“There is no way I can live [there],” Swift writes with an exasperated tone. Prior to her arrival in Togo, Anna had agreed for Swift to live at her house. Without any questions, the newcomer from China (my friend) arrived to find the house too small for three grown women and, occasionally, a man who Anna refers to as her husband. It had a small kitchen and only two bedrooms, one for Anna and the other for the maid. Given that she has a man in her life, it was impossible for Anna to share her room with my friend. And, Swift couldn’t share a room with the maid – even if she didn’t mind doing so. As it turns out, the maid also had a boyfriend, so refused to share her room.
Some of us outside of China who have came across something about the crowded living conditions experienced by some internal migrants in that country or of those illegally in the US might be surprised by Swift’s strong disapproval of Anna’s house. But, in Guangzhou, one of China’s largest cities, my friend doesn’t live the life of a low-paid worker, who must share a single cramped room with x-numbers of people. From the time I’ve known her, Swift’s had her own room in a brother’s house or would stay over at a friend’s house from time-to-time, depending on the circumstances. By early 2015, she had taken out a loan with the bank to purchase her first house just on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Being a homeowner, I’ve sensed from my conversations with her, gives her much pride. Just like the car that she drives, the house is a sign of achievement, not necessarily upward mobility. So, no, it’s not true that Chinese people in general can tolerate crowded living situations.
But that wasn’t the only or most intolerable problem with Anna’s house. Even the roof leak in the maid’s room, causing the entire room to reek of mildew, was a relatively small situation compared to the outdoors bathroom. Cringing at the thought of having to use the toilet and take a bath in public, she writes, “I can’t imagine [bathing] in [an] open place and [being] naked…. Oh no….” That same discomfort with exposing herself that way in public extends to having to watch Anna and the maid go topless around the house in the Togo heat when they eventually shared a five-bedroom house. “I pretend that [I’m] used to it,” Swift tells me as she shares a photo of one of the women
sleeping on the floor of the most recent house they’re sharing. Because of my observations in the sauna at the gym in Guangzhou, I had assumed that all Chinese women were comfortable with nakedness. In one conversation, Swift shattered my impression. She’s had to share a (indoor) public bathroom with other students when she was in boarding school, but never liked or got used to seeing naked bodies. Togo is extreme for her, but she has to cope with it as long as she stays with Anna.
Equally uncomfortable for Swift were the visits from the man Anna had introduced as her husband. On one visit to Anna’s house upon her first arrival in Togo, Swift observed that Anna had returned home at lunch time to meet the husband and cook lunch for him – she didn’t want to be in the middle of that. The husband is at least twenty years older than Anna and has two daughters. His government job allows him to support all of Anna’s living expenses, including rent. As one could imagine, he was upset with Swift’s idea for Anna to move to another house. Anna, however, seemed keen about this idea. She quickly started the search and found a five-bedroom house. Swift didn’t even have a chance to look at it before she forked out six month’s worth of rent money for a house that wouldn’t have her name on the lease. Of course that house was full of problems: the water system was faulty, there was no electricity, and the roof leaked whenever it’d rain. Somehow, as I’ve often heard Africans say, “god has his ways” because these problems gave Anna’s husband a role to play in this housing arrangement.
At first, Anna’s husband threatened to stop visiting her if she moved to the house Swift had paid for. He felt that it was no longer his place. His expectation for Anna to find a house just for the two of them to meet for “dates” makes the point very clear. Thinking that she would help ameliorate his feelings and Anna’s relationship, Swift suggested that Anna asked him to pay for another house that Swift would move to. She would be out of their sight and he could feel that he’s actually paid for Anna’s house. To my friend’s surprise, Anna pleaded with her to not do that. She wanted to share the house, and insisted that she would make other arrangements with her husband. “I think she plans to leave him,” Swift speculates. This has yet to happen. The settlement, from what I can understand, was that Anna would visit him at his office on her way to the new jewelry shop, which had opened by that time, and he would visit her in the evenings (for 30-90 minutes). The house was big enough to accommodate everyone (Anna and the husband, a new maid, and Swift). And, of course, the man would also pay for the repairs needed in the house, which apparently were never completed by the time Anna had moved into yet another house with three bedrooms.
After being away for a period longer than planned, Swift said that Anna had moved into a three-bedroom house. Overall, my friend describes it as comfortable, especially after having lived with one of her Nigerian
customers’ family in Lagos. It even has a yard with trees, which she only
realized a few days ago have coconuts that she has been enjoying. Swift
tells me that this third move was due to Anna’s claim that she couldn’t afford the five-bedroom house by herself. Though my friend doesn’t mind that Anna has moved into a nicer house, she wonders when Anna will offer to return the money from the five-bedroom house that she had paid for (recall Anna’s husband pays for everything and is particular about his part in paying for the house she lives in).
What seems to be an easily resolvable problem, putting a roof over one’s head, was in fact wrought with ups and downs since the first day she arrived on the continent. If it’s not one thing, then it’s another. And these issues had to be juggled with efforts to find a place to set up the business. Just as Swift is beginning to feel at ease with the housing situation in Togo, where she has returned to since Christmas (2015), she receives news from her future Chinese landlord in Lagos, Nigeria that he can’t rent the room in his house to her as he’d agreed before she flew to Togo. “…sometimes I hate I am a girl,” my friend writes despondently. She continues, “Only men stay in Africa. There isn’t single girl like me stay there.” My friend’s statement requires us, particularly academics who write about migration and migrants, to be especially sensitive to gender when we examine issues of settlement, adaptation, and integration. The idea of settling in an African country seems quite out of reach from the get-go, especially for a 20-something, single Chinese woman in Togo and Nigeria. Swift’s response to why she wouldn’t return to China at this moment to take up a marriage proposal from a man from her hometown in spite of feeling pressured to be married sums up my point well: “I can’t even settle a house, then how to settle my life.”