Early observations from the field
There is a popular Chinese term to describe that guy or gal who will just not get off the microphone at the karaoke bar: Maiba 麦霸, which literally translates to “Microphone Tyrant.” During the time I have spent in China – a country with a karaoke bar on almost every street corner – I have been subjected to the rule of quite a few mic-tyrants. Recently, however, I encountered two unlike all of the others. They were Cameroonian.
I was reading in my dorm room on a Friday night when I was interrupted by the sound of an impromptu Chinese pop sing-along. Given that I live in a dorm of exclusively foreigners, this interruption struck me as strange. When I went to investigate the noise, I was surprised to discover my two Cameroonian neighbors – usually partial to blasting French rap – hunched over a computer, belting the frustratingly catchy pop song, “Small Apple” 小苹果:
You are my little, little apple 你是我的小呀小苹果儿
There is no question of how I love you… 怎么爱你都不嫌多…
Since I began my research at Zhejiang Normal last month, moments like this have challenged my preconceived notions about the experience of African students in China. These notions were, at least in part, informed by the existing literature on this group. The several scholars that have studied African students in China invariably mention the discrimination faced by many, particularly black Africans . One student interviewed by the researcher Hannane Ferdjani states:
We’re used to it by now but it’s still annoying to be a black person in China on a daily basis. We have to endure the rudeness of taxi drivers, people in public transportation, etc… 
Another scholar, Adams Bodomo, finds that the majority of the African students he interviewed have frequent problems communicating and only feel marginally connected to the local community, if at all. Presenting these findings, he concludes:
Unlike the traders who are in constant touch with the Chinese society, the students we have seen are often isolated from the larger Chinese society.
These findings (and, undeniably, my own biases), plus some knowledge of the race-related conflicts between Africans and local Chinese in the 1980s , led me to imagine African students as isolated from the surrounding community, struggling to connect or engage with locals.
African students in Jinhua: isolated or integrated?
My arrival on campus immediately forced me to rethink my image of the “isolated African student”. As I struggled to locate the right paperwork at the international student dorm, two African students playfully negotiated with the building manager. Another student walked briskly past me with a Chinese woman, the pair chattering fluently in Mandarin. A third shouted in Chinese into a hand-free phone, as he got on his electric bike and zipped away. And, during the weeks that followed, I quickly realized than rather than being an anomaly, students like this were the norm.
This is not to suggest that the African students here in Jinhua do not struggle with communicating or discrimination. All of the newly arrived students with whom I have spoken have unsurprisingly expressed frustration with the language or other aspects of life in China (“The food, it’s killing me,” a new student blurted out in the dorm elevator). I have also been disturbed by the frequent ignorant and blatantly racist comments towards black Africans of Chinese classmates, friends and taxi-drivers, who are at the same time so friendly and open towards me.
In addition, Zhejiang Normal’s international students are assigned to a dorm that is physically separate from the rest of the student body . As opposed to other dorms that are centrally located by the library and cafeteria (and packed tightly together), ours is tucked away on a distant corner of campus, surrounded on two sides by the fences that border the university. Tellingly, many Chinese students with whom I have spoken do not even know that the building exists.
However, this physical isolation and the struggles of students to adjust to life in China do not seem to define or confine the experience of those that I have met. Indeed, as I walk around campus and the surrounding areas, I do not see the frustrated, insular groups of Africans that I imagined previous to my arrival. Rather, I see students that seem actively engaged in the local university community: chatting with Chinese classmates, ordering piles of meat from barbecue stands, studying in the campus library.
Interestingly, I have also noticed several Africans utilizing Chinese language and culture (e.g. through impromptu Karaoke sessions) to connect with other Africans. When new students first arrived, small groups seemed to quickly form along primarily linguistic lines. Waiting at the health center during the required physical exam, I hung out with with a group of two Ghanaians and a Tanzanian. However, recently I have observed individuals from Francophone countries using Chinese to chat with others from Anglophone countries (as well as English or French). While I still need to figure out how prevalent this actually is, Chinese language and culture seems to be a bridge that links students from different parts of the African continent.
Political science research has shown that the level of engagement between locals and foreign students is important in determining the soft power impact  of those exchanges. The potential international political implications of Chinese language and culture becoming a bridge that also connects individuals from all over Africa – and perhaps, the world – are also significant. My ability to understand these potential soft power effects demands a much more extensive and systematic inquiry—which I will engage in over the next year (stay tuned!).
In the meantime, I will work on getting the maddeningly catchy Chinese pop songs (thanks, mic-tyrants), and more importantly, my preconceived notions about African students in China, out of my head.
 For two recent examples, definitely check out Heidi Haugen, “China’s Recruitment of African University Students: Policy efficacy and unintended consequences” (2013), and Hannane Ferdjani, “African students in China: An exploration of increasing numbers and their motivations in Beijing” (2012).
 Ferdjani (2012): 28.
 Sandra Gillespie notes this physical isolation of international students at the beginning of her book on African students in China, South-South Transfer: A study of Sino-African Exchanges (2001).
 For an interesting description and discussion of the 1988-89 Nanjing anti-African protests, see Winslow Robertson’s post on China-Africa blog, “Cowries and Rice.”
 Soft power is a term used to describe a country’s ability to influence other nations by “attracting” or shaping their preferences, rather than coercing, through military or economic means. Scholars that study the issue consider foreign educational exchanges an important soft power strategy.