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What Made a Zimbabwean Decide to Study China?

Prior my arrival in the States, I was uncertain of my major and hesitant about whether to dabble in economics or continue with natural sciences. The only thing that I was certain of was that I wanted to learn Chinese.

Today, a year later, I have been presented with an opportunity to study in China for the summer!

Somehow, the fact that I am studying Chinese strikes a lot of people as strange.

Whenever I mention that I am indeed studying Chinese, they ask me an inevitable question: “So what made you decide to study Chinese?”

Depending on who is asking the question, what I assume their motives to be and how well acquainted I am to the person, I can either give the standard, diplomatic answer:

“You see,” I would begin, “China is investing heavily in African countries.”

I would go on, throwing in numbers such as the millions that China lent to Zimbabwe or all the debts that China wrote off. Zimbabwe is undoubtedly a rich source of mineral wealth which would greatly benefit China’s exponentially increasing industrial importance. Zimbabwe too, with its abundant wealth – the Chiadzwa diamonds, the gold, the steel and even the coal - can reap great economic benefit from China if it positions itself strategically for great national gains.

If trade equilibrium between the two can be negotiated well, China might be the economic solution to some of the problems plaguing Zimbabwe.

While I am not a huge fan of the evolving “strategic partnership” between China and Zimbabwe, you would not agree less with me that it is important for Zimbabwean students to study Chinese language and culture so that they can be fully equipped to control the future of their country.

If I feel particularly nostalgic, I can go on to mention the importance of Zimbabwean Trade Unionists who have knowledge of Chinese culture and society. The influx of Chinese investors into Zimbabwe has led to a corresponding increase in Zimbabwean workers employed by Chinese employers. There are some aspects of the Zimbabwean culture which foreign employers will never understand if not explained to them in their own language and with examples drawn from their own cultural practices.

Take, for example, a Zimbabwean practice known as kurova guva. Literally translated, it means beating the grave. For those who believe in its importance, it is a traditional ceremony which aims at bringing in the spirit of a recently deceased person back into the household so as to protect members of the household from ill-fortune and calamities which are brought about by supernatural forces against which they have no power. Failure to perform this ceremony results in curses, plagues and supernatural disasters. How a Shona-speaking employee with limited English-speaking ability would fully explain this to his Chinese employer of equally limited English capabilities can only be left up to the imagination.

If we were close, or if you had disarmed me with a charming smile, I would confess that as a little girl, I secretly believed that I was of Chinese descent.

Of course there was absolutely no tangible evidence to show for it. I traced the family line thoroughly, hopefully, but alas, as far as my grandmother’s oral history lessons went, we were all black and Zimbabwean. The furthest out of the Zimbabwean border that we went was Zambia and that was it.

But my eyes are different from everyone else’s in my family. They have this squint around the borders which, I swear gives me an almost Oriental look.

In addition, as a child, I would attack mounds of rice with gusto I never showed for sadza, the Zimbabwean staple food. From as early as age eight, playing outdoors with other children of my age was not as exciting as reading mathematics and science textbooks.

And also, I had a very slow tongue which experienced difficulty pronouncing the letter “r” (which by the way is heavily emphasized in the Shona language and is very subtle in Chinese). Because of this –er- deformity, if I may call it that, most of my words sounded entirely “Chinese” to some people.

Of course, now that I am older, and therefore wiser, all these pointers make me a Zimbabwean who enjoys math and science and had a mild speech impediment that went away with age, but trust me, as an eight year old, this meant that I was Chinese. I secretly believed that everyone knew but would not confess because it was a supernatural power which I was not allowed to use in public.

Above all, in all my childhood fantasies, Prince Charming was always a Chinese man (sometimes Jackie Chan himself) who would rescue me from library stacks and in a Cantonese accent whisper, “Ni hao ma?” to which I would smile weakly in response before losing consciousness.

Some people study abroad for academic purposes, others to add sparkle to their resumes, while for others time abroad is a great opportunity to reconnect with one’s ancestry. For students like me who have a fetish for traveling, adventure and erratic behavior, studying abroad is an opportunity to bridge the gap between the globalization that we encounter in our textbooks and advocate for through our numerous extra-curricular activities and the real world from which we are insulated by our campus life social bubbles.

In the end, it is not at all about why I decided to study Chinese; it is about new horizons which are now in sight because of this newly acquired language and the cultural knowledge that comes with it. It is about the new doors of opportunity that this experience will prop open, which not even the raging winds of racial discrimination and gender-based prejudice can shut.