Janny Chang: A Glance at the Diverse Experiences of the Chinese in Zambia, 2011 to 2012
Dr. W lived in Mauritius for 20 years and has two daughters and a wife. He had a private practice concentrating on traditional Chinese medicine specifically for those who could not afford to go to the hospital. His practice was for the poor, he said. More recently, he moved to Zambia to help old friends start organizations to help improve diplomatic relations between China and southern African countries. Dr. W was a close confidante of many African politicians, including Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia since independence. A warm-hearted and rotund man, Dr. W was equally at ease with the Chinese population living in Zambia as he was with local Zambians. He seemed to know everyone.
Baba, an affectionate nickname, lived in Zambia for four years working as a chef. Though he enjoys living in Zambia now, he spoke to me of the initial loneliness he experienced. With tears in his eyes, he said that he left China right before Chinese New Year and cried on the plane, thinking of the family he left behind. In particular, he was worried about his aging parents. Still, he knew that better opportunities awaited him in Zambia and had already signed a two-year contract to work at one of the best restaurants in the north. After the initial loneliness passed, Baba began to enjoy his stay. In his spare time, which is only a few hours a week, he devotes time to learning English and Bemba phrases so he can better communicate with customers. Recently married to a woman from his home village, Baba says he wants to stay in Zambia. Life is peaceful and relaxing, he says, and there are more opportunities abroad than at home.
Megan, a bubbly and friendly teenager, spent most of her life in Zambia. Her grandfather was part of one of the early groups of medical doctors sent by Mao Zedong to Zambia in the 1960s. While others left or died, he remained and set up a clinic. He sent for his entire family, bringing his wife and children, who then also brought cousins, uncles, aunts and nephews with them to Zambia. Megan and her entire family regularly gather to play mahjong and celebrate the holidays. Although they frequently go back to China, they are rooted in Zambia. Megan understands several Zambian local languages and considers Africa home.
These are just a few of the many Chinese I met and befriended while living in Zambia for 13 months conducting dissertation research. Without the assistance of WEAI, I would not have been able to witness the complexity and diversity of lives and experiences among the Chinese living and working in this part of Africa.
The Ministry of Immigration estimates that approximately 10,000 Chinese reside in Zambia. Records of issued work and visitor permits indicate fewer numbers. The numbers have steadily increased since 2007, when I first visited Zambia for preliminary research, and are projected to increase in the next 20 years.
There are different groups of Chinese in Zambia. First, there are the workers in copper and coal mines and industrial sectors. They often make headlines in the news either related to charges of labor violations or other forms of violations. As class remains a pressing issue in China, the other Chinese tend to distance themselves from these laborers, sometimes, referring to them as country bumpkins without wenhua, or culture. In my experience, this group of Chinese tended to go where other Chinese refused to go – the markets, nightclubs and bars.
The second group includes the middle-class workers in the telecommunications, financial, and diplomatic fields. They tend to be college educated and receive higher salaries than the other Chinese in Zambia as well as in China. They are also on temporary contracts with large companies and live in gated communities. Turnover rates for these positions are incredibly high, as the goal of many workers in this group is to move out of Zambia to Europe, the US or back to China.
The third group includes people like Megan and Dr. W. They have lived in Zambia for most of their lives and consider it home. Although the often seek educational opportunities in Europe or the US, they remain tied to Africa because their families have settled there. Altogether, there are roughly 20 to 30 families who are considered long-timers in Zambia. They tend to see themselves as different from the other Chinese and will often adjust their businesses to suit a diverse clientele.
Finally, the fourth group includes individuals or small groups whose primary purpose is to make money in Zambia. The Chinese in this group tend to specialize in import/export, small to medium mining enterprises or they own shops. They are the ones most criticized by Zambians for developing niche markets which drive the locals out of business. They have also been criticized by Zambians for bringing in cheap, low-quality products from China. This is the group, from my experience, which is most susceptible to high business risks. They often go to Zambia with limited English skills and high hopes for making large fortunes, mainly due to relatives or friends who have established successful businesses in Zambia and encouraged them to do the same. Yet many that I knew lost money and eventually went back home. Even the ones who made it talked about the difficulties of establishing businesses in a foreign country and planned to stay for a few more years before retiring in China.
There is diversity among the Chinese in Zambia, Zanzibar and in many African countries. It is true that perhaps most of the Chinese in Zambia will return home when they make enough money. It is also true that some will stay behind. Despite such different outcomes, the Chinese living and working in Africa do share a similar dream—the dream of a better future for themselves, their families and posterity. They are willing to sacrifice, and eat bitterness today for an improved and more hopeful tomorrow.
For more information on the Summer Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship (Summer FLAS), please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.