“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?
Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival atop a Chinese-run hotel in Nairobi
A Kenyan-Chinese lunchtime sing off in the Ngong Hills
My neighborhood noodle shop
*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.