One night early this month, on my way to meet a Swiss colleague’s PhD students from the university that she teaches at in Germany, a woman in the subway started to talk to me by complimenting my bracelet. She spoke English, so I replied in English that the bracelet was a gift from a friend (probably purchased on one of her travels in an African country). It turned out that this woman on the subway is a medical student at the university where I’ve been hired as an associate professor (this in itself is a story). She stays on campus, but has an apartment far off campus that she goes to on the weekends during the school year and stays at during the summer break when she doesn’t return to the US.
This woman was born in Niger and grew up in Orlando, Florida. She asked for my name in a very American way: “what did you say your name was again?” I was tempted to answer that she hadn’t asked yet, but instead I gave her my name and asked about hers. Interestingly, she gave me a Chinese name. Of course, I asked if she doesn’t have an English name that would be easier for me to remember. She replied, no, she has an Arab name that would be more difficult to remember. She was correct: immediately after I tried to repeat her Arab name, I forgot what it was. Since living in South Africa, I’ve come to realize that if I can’t visualize the spelling of a name – whether it’s of a person or place – I can’t retain it for long. After exiting the subway, I wish I had written down her name because it’s so rare that a stranger initiates a conversation with me in Guangzhou.
As for the two PhD students I met for dinner afterwards, one’s from Hong Kong and the other Cameroon. They’re both doing fieldwork in China. Actually, the Cameroonian had finished his fieldwork and getting ready to return to his university in Germany. This gave me the chance to ask about a visa issue that I had encountered with a PhD student from Nigeria who wants to come to Guangzhou to do his fieldwork. The Cameroonian had actually enrolled as a Chinese language student at one of the universities in China to obtain a 6-month study visa to enter the country to do his research on Cameroonian students. The student from Hong Kong had chosen Shenzhen as her fieldwork site, looking at the lives of “foreign teachers.” I probably complicated her study a bit by asking her if her focus is on English language teachers or people like me teaching in Chinese universities or even foreign satellite universities. Even the English language teachers and I are paid by Chinese institutions, we’re definitely two distinct categories of “foreign teachers.” To begin with, our pay scales as well as teaching and administrative responsibilities are quite different. I will write more about my position inside a Chinese university in another blog.
I’d just end by saying that compared to most cities in South Africa and the US, one positive quality that Guangzhou has over them is the concentration of all sorts of foreigners that seems to keep increasing over the years. It is a quality that the city government and local people don’t know how to grapple with yet in spite the long history of contact with Europeans and other Asians. Unless one is in a touristy area, most signages are in one language (Chinese) – take my apartment building for example, where there’s no warning in English that the water will be turned off for half of the day. Some local Chinese have even started to view the presence of foreigners as a negative phenomenon (not necessarily a threat). This negative sentiment varies from race to race, with Africans being most disliked. And, if we count internal migrants as “foreigners” to Guangzhou, then they’d, too, be up high on the list of disliked people in the city. One way or another, the local government and people will have to find a way to cope with foreigners in their midst…unless the national government decides to seal the country’s borders.