Some may find it strange that the next stop in my exploration of 21st century China was Nairobi, Kenya; however, it was there that I discovered China’s international scope and impact. One day, I was walking with a team of youth volunteers through a market place on the edge of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. There were hundreds of stalls in rows occupying a space the size of a football field, and in nearly every other stall, I glimpsed the edge of garment bags or discarded boxes, upon which “Made in China” was written in bold Chinese characters. “What that say?... and that?,” the middle school and high school students would ask… They too were mesmerized by the prevalence of Chinese influence in a place that was so different from China. Even out in the city, gates enclosing construction areas proclaimed the names of different Chinese companies in Chinese characters. Kenya was my first glimpse of how Africa—what had always been portrayed as the land of zebras, lions, and elephants—was now home to an increasing population of Chinese entrepreneurs and workers.
This summer in Guangzhou, I realized that the China-Africa relationship was far from unilateral. In fact, anytime of day, I could board the train to Xiaobeilu and step out of the station on to—what appeared to be—a busy street back in Nairobi. Street vendors from all over the continent of Africa sold clothes, jewelry, shoes, electronics and electronic accessories, and food. Alongside them were migrants from northwestern China, selling bread and handcrafted goods. In Guangzhou, like in Nairobi, I was mesmerized by how large of a community African immigrants had established in China. Instead of Chinese, it was the sound of French or English that filled the air. Women walked around adorned in their traditional headdresses and skirts, bearing children on their back—the only thing different about them here than those in Africa was the location. I found myself pulled toward this community, interviewing them about why they were in China. The one word that rung out frequently in those conversations was “opportunity”. Global commerce and trade occurred each day along the streets and in the shops of Xiaobeilu, and with it, new opportunities for international exchange were realized and produced.
During the past twenty-two months, my short life and the long history of one of the world’s most powerful nations have intertwined. In the end, I have realized that nation states and humans, alike, are influenced and moved by the tides of the same season—the 21st century—a time of change, growth, exchange, and opportunity.