The Art of Accommodation
By Nuru Ali  ·  2016-08-29  ·   Source: | NO. 35 SEPTEMBER 1, 2016


International students working as interns at an employment agency hold a meeting on August 2 in Hangzhou,capital of east China's Zhejiang Province (XINHUA) 

I live in Mombasa, a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean and one of Kenya's prime tourist destinations, but my second home will always be Tianjin, a municipality close to Beijing. Though I have lived in several Chinese cities, like Beijing, Shenzhen in Guangdong Province and a little-known city in Jiangsu Province, it was Tianjin where I stayed and studied for one year at the start of my six-year stint in China.

My father is a chemical engineer and I, being the eldest of six siblings, wanted to follow in his footsteps. We decided China was the best place to study chemical engineering because of the technological advancements it has made in this field. However, to enroll in the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, I needed to know Chinese since that was the medium of instruction.

Each year, the Chinese Government offers scholarships to about 100 Kenyans to study Chinese language and culture in schools in China. I applied for one and got it. So in 2008 I came to Tianjin University to study Chinese for a year and it was the most wonderful experience.

Tianjin is very different from Beijing. Though a big city, it still has the feel of a cozy village, and the university, founded in 1895, is accustomed to hosting many foreign students. It made foreigners like us, who arrived there without any knowledge of Chinese, feel at home straight away. I stayed in the university hostel for foreign students and met other students who came from all over the world--Russians, Indians and peers from other African countries--and we got to learn a lot from one another.

The classes were very interesting, thanks to our professors, especially the calligraphy teacher. Tall, thin and beautiful, she would explain the history behind each character and make the course fascinating. And the teachers were so accessible. On the first day, I remember them writing their names on the blackboard, how to address them and then their phone numbers, e-mail IDs and WeChat IDs as well, just in case we needed to contact them outside class. If we had any difficulties with our lessons and went to see them after class, they were always happy to explain things to us again.

It was a shock to discover that sometimes we would have classes on the weekend as well. In Kenya, the weekend is meant for relaxation and spending time with your family, but here we were expected to work. And it was not just us; the professors who taught us had night classes too on the weekend, so it was a lot of work for them. That experience has served me well, as you will find.

During the end of my chemical engineering course, I interned with the Singaporean agribusiness group Wilmar International, which has branches worldwide. After I finished my internship, I worked for them in Jiangsu and Shenzhen and then, in 2014, they asked me to go to Mombasa. I agreed with alacrity because though I love China and would like to visit again, home is home.

I would like to think that I know a bit about Chinese culture now, which is different, and can serve as a bridge between it and other cultures. A lot of Chinese tourists are coming to Kenya these days and many of them don't speak English. So people like us, who have studied in China, can make their stay in Kenya easier.

Then there was this Chinese acquaintance who wanted to set up a business in Kenya, exporting meat to Asia. He came to Kenya and started meeting people to discuss partnership opportunities. There was a clash of cultures and both sides began complaining to me.

The Chinese said he wanted a meeting on Sunday and when the Kenyan refused, he thought the man was plain lazy. The Kenyan, on the other hand, told me he had other commitments and couldn't be simply at the beck and call of the Chinese. So I had to be the mediator and the Tianjin experience of going to class on Sundays helped. I told the Chinese, "Look, this is Kenya. Here people go to church on Sundays. So you need to be more professional and plan things in advance." And I told the Kenyan, "Calm down. This man is not trying to exploit you. It's the normal work schedule [for businesspeople] in China." So the main problem was the cultural difference and once they understood this, they were ready to accommodate each other.

The author is a Kenyan who has studied and worked in China 

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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