As cross-continental interactions between Africans and Chinese citizens increases, individuals like Heather Li, who has African names and adopted African parents, might soon become a common phenomenon, writes Solomon Elusoji
Heather Li, who was born to Chinese parents in Beijing, is convinced that she has roots in Africa. Light-skinned and petite, she doesn’t have the genetic evidence to prove it, but her claim isn’t based on biology.
Earlier this year, during the Chinese New Year, Li visited Africa for the first time to “find her roots”, when she travelled to Nairobi, Kenya. Before the trip, she painted her nails the colour of the Kenyan flag and posted on WeChat, “this girl is Kenyan-READY!” When she eventually landed at the Nairobi airport, she posted, “Heather’s finally home.”
“My trip to Kenya was amazing,” Li told this reporter, several months after her first African sojourn. “I really didn’t feel like I was visiting there for the first time. Sometimes you go to a new place and you feel lost. But in Kenya, I connected with so many people I hadn’t met before. It felt like home. I just wished it was longer, because I didn’t experience everything.”
In Kenya, Li adopted Kenyan parents and got an African name, Makena Akinyi. Makena, which is from the Meru tribe means ‘happiness’ and Akinyi, from the Luo tribe, means ‘born in the morning’.
In Kenya, Li visited safari parks and got to pat the skin of baby elephants. She also visited traditional Kenyan homes. In one picture posted on Wechat, a Chinese chat app, she can be seen posing in front of a hut tagged ‘Ist wife hut’. “Most (definitely) first wife material right here,” she captioned jokingly.
But the fairytale was blotted when a man accosted Li and her travelling partner on the streets of Mombasa and snatched her phone. It was a terribly frightening experience for her, but she held on to her love for Africa.
“I know this won’t be the ending of my Kenyan story,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “There were too many great things that I saw for him to simply take it away from me like that. We choose faith over fear.”
Africa-China Historical Relationship
Contact between China and African peoples can be traced to the 15th century, when a Chinese expedition reached the east coast of Africa, through the Indian Ocean. Commanded by Admiral Zheng He, the fleet visited towns along the coast of what are now Somalia and Kenya and almost reached the Mozambique Channel.
But the contact was short lived as the Chinese retreated from exploration, believing in the self-sufficiency of its empire. In the 19th century, after suffering defeats in wars with Western powers and Japan, China started to roll back years of isolationism as many Chinese people migrated abroad.
In 1949, New China, heralded by the Communist Party of China (CPC), was born. Mao Zedong, the country’s leader, sought to cooperate with African leaders in their struggle against western colonisation. Despite being a developing country, China funded several development projects in Africa, including the TAZARA railway.
China’s engagement with Africa helped the country win its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and also fostered more people to people exchanges between their peoples as Africans moved to study in Chinese universities, while Chinese labour and expertise also moved west.
Since the turn of this century, China has launched a going-global initiative that encourages its state owned companies and entrepreneurs to move abroad, invest and win market share. Backed by loans from Chinese development banks, these businesses have increased the level of Chinese presence in Africa.
Meanwhile, China has continued to increase its development assistance to African countries. In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion package for Africa.
Yet, people to people contact between Africa and China is still low, leading to calls by major stakeholders to improve on this aspect.
“With more people-to-people exchanges in culture and art, education, sports, and between our think tanks, the media, and women and young people, we will strengthen the bond between the people of China and Africa,” President Xi said in 2018.
As people to people exchanges between Africa and China increase, individuals like Heather Li might become less rare.
Li grew up in Beijing, in what she described, to this reporter, as mostly a singular culture. “I didn’t have access to the international community,” she said. “Now I think it would have been amazing to grow up in a multicultural setting, because now I see China in a different way.”
Li, 25, whose childhood ambition was to be a journalist travelling round the world and telling stories, decided she wanted to go to America in her second year of high school. “I had never thought about it before, but two of my friends were going to America,” she said. “And our school started a class for studying abroad. So I went back home and told my parents, that I wanted to see the world. Everyone was shocked, but they gave me their support”.
For her bachelors degree, Li attended Penn State University in the United States, where she began to experience the discomfiting realities of racial identity. “When I was growing up, I never thought I was Chinese or paid attention to my skin tone, until I went to America,” she said.
But she was excited to meet people from all over the world. “In college, I was very interested in the international communities,” she said. “That was when I realised that I wanted to be a bridge between China and different cultures. I was interested in African culture then, but I was also interested in other cultures. It wasn’t until I returned to Beijing that I realised I felt very connected to the African community here. So I thought about exploring that connection deeper”.
At first, it was something she kept to herself. But everytime she met someone new, they remarked about how her love for Africa was so obvious, apparently because she likes to wear African prints and the direction her conversations tended to drift towards.
But, in 2018, during the African Week in Beijing, Li attended an event where she was asked to go onstage to share her China-Africa story. “That was when I realised this was something I really wanted to delve into,” she noted.
Managing Imposter Syndrome
A Chinese claiming to be from Africa is obviously bound to raise eyebrows and questions about cultural appropriation. Recently, Li appeared in a Youtube video with a Ghanaian Youtube star, discussing her love for Africa.
“I felt I was just expressing myself,” she said. “And then I had a comment from a friend, who is Korean-American, that I was appropriating African culture, that I am not a part of the history or the struggle.
“I am very conscious about it. Sometimes, I do feel like people are giving me side-eyes, like some Africans are thinking ‘what is this girl doing?’ It’s awkward. It’s easy when my friends tell me. But for someone who doesn’t know me, it might be hard. But it’s just natural for me. Everytime I talk about Africa, I am happy.
“Of course, I need to educate myself more, about the history, the culture, read more stories. I should dig in more if this is something I am connected to. I am always learning, but there is still so much to learn. I feel people shouldn’t just label others. The intention is the most important thing.”
Li believes the biggest threat to China-Africa relationship is that “there’s not enough mutual understanding due to stereotypes and generalisations.
For my Youtube video, I got a lot of nice comments, but also there were comments about China buying Africa and all that.
“I think we should work together more, instead of assuming the worst. I would really love China and Africa co-producing films and telling their stories. So that people can see the reality. People who live in China and Africa live a different lifestyle than what’s on television.”
Another issue plaguing China-Africa relations is racism. This reporter has interviewed tens of Africans living in China who have reported being racially discriminated against.
“Racism is a hard topic to discuss,” Li said. “I think racism is everywhere and people like to put people in a box. Most times, in China it’s just ignorance or the fact that Chinese people haven’t got used to having other cultures around. Sometimes I feel like my African friends take offense when Chinese people are just curious.
“But I also have to think as a black person (even if I would never know how it’s like to see the world as a black person). How would I feel if people stare at me and take pictures of me? I won’t feel comfortable.
“I think empathy is important. We should have more spaces where we put people together and they can learn about one another. I believe those spaces are important.”