annoyingly familiar

Good. Just forget that one here. I have a lot of Chinese friends and I interact with a lot of Chinese people, so let me state one thing – they will pick their own over a foreigner ten times over. When it comes to black people, Africans in particular, it doesn’t help that their impression of us is completely wrong.

How is that possible?

Baidu.

Excuse me?

It’s the Chinese version of Google and everyone uses it here. The Chinese are scattered in many rural parts of Africa. I’m talking about the places with mud houses, untarred roads, and very traditional African people. These Chinese people upload videos about life in ‘rural Africa’ and become almost overnight sensations.

The videos are extremely popular in China and when they search on anything about Africans on Baidu, these videos pop up. They contribute to the wrong mindset the Chinese have about black people present in their country.

I have to say, what I’m hearing is, the Chinese may be intolerant of cultures different from theirs

And that’s correct. I won’t argue with that. But I always try to be balanced and find some logic in things. You asked about what changed my impression of the Chinese, it was interacting with them. Easy example, while Covid-19 was building up in January, I spent the Chinese New Year with my friend and his family. He lives in a very remote village. I was the first foreigner in almost 50 years to visit and maybe the only black person to have ever visited and they showed me nothing but love.

You must have felt very welcome

I did. I was constantly getting invitations to eat at this house and that house. They allowed me and a group of locals, man the village entrance and perform temperature checks to prevent the virus from coming into the village. Beyond that, I have teachers, friends, class mates that are welcoming. A lot of them are enlightened and actually will not stand for racism.

Let me tell you something.

What’s that?

When I was leaving for my friend’s place, a lot of people told me, warned me, that if I left, I’d be another foreigner that disappeared.

Wait, what? Foreigners disappearing is routine?

Look, the Chinese government is like god here. Their words are yea and amen. There are cameras everywhere and they lave laws that, see — just do yourself a favour and don’t break them.

Laws against drug trafficking, drug consumption, obey them. You do not want to know what’s on the end of disobedience.

I see. This is incredibly chilling, I have to say

I can’t speak for all cases of missing foreigners. But there have been situations where known drug dealers, dealing in hashish (cannabis) have been arrested publicly, never to be heard from again. These things happen routinely, but hardly ever to those that are law-abiding. This explains the fear of everyone that I informed of my travel intentions. Back then, I was probably more worried about the virus.

Hm. There are grey areas, certainly. But you seem to be quite confident in the system, so hopefully, that speaks to something.

You mentioned the coronavirus. Like the rest of the world, China is observing the measures required to keep it at bay. Can you paint a picture of the country, red and war-ready in the weeks when the virus hit hardest?

You know what’s funny? If you had been watching Chinese TV in those weeks, you’d never have guessed a pandemic was building up. There were celebrations, big ones on TV. Galas held, Jackie Chan performed a big show. Everything here is censored. The only sign something was brewing on TV were these announcements saying :
” 中国加油 – zhong guo jia you”

“武汉加油 – Wuhan Jia you”

What do these mean?

They were saying ‘China cheer up’, ‘Wuhan cheer up, we’ll fight this’. But that’s not to say nothing was done. China was on lockdown during those periods, Wuhan was completely locked down, while the rest of China on restricted movement.

How did you cope during this period?

Like I said, I spent the time at my friend’s village, but when I returned to my city, after passing the borders and having tempersture checks, no outsiders were let into my university.

I live in student accommodation and would have been stranded if a friend of mine who returned to his country to weather the virus out, didn’t offer up his place for me to live. Before you ask, the university closure applied to everyone that returned when it was locked down. I wasn’t targeted.

That’s good to know and it’s incredibly fortunate that you had someone to fall back on. Let’s speak on the black immigrants that unfortunately, didn’t have it so easy. What do you think sparked the attacks we’ve been seeing all over social media?

First, I’ll say I don’t live in Guangzhou where the attacks happened, so I’m speaking as an observer, just like everybody else. Guangzhou is heavily populated with black people, mostly Nigerians who come in here to do business.

Understood

As I mentioned in the beginning, I like to be real and I like to be honest. Racism is nothing new to China, it’s almost accepted as a necessary evil here. I can’t understand the ‘why’ of the attacks.

How do you mean?

I’m trying to word this so my point gets across clearly. It isn’t clear to me why this level of hate happened, and I wish we could somehow piece it together, so a repeat never happens again. There were rumours that black people were introducing a new kind of coronavirus, then there was the story that a black person attacked a nurse, none of those were exactly proven. It beats my understanding.

As it should, making sense of hate is difficult

But here’s another thing, and this didn’t get enough attention. Nigerians and black immigrants weren’t the only foreigners targeted. There was a video going round of Russians and other caucasian nationalities being deprived entry into Chinese establishments. The thing is, and this is my perspective again — because China was getting new cases from mostly foreign nationals, they were attempting to limit exposure to foreigners who had fresh entry into the country. The Chinese that challenged the attacks and gave warm blankets and aid to the affected also didn’t get much publicity.

I understand that. But that doesn’t explain Nigerian tenants being evacuated from their homes after payments were already made, or Nigerians already living in hotels being asked to leave for no just reason

I can’t argue with that, it was racism from the beginning. I just wanted to examine things from all sides, I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt always. My story would probably have been different if I were in the center of events and had all of the facts. I just try to steer clear of sensationalism.

Of course. But sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence, it’s difficult to not pick obvious sides. Being present in China, are you aware of the situation of Nigerians in Guangzhou currently?

From what I’ve heard, and from what has made the rounds on social media, those affected by the attacks have been compensated. I heard apologies have been issued and goodwill provisions been made. All of that by the Chinese. Do you know what the Nigerian government offered to do for Nigerians stuck in China?

No, do tell

Hm. Look at this.

And I can speak authoritatively on this because I’m a Nigerian student and this was shared to my group. The government offered to evacuate us from China, on the condition that we cover the cost of our transit.

Wait, what?

Exactly that. I have no idea what an evacuation where you pay the full costs of your travel means, but maybe one day the government will explain. That’s how involved the Nigerian government has been with Nigerians currently stuck in China with the virus.

Disappointed but not surprised. Speaking of the virus, how have you been managing it? Has the Chinese government offered any aid to you as an inhabitant?

I did get some assistance, but it was by virtue of me being a foreign student. The Chinese government paid me 500 RMB, which is around ₦28,000. I don’t think every foreign inhabitant got that payment. Every day, I have to send my teachers my temperature reading without fail, so the government keeps tabs on my health. I buy food from neighbouring stores and I’m pretty much self-sufficient.

Got it! Please continue to stay safe. Do you have any plans for life in China when the virus is contained?

I mean, the future is so uncertain. Right now, I’m just focused on improving my Chinese. You know China is so well developed, even in the remote village where I was so far away from everyone, there was WiFi, the roads were fantastic, electricity was constant. It’s a convenient life here, I’m just taking things as they go

Want more Abroad Life? Check in every Friday at 12 PM (WAT) for a new episode. Until then, read every story of the series here.

Boyin Plumptre

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