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The Journo Who Went To China

“When I started to get some sleep, they came with nightmares. The dreams all had a common theme: I would suddenly be back in Nigeria and then struggling to return to China, to return to this life where the electricity never blinked and water didn’t stop running.”

Shared bikes are popular in Beijing
Photo Credit: Solomon Elusoji
Shared bikes are popular in Beijing
Photo Credit: Solomon Elusoji

Elizabeth,

You described leaving for China as going to war. I thought it was a funny metaphor. Now I know it’s true. It’s like laughing at a joke hours after one has heard it. Later you said I was becoming Chinese. “Do people ask if you are mixed in China?” I remember laughing so hard. Black boy like me. But it also reminded me how little I had told you about what I was actually doing there. 

It all started with a phone call. I was lying in my cramped apartment when I noticed the vibration. It was the newspaper’s Editor. The one I told you about. Ms Nwogwugwu. For a moment, my mind raced the clock and won. She never calls unless it’s important. And, as usual, she was brisk and direct. She said she would like me to go on a training to China, for ten months. Okay? Yes ma’am, I replied. I didn’t think, just said it. It wasn’t until the call ended that I realised what had happened. A bomb had been dropped on my apartment and detonated. Nothing was ever going to be the same again.

It was the first day of a new year. 2018. I had written IELTS the previous year and applied to British universities and received two unconditional admissions. Although I didn’t have the money to pay the tuition fees, barely enough to cover my flight tickets and living expenses, I had also applied for a Chevening scholarship. So, 2018 was supposed to be the year I left Nigeria.

But not to China.

China was a land of factories and similar looking people. It was a bland canvas, a place where people spoke in strange tongues. It was London in Orwell’s 1984, where you can’t use Google or Facebook. It was a dark, unknowable, distant land. Who goes to China? People who want to create knockoffs and manufacture cheap, low-quality goods en mass. So why would I want to go to China?

The question isn’t a difficult one to answer. I just wanted to leave. Even if just for a while. At the time, as you already know, I was a newspaper contributor. It wasn’t a paying position, but people and organisations paid to be written about and the line editors allowed my pieces to run, if it wasn’t absurdly advertorial. I made enough money to rent an apartment on the fringes of a Lagos slum, buy food and beer. When I made some extra money, I tried to do some independent reporting. One morning, I woke up and travelled almost a thousand kilometres to Makurdi, to report on a devastating flooding. It was one of my proudest moments as a reporter, lodging in cheap motels for about four days and interviewing the victims, aid volunteers and government officials. I returned to Lagos with a bruised bank account balance, but it felt good. These brief spurts of ecstasy, however, couldn’t hide the fact that I spent most of my time chasing public relations stories, after brown envelopes, after my own share of the national cake. It is quite possible to rationalise this behaviour but I felt my soul slipping away for every truth I chose not to include in a story. This sensation of slipping away manifested itself in various forms. I tried to fight back. Sometimes, clients asked me to send my account number and I would decline, even after the stories got published, because I wanted to be ‘professional’. Of course I took money from others. It was an incongruous defence, a lukewarm, spill-out-of-my-mouth transgression. I couldn’t figure how to balance the spiritual and the material.

So when Ms. Nwogwugwu called, I guessed that the universe was trying to help out.

*

One of the first things I did, in the wake of the unexpected news, was to go in search of books about China. I found Peter Hessler, Evan Osnos, Ian Johnson, Richard McGregor. All white men. But I would expand my list later. As I started to clear the cobwebs, I was amazed about how much I didn’t know about where I was heading to. A new world began to emerge right inside my apartment. It was almost like an epiphany, like being born again. I am Nigerian, but my education, my values, my identity has been shaped by the west. I read western books, watch Hollywood, listen to American pop; I believe in democracy, in the idea that the individual is sacred. Maybe this is what it means to be Nigerian, after all the country is a British creation, a mere agglomeration of colonial interests.

So when I began to learn about China, it struck me that there was a different world somewhere, a reality that didn’t necessarily correspond to mine, an alien matrix. I couldn’t comprehend it at the time, of course. It was just a feeling, a sense of foreboding that made my soul leap. I was on the verge of discovering something. And I was eager to know what it was.

