Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bull in a china shop

Hey guys,

As my time in Namibia comes to an end, I realized that I never really touched on a subject that spreads from the cities to the villages: China. I may have mentioned this before, but all throughout Namibia, mostly in the north, there are places called China Shops. These are not places where wedding china for fine dining is sold. They are shops run by actual Chinese people. Most of them carry similar, if not exactly the same items including electronics (radios, cell phones, etc), clothing, lingerie, luggage, giant bins of shoes, knives, crappy plastic toys, etc. They are typically reasonably priced and easily accessible. I think it is important to mention here, though the Namibians shop at these stores, they don’t think too highly of China or Chinese people in general. “Chinese” is also a pretty generalized term for anyone of Asian decent (kind of like in the states too…)

This dislike is not arbitrary – there are definitely reasons though not every Namibian you encounter can express them. For those of you who keep up with the news, you know that China has been and is a strong presence in many parts of Africa (as with the rest of the world). In Zambia, the recent elections were extremely influenced by this strong presence, almost to the point of not truly representing the Zambian citizens. It’s obvious why China is interested in places like Zambia and Namibia; the natural resources are abundant and there is exponential room for growth in almost every governmental sector. Obviously, international interest in Namibia is a good thing, but most citizens will agree that the government has given too many rights (including business ownership and citizenship) to too many Chinese people. Understandably, they do not want to see their country being run by outsiders again – it’s only been 21 years since Namibia gained independence.

I bring all of this up because it is a topic I encounter probably every week. For example, at a staff meeting the other day we were talking about purchasing locks for some of our classroom doors. A colleague of mine took the floor (which is a rare occasion in itself) and explained that by no means should we buy locks from China. They will only break after a few uses and possibly even poison us. Instead, we should try to buy products from South Africa or America if possible. I kind of coughed out loud at this since a truly “Made in America” product is pretty hard to find. Also, Namibia is one of a small pool of African countries that still admires American people and products.

Another example – I showed the Karate Kid as a reward for some of my classes and when Mr. Miyagi came on the screen, the entire class started laughing. I paused the movie here to ask why they were laughing. It was not because he was old, not because he was trying to catch a fly with chopsticks, but because he was “Chinese” (which any true KK fan knows he is actually from Okinawa.) When pressed further, they told me Chinese people look funny and don’t know what they are talking about. These learners couldn’t express the exact source of their opinions, but they sure had them. On the other hand, they LOVED the American characters and all wanted to look like them and act like them.

Now, I know there are racial stereotypes everywhere, and some of them are incredibly reinforced with proof, but I felt I needed to do something to show the kids that America and Americans have been just as influenced by the Chinese and do not make perfectly working products in perfect stores with perfect workers. After school the other day, I was hanging out with some of my kids in the library. I decided to do a little “Made In” activity with them. I sent them on a little scavenger hunt to find as many items in the room (including clothing) with “Made In _____” labels and write down the places they found. Of course, everything I had with me from home was either made in China, Taiwan, Cambodia, or some other foreign place. We proceeded to look at these places on a map and see how far away they are from America. I explained that just because you buy a product from America, it doesn’t mean it was made there. I think that concept is hard for some of these kids to swallow since every item they consume is typically made right on their homestead.

I guess with this whole activity and post, I was trying to see how these village kids create ideas about the world and attempting to give them some knowledge to back up their opinions in the future. I am proud of my country, but also don’t want them to idolize it as this heavenly utopia. I guess I’d also like it if they wouldn’t feel the urge to laugh every time they see an Asian person…someday the novelty will go away (since I don’t think the Chinese presence is leaving anytime soon…)

I don’t blame Namibia for being wary of the Chinese presence. I do think the government is relying on them too much for things they could better control themselves. Being such a young country has left them vulnerable to outsiders looking to make a buck. With so much potential and limitless room for growth, Namibia and Namibians need to take charge of their future – and never buy a Chinese lock.

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