“Are you a Chinese?”
After years in China, ineffectually trying to blur my gangly American edges and blend in, this is one question that I never really imagined I would receive.
And yet, on more than a few occasions since my arrival in Kenya a couple of weeks ago*, Kenyans have curiously posed precisely that: “Are you a Chinese?” Or the other day, while chatting with a Chinese colleague, our Kenyan waiter returned my change, looked me in the eye and un-ironically pronounced, “Xie xie” [Mandarin for ‘thank you’].
Admittedly, it’s the crew that I am now running with. China House (中南屋), a Nairobi-based collective of young Chinese movers and shakers, housed under a common vision of flourishing through collaboration and connection between Chinese and Africans. I am the newest (and most American) member of a team working to integrate two worlds that occupy the same physical universe yet are still often separate: the Kenyan community and the Chinese community residing in Kenya.
My orientation to this/these communities has been…wonderfully disorienting, as I have rocketed at (usually frightening) velocity through space that is unfamiliar – speeding along Ngong Road past throngs of beckoning Matutatu drivers and building after building barricaded by massive metallic walls – into those familiar after many years in China: A dirty little noodle shop. An overflowing Chinese grocery store. A family-style gathering of Chinese friends, complete with twice-cooked pork, baijiu-chugging men and, of course, karaoke—lots of karaoke.My food compass, usually a reliable tool for my orientation to a place, is on the fritz: I knew the spot to get the best wontons in Nairobi before I had eaten a bite of pilau or chewed on ugali. So where exactly am I?And who am I? As I have begun to interlope in these overlapping Chinese/Kenyan and Kenyan/Chinese spaces, my identity has at times confounded those I encounter, Chinese and Kenyan alike. Who is this lanky white guy that speaks Chinese, sings 1970s C-pop and knows so much about Shaanxi local delicacies? Or, (by Kenyans): is this perhaps just a strange-looking Chinese person?
And then there was that time last weekend. Towards the end of a hike that China House organized to bring young Kenyans and Chinese together, one of the more excitable characters initiated a delightful bi-national “sing off”, in which the Kenyan contingent would sing a “Kenyan” song, followed by the Chinese singing a “Chinese” song, and so on, back and forth. As I was shamelessly belting one Chinese song that I know particularly well, the question again popped into my head: Are you a Chinese?
A Chinese person would likely think this question silly. Even in a group of Chinese “foreigners” located outside of the mainland, I am still more (or perhaps just differently) foreign—once a waiguoren, always a waiguoren. What does it mean if others, like some of the Kenyans I have confused, think otherwise?
More broadly, what place do I (or should I), a white, Mandarin-speaking American occupy in these spaces? What should I make of the multiple layers of foreignness and novelty that I represent to those around me? And, while I am at it, what identities am I perhaps unknowingly imposing on others?
*Editor’s note: Since I wrote my last post many months ago, I have finished my Fulbright in Zhejiang on African student exchanges to China and moved to Nairobi, where I am exploring Chinese-African encounters from another angle. Details to follow, in an updated “About me” section.
This post first appeared on Bridging the Great Wall, Zander Rounds‘ blog about his Fulbright Scholarship to study African student exchanges to China. Zander is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya as Director of Research at ChinaHouse.