Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
After the end of my semester studying in Shanghai, China, I traveled by train down to the southern city of Guangzhou thanks to a CIIS travel enrichment grant funded by the Cabot family. Guangzhou (originally romanized 'Canton') has historically been a major port city and for centuries was the only means for foreign traders to access the country's vast interior. I applied for the grant because Guangzhou houses the largest African migrant community in all of China-Sino-African relations and migration being a research interest of mine. Estimates of the community's size range from 10,000 to 100,000 with all accounts agreeing that the community is rapidly growing. Because there was very little existing research or information on these migrants, I was resolved to visit the city and see in person whether or not this was something I might want to write my senior thesis about.
While still in Shanghai, I already had learned a few lessons about conducting research in China. To share one story, I never received a single reply to a very formal email I sent (painstakingly translated into formal Chinese) to several departments at various Guangzhou universities inquiring about finding a student to help with my research. However, after mentioning my search to a few Chinese friends, I had several excellent "friend of a friend of a friend, etc." candidates contact me within a day or two. My friends explained to me that in China, the internet and email are mostly used for entertainment rather than business. Personal relationships and contacts are much more important. Indeed, I am very indebted both to Charisette Li, the excellent assistant I finally chose, and my friends who used their contacts to help me find her.
After a long, overnight, train ride and settling in at my hostel, I met Charisette for dinner near her campus and we planned the first several days worth of research. The next day we headed to the Guangzhou neighborhood dubbed "Chocolate City" or "Little Africa" by the locals. We were specifically interested in a building called the Tianxiu building, which articles had pointed to as a nexus for African businessmen. As soon as we got off of the subway at a station conveniently located next to the Tianxiu building, you could tell that we found the neighborhood. We saw women from Sub-Saharan Africa wearing colorful traditional dresses, men from Northern Africa dressed in traditional Arab garb, you could hear conversations in not only Mandarin or Cantonese, but also Arabic, English, French, Kiswahili, and many languages I didn't recognize. After four months spent in a country where over 9 in 10 people are Han Chinese, all of this was a huge change from the other places I had been-even Shanghai, which is quite the global city in its own right.
The Tianxiu building itself was a maze of narrow corridors lined with shops and a few restaurants. Although the businessmen and women eating and doing business were mostly African, we were surprised to discover that many of the shops were actually owned by Chinese entrepreneurs looking to sell products and services to African traders. Solol, a Malian who exports to his home country and also owned a shop on the first floor, told us that above the first few floors of the building were hundreds of offices for export business, many owned by Africans. His explanation of the migration phenomena was echoed time and again over the next few days: Chinese goods are cheap, African traders can make good money exporting them, and African consumers can afford to buy items they couldn't afford if imported from more expensive countries or produced domestically.
On top of this basic economic reality, Solol also talked about some of the other experiences of African migrants and the decisions they faced. While he alluded to bureaucratic difficulties caused by the authorities ("You know how the Chinese are" he said), also mentioned was how the huge number of Chinese in Mali and all over the continent let Africans know that it would be okay for them to do the same and migrate to China to do business. When asked if language was a problem, Solol smiled, picked up a calculator, and imitated bargaining using the calculator to type prices. "Language will never get in the way of business" he said.
The rest of that day and the next several days were spent exploring the trade malls and streets of African neighborhoods or searching for and meeting with contacts. Most of the people I met were businessmen who exported consumer goods to their home countries. Some had been in the country for just a few weeks; others as long as 9 years. Some just came for the duration of their visas to buy goods and arrange shipments; others owned businesses with Chinese employees. Many had families back in Africa, although they mentioned that some traders bring their families. I was surprised by how few of the people I met could speak-or were learning-Chinese, but I guess, as Solol said, it wasn't necessary. I was also surprised that most all of the restaurants offering African food were run entirely by Chinese-even the cooks! In addition to African restaurants, the migrant community was also served by several mosques as the vast majority of the traders were Muslims.
Towards the end of my stay I was able to arrange an interview with Obi, a Nigerian who was by far the most embedded in Chinese society of anyone I had interviewed. He had a Chinese girlfriend, many Chinese friends (one of which was a mutual acquaintance of Charisette's) and was even involved in the local music scene. While a full-time exporter like most of his fellow migrants, Obi had also rediscovered playing the drum set-which he hadn't played for 4 years. In Guangzhou, he had made time to practice the drums, played at open mics, and was in a band. Obi said he loved living in Guangzhou, considered it his new home and thought of himself as a "black Chinese". Family was still important for Obi though, he had come to Guangzhou with three cousins and hopes to bring his younger brother soon. Ever since his father died he has been the head of his family back in Nigeria, and his income from doing business in China is enough to fully support them. Someday he hopes to bring them all to Guangzhou.
While I have since changed the topic of my SYE (I discovered another topic in China that I was more interested in), this experience was both extremely interesting and very beneficial practice in conducting field research. Although it won't turn into my SYE, looking over my notes from the trip, I am planning on turning it into a short article for publication in a student-run academic journal. I am very grateful the Cabot family and CIIS for giving me the opportunity to do a project like this.