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A grand opportunity for young scholars

Updated: 2014-06-13 09:19
By Niu Dong ( China Daily Africa)

Conference brings together experts from the four corners of the globe

The arrival in Guangzhou of Africans from dozens of African countries increases the cultural diversity of the city, making it a living museum. On display in the southern metropolis are different races, ethnicities, languages, nationalities and cultures that are having a strong influence on Chinese society. Guangzhou is widely regarded as being the main meeting point of Africans in China, and even Asia.

It is a trader's paradise, too. More than 40 domestic and overseas researchers on Chinese in Africa and Africans in China holding a conference at Jinan University in Guangzhou in December underlines the city's importance in the China-African migration network.

For 65 years, Chinese sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists have been concerned predominantly with studying China's villages and ethnic minorities, which has tended to make domestic research their focus. In recent years, research on Chinese in Africa has begun to receive much greater attention, and it is only in the past 10 years that Chinese scholars have begun to do research on Africans in China. That belated interest was largely because of the topic's relatively short history as a social phenomenon and because of language barriers between researchers and informants. Scholars tend to stick firmly to the narrow confines of their research topics rather than becoming involved in much broader migration research. Publications on Chinese in Africa/Africans in China from scholars in China are sparse, particularly in English. There are still few ethnographic works on Africans' lives in China.

As a Chinese student, I began studying Africans one year ago. My training was mostly in Chinese archaeology and ethnographical research in Guangxi and Hainan. But traveling through Xiaobei, Guangzhou, I was increasingly attracted by the huge number of Africans there and started to be drawn to this more challenging topic, one that is strongly anchored in the future. Several of my university professors, including my doctoral supervisor, opposed the idea, and the supervisor suggested I go back to villages and areas where ethnic minorities live, where research would be easier. But I could not resist the fascination of the topic and began immersing myself in fieldwork. I set about getting to know about the daily lives of Africans in Guangzhou, and then focused on their identities as Africans living in China, their aspirations and their dealings with a Chinese non-governmental organization in the city.

One of my African friends, Exauce, is a child who has lived in Guangzhou for several years. He is always saying I should ask the government to organize a football match between Chinese children and African children who can speak Mandarin. "If the Africans win they can become Chinese. You should also ask the local Guangzhou children to be more polite and stop calling me a 'black ghost'. If you forget about how I look, I am Chinese." That nice kind of thinking has inspired my research.

I do not know how many children there are like him in China, but I do know that some Africans have become a part of their adopted country, regardless of what the immigration laws say. Again, that way of looking at things has put paid to my earlier, simplistic notions of international immigration and Chinese society.

The sphere of those doing research on Chinese in Africa and on Africans in China is very much a transnational one. In it you can be dealing with Americans and Germans one day and Norwegians and South Africans the next. Most have traveled between China and Africa many times and have a lot of expertise in field research. They have encouraged and inspired me, sometimes in very specific ways such as questioning my methodology.

The site where I do my fieldwork is also my school, and there I am getting a top-flight international education. Those international scholars are my senior teachers, and few Chinese junior scholars are lucky enough to have the opportunity to draw on such rich resources.

I am also fortunate with other junior scholars to be able to attend the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Conference, which provides a great chance to meet scholars from across the world engaged in fieldwork on China-Africa migration.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Africa about 15 months ago, more importance has been attached to economic relations and trade between China and the continent. That makes the Jinan University conference in December all the more pertinent. It will broaden academic insight and bring all of those in the field closer to the subject they are studying.

The author is a Chinese PhD student at the School of Sociology and Anthropology at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/13/2014 page9)

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