Nineteen year-old Kenyan student JUDIE OMBUOR travelled to China to compete in a global Chinese language competition. Compete she did, but perhaps more interestingly, she was confronted by culture shock. She shares her experiences with DEA
After a long haul flight from Nairobi lasting 12 hours with a stop over in Bangkok, Thailand, I stepped on the Chinese soil for the first time in my life at Guangzou, already late for my connecting flight to Beijing. And what a hitch awaited me! Unsure of what to do in a land where everybody spoke a language I could hardly comprehend (I had learnt Chinese for barely five months at Confucius Institute, University of Nairobi) I felt like the earth would, open up and swallow me at any moment.
For the first time in my life, I felt so alone and desolate. Worse still, everyone around was staring at me as though I was an extra terrestrial of sorts. Gone was all that excitement about visiting China. When I asked in my desolation to make a call to my sponsors in Beijing, the request was bluntly turned down. How I wished I were in Kenya where I could explain my predicament without complications.
Besides, everything seemed strange. It was hot, yet the fog hung in the air, something I had not witnessed before. Visibility was terribly poor to the extent that the tops of some tall buildings were completely out of view. Later I learnt that it had all to do with extreme pollution in China.
And the summer temperature was sizzling at 41 degrees Celsius. I had never experienced such heat that, coupled with humidity, was simply unbearable. I was burning in my trousers and appreciated why women were dressed in brief skirts (minis) that back home in Kenya would invite name-calling and worse.As fate would have it, I ran into an airport officer with a smattering knowledge of English who helped me book accommodation as my new connecting flight was to be the following morning.
The hotel was really posh, but exhaustion and the stress I had gone through bogged me down. I went to bed early and slept like I was dead! The following day was stress-free as we boarded a wide-bodied local flight for a three-hour flight to Beijing. I was amazed that a local flight could be bigger and more sophisticated than the KQ flight that had ferried us from Nairobi.
I and a colleague from Kenya were the only black people on the plane. The medium of instruction was Chinese, spoken very fast and translated into broken English. I could hardly follow. Truly, I was in a strange world, a world so different from the land of my birth. My first real contact with Chinese food was breakfast on the plane. Only strange looking, strange tasting Chinese snacks were available and I could not eat them even as I was very hungry. I had already missing Kenyan food.
In Beijing, I joined other contestants from all over the world at Hotel New Nikko, Beijing, a 32-storied five star facility. Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Conference Centre (28 storeys) and Times Tower are both shorter. I had heard of chopsticks, and here they were - live. The food in front of me comprised rice, green vegetables (strange looking) and red meat that I was jittery to eat given the stories I had heard.
I was assured that it was pork. Using the sticks for the first time was such a struggle, I managed to push only half the food down my throat. Much of it spilt on the table. Times were when I had muscle pulls on my fingers while struggling to coordinate the sticks as I ate. But I overcame the problems with time until I could eat almost everything, including hot spicy noodles burning with chili using the sticks, the toughest test in this mode of eating.
Most of the food was outlandish, but I must admit that I enjoyed the exquisitely tasty Chinese roasted duck known in Beijing as kaoya. In China, kaoya is as popular as nyama choma in Kenya. Pork is the most common red meat.
Yes, Chinese eat all manner of meat, some of them sweetened with sugar. I once learnt that I had eaten donkey meat and found it futile to force it out. With time, I got used to eating whatever tasted good without asking exactly what it was. But when a full-blown caterpillar appeared in a colleague’s bowl filled with delicious looking rice and soup one day, we exploded at the waitress who coolly explained that it was a delicacy added as an appetizer. The caterpillar was therefore a delicacy and they were many in the meal. We were staggered!
But fruits were superb and they served well to fill the holes left by unpalatable foods. And every meal was accompanied by green, Chinese tea to which no sugar is added, making it look and taste like some herbal potion.
For one not used to advanced technology, using a single card to open the door to my room, switch on electricity and access the lift was quite mesmerising.Beijing outdid Nairobi in almost all facets, from the smooth roads that ran above, beneath and across one another in an amazing pattern that ruled out traffic jams to urban transport that made the matatus, Citi Hoppa and KBS contraptions back home in Nairobi look primitive. I was transfixed with wonder!
The degree of discipline exhibited by the general public was astounding for one used to the unruly aura in Nairobi. I was surprised to enter a public commuter bus to find nobody collecting fare, which was deposited at a slot next to the driver. No inspector came around to check if some people had not paid. And unlike the situation back home where fares can be unaffordable, an equivalent of Kshs20 (two kuai) is enough to take you anywhere in Beijing.
Fares are fixed, come rain, shine or storm. Exploitation is unknown. I noticed that everybody who entered the bus paid religiously and wondered what would happen back home. While commuters in Kenya insist on seats in public transport, it is the opposite in China where most people stand as sitting allowance is limited and reserved for the frail - the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and the sick. It is the same in the fast subway trains.
Wherever I went, I was amused and pleasantly miffed to see people take pictures of me and even take pains to have a closer look at “this black being” as though I was some strange animal. Others went to the extent of touching my hair amid endless unintelligible questions. Absurd comments such as “Africans have big teeth” left me flabbergasted.
Some could abandon whatever they were doing just to have an eyeful of me.I was dumfounded one day while walking on the street when an elderly man seated outside his shop-cum-house came running a few metres ahead of me and shouted to his wife and children to ‘come out and see this black person’.
In buses, fellow passengers would whip out their mobile phones to take snaps of a few black colleagues and me. Others would turn around and follow us for minutes on end, as though they had nothing else to do. Many were the times I was stopped by strangers in the streets so that they could take photographs with me. Oh! I had never seen a people so insular, so closed.
I was proud to learn that exposure is one area where we in Kenya and most of Africa are ahead of most.
|< Prev||Next >|