22 months ago, China was still an anomaly to me. As I packed my bags in preparation to spend four months in Beijing, my mom read articles with ominous titles about China, such as “Beijing’s air pollution: Blackest day” (The Economist, January 14th, 2013) and “China’s Toxic Sky” (The Atlantic, January 30th, 2013), to me. With pollution at a record high, so were my nerves; but, I set off to China nonetheless and found myself welcomed by dark skies—not full of hazardous gases, as the media portrayed—but rather, full of fireworks and sounds of the New Year. The following four months, I explored Beijing from north to south and east to west; practiced Chinese and Spanish; worked in a Chinese state-owned enterprise and volunteered with an American founded non-profit; ate food from Xinjiang and Côte d'Ivoire; had drinks in Sanlituan and Nanlouguxiang; watched Transformers and 中国合伙人 (American Dreams in China); bought clothes at the silk market and Walmart; and made friends with people from China, America, and all over the world. My first taste of China was as mesmerizing and addicting as the foods that they show on 舌尖上的中国 (Taste of China). At the age of 21, my exploration of China in the 21st century began.
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.
Omega studies Human and Organizational Development and Asian Studies (Chinese Concentration) as a senior at Vanderbilt.
This year, as part of the application process, we asked delegates to submit an op-ed, academic analysis or creative piece on China or US-China relations. The editors at the Duke East Asia Nexus have selected some of the best ones to publish here in hopes of generating intellectual discussion before, during and after the conference. These are very short and not meant to be groundbreaking. Take them as conversation starters!