Dispatches From Guangzhou: Part II

This week Chaela and Jeremy and friends complete their interview with Above the Fray Fellow Nina Porzucki.  You can read the first part of the interview here.

Mitra Bonshahi:  What was the hardest part of reporting on a community within a community that is not your own?

Nina Porzucki:  Um, everything. I resigned myself to the fact that I knew, well, not a whole lot. I’ve never been to Nigeria. I’d never been to China before. I tried to read up before I left. I talked to other professors and reporters who had done work in the community. Still, I asked many, many stupid questions. I was constantly getting looks like, “you stupid, stupid American girl.”  And that was fine. In some ways if I had known more, been more a part of one community or the other, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable to ask those stupid questions. Being an outsider in a way allowed me access both the African community and the Chinese community that works with the Africans, as they are both somewhat suspicious of each other. Or, let’s just say that each community has very strong opinions about the other community. I was a part of neither which allowed people to talk freely with me. However, not being a part of either the African community or the Chinese community was also limiting of course. There was so much I was learning that I often felt I missed the subtleties of many situations.

A merchant takes a break for lunch in the market.

Audrey Quinn:  How do you gain the trust of your interview subjects when you’re clearly an outsider?

Nina:  This question I thought about a lot; it kind of piggybacks on the previous question. I just hung out. I went everyday to the market and just hung out. I hung out long enough that people felt comfortable with my presence. However, while I was hanging out I struggled with the notion of how much of yourself do you reveal when you are “reporting.” It’s a strange thing when you want someone to reveal the innermost workings of their life and heart and you don’t give them anything back. There is a certain amount of exchange necessary to inculcate trust. But where do you draw that line? I realize that there’s no easy answer to that question; it fluctuates in every situation.

Chaela Herridge Meyer:  What is your favorite linguistic discovery between Nigerians and Chinese?

Nina:  Oh man!  I loved listening to the collision of all those languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Igbo, Nigerian pigeon, French, Swahili, Portuguese, Senegalese and so many more African languages.  There were certain Chinese phrases that every African knew. The most useful and utilized phrase was: ma fan. This means trouble. All over the market I would hear shouts of: “You ma fan!”  It was not necessarily an angry statement, but a playful retort between Chinese and African merchants. In the end I found myself even using it with one of the Chinese businesswomen that I became friends with.

End of the work day; Cletis tries to hail a taxi to go home

Jeremy Helton:  What did you learn about Nigeria during your time in Guangzhou?

Nina:  Another huge and complicated question. Many of the Nigerians in China are Igbo. Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups are the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Igbos are from the Eastern part of Nigeria. Igbos tend to be Christian and entrepreneurial in spirit. There is a saying that I was told over and over again throughout my stay, “If you travel to any part of the world and you do not meet an Igbo man, leave right away. Nothing good is happening there.” More than anything else, I heard about how hard it is to survive in Nigeria. People talked about the lack of electricity, bad roads, endemic corruption, the glaring difference between the few haves and the many have-nots. I heard anger but also a deep sense of resignation. “What can you do? You can only survive. That’s why I’m here in China.” So many people said this one way or another.  I met a lawyer who went to the best law school in Lagos, graduated at the top of his class, passed the bar, but could not get a job. Here he was in China, buying clothing to sell back at home for a slim profit. I left Guangzhou before the Christmas bombings by Boko Haram in Nigeria. And in the days since there have been more bombings, a week long general strike over gas subsidies; even an Occupy Nigeria movement has sprouted. I wonder how these events have affected the folks halfway around the world from their home?

Chaela:  What was the most surprising thing Nigerians were buying in the Chinese marketplace to resell?

Nina:  Human hair. There’s an entire wholesale mall dedicated to hair and hair products. They advertise that it’s 100% Brazilian hair. But when you ask the shop owners they’ll tell you it’s really coming from Henan province. I took some photos of all the hair: piles upon piles of ponytails in every conceivable color sat in boxes waiting to be shipped out.


Chaela:  Did you see any Nigerian or Chinese traditions crossing?


Nina:  Yes, crossing, melding, transforming into something unique to Little Africa. However the way in which the cultures are crossing is very, very subtle. For example, the Africans have later work hours. Business doesn’t start hopping until the afternoon and into the evening. As a result work hours in the area are later than you might find elsewhere in the city. Another thing I found interesting is how the Africans have changed the way in which Chinese merchants communicate with their customers. One of the biggest challenges between the groups is communication. Many of the traders don’t speak Chinese. Many of the factory owners/wholesale dealers don’t speak English. So both sides communicate via oversized, gray, calculators. Chinese businessman have gotten so used to haggling over a price by typing into the calculator. One Chinese graduate student that I spoke with said that now when he goes into a shop to buy something the storekeeper will type the price into a calculator and show it to him, even though he could easily haggle with him in Mandarin.  As I said, subtle, subtle changes.

Jeremy:  Which stories or people in Guangzhou had the biggest impact on you emotionally?

Nina:  I think the person who had the greatest impact on me was the Nigerian lawyer who I spoke about earlier. His name is Kelvin. I met him on his fourth day in China. He had been to Guangzhou twice before with friends to purchase clothing to sell back in his father’s shop in the Eastern part of Nigeria. This was his first trip to China alone. I met him while waiting to speak with the Nigerian Community president. He was sitting alone at a table in the back of an African restaurant and I just sat down to say hello.  When he looked up at me, I could see tears in his eyes. Two days before he had had all of his money stolen — $19,000! He had followed to Chinese merchants to their warehouse to buy clothing. The merchants turned out to be thugs and he was an easy target. His father had sold land and borrowed money to send him to China. Now, everything was gone. And he didn’t shrug it off like so many of the guys that I had met previously. It was still too raw, still too real. For the first time I got a glimpse at how close some of these men are living on the edge. Every deal is a step closer to prosperity or poverty. He showed me his license to practice law. There were no jobs at home. There are no lights. He just kept shaking his head and repeating, “I am an educated man.” It is a moment that I will never forget.

Mitra:  What lessons did you learn from your time in Guangzhou, China?

Nina:  Man. I have so much to learn. I have so much to learn about the world, about what it means to be a journalist, about what it means to be a woman journalist. There are so many things that I missed or wish I had recorded or wish I had been better prepared for. However, what shocked me about myself was how easy it was for me to walk into the trading malls and talk to people. I was afraid that I would be afraid. But everyday I just pounded the pavement and talked to people — everyone, anyone! That was indeed the best part. For the last few weeks I have been slogging through tape and trying to put together an interesting story.  I find that this is the hardest bit for me. It’s trying to convey that world to you in which I now find myself struggling. I am grateful for the struggle. And I’m extremely grateful to the folks at the John Alexander Project who have helped me every step along the way. John Alexander was a young journalist who died much too early. He was fearless. And he had an ear for a good story. I did not know him but I thought about him often while I was in China. Ultimately, this, however small, is for him.

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5 thoughts on “Dispatches From Guangzhou: Part II

  1. Nina got scammed by made-up stories told by Nigerians in China. Pretty funny. I guess critical thinking and research isn’t taught at journalism school anymore.

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