The travel application was pretty straightforward. My contact at the Chinese Embassy was Mr Fan, a bespectacled, charming diplomat whose first word to me was ‘Congratulations’. He was in Abuja, so I e-mailed him the required documents. But I had to travel from Lagos to the capital city to get my passport stamped. The Chinese embassy paid for my flight tickets and I got a recommendation letter from Ms. Nwogwugwu to take with me. It was a generous recommendation, from an editor I had watched with awe in the newsroom arguing about the fine points of grammar late into the night. I am sure she couldn’t even pick me out of a group photo, but she read my flailing, verbose and sometimes overly ambitious efforts at journalism and spotted promise.

After picking up my Chinese visa in Abuja, Mr Fan asked me to dinner, so I could meet the Nigerian journalist that had spent ten months in China the previous year. Bukola Ogunsina. I had reached out to her earlier. She told me, on the phone, that the training program was a fabulous opportunity to travel through China and expand my horizons. She intimated me about the stress of constant travelling and keeping up with what to write and the inclement weather, but her voice was suffused with excitement. She had had a terrific time.

When we met, over a banquet of Chinese dishes at a restaurant in Abuja, she turned out to be a graceful, kind woman. She practised her Mandarin with Mr Fan and his colleague and laughed as I struggled to wield the chopsticks. She gave me a few tips on surviving in China. But the one that stayed with me was: you have to act like an ambassador. When people look at you, they’ll see Nigeria. So what you do matters. It was good stuff. But, throughout my time in China, I also came to realise that the opposite was true. It didn’t matter what I did. Sometimes, what mattered was what my country had done.

In a twist of fate, I had also gotten admitted to study for a Masters degree in Global Journalism at Renmin University, as part of the training. More than two British universities had offered me admissions in the same area of study. But this was a fully funded admission. While studying journalism in the UK is not the same as doing it in China, as a senior colleague advised me, I quickly learnt that Renmin had the most reputable journalism faculty in communist China. That was something.

So I counted the days, while reading more books, articles about China. There was so much, too much, inundating. It was a bottomless pit.

I didn’t pack a lot of clothes (didn’t have much anyways); didn’t pack any food, except a sack of garri and a handful of red, crushed pepper, which eventually saved me from a coroner’s death-by-starvation report, during my early days in Beijing.

On the eve of my flight out of Nigeria, I packed my bags and travelled across Lagos to sleep over at my Father’s. Together, accompanied by my sister, stepmother and cousin, we boarded a taxi to the airport the following morning. As I went through immigration, I was literally trembling, not with joy, but with something else. It was like being in a corridor that opened to heaven, a place you’ve heard so many good things about. And you are at the door, your hands on the handle, about to turn it down. Your heart is bursting at the seams with, what’s the word now? Adrenaline? I don’t know. But it was overwhelming.

When the plane took off and the map opposite indicated that we were out of Nigerian airspace, I felt lighter, freer. It was a moment of small triumph. Like many others before me, I had found a way to leave, too.

*

The first leg of the flight, from Lagos to Addis Ababa, was uneventful. But the second one wasn’t. I sat beside a Chinese lady who taught in Africa and an Angolan scholarship student who had been to Macau. She was heading for vacation in China and he, the Angolan student, was resuming studies at a university in Beijing. It was a long journey and the company was great.

When the plane touched down at the Beijing airport, I held my breath. My dog-eared copy of Norton’s Anthology of Fiction was clasped between my knees, as the pilot steered us to a complete stop. The flight announcer demanded for Nigerian passengers to get off first. I fought through the already-crowded aisle. Behind me was another Nigerian, a teenager who moved like she had been here before. As we hurried through the tunnel-like extension that connected the plane to the first immigration checkpoint, she told me she was studying communications at a university in Beijing. She had completed a year of Chinese language training and was returning that spring to start taking degree courses.

She left me at the first immigration checkpoint, while I fished for my yellow card. I saw her far ahead on a later queue, at the last immigration checkpoint. I hadn’t gotten the chance to collect her contact number. But she’d contact me months later, with a shocking surprise.

The immigration officer checked my passport and asked me to step aside. And I waited, for more than thirty minutes. While other black people joined me, some from Togo. We were eventually attended to at a police booth, where our pictures were taken before being allowed to proceed.

I found the airport stunning. The lights, the moving floors, the train shuttle, the smooth surfaces. It was nothing like all the airports I had travelled through in Nigeria. This was something I would do frequently through my time in China: compare a piece of infrastructure with what I had experienced in Nigeria. It was my only terms of reference. And every time, the Chinese version, placed side-by-side with its Nigerian counterpart, was akin to magic. Once, I made a friend who told me Beijing infrastructure was one of the worst she had experienced in her travels across the world. I marked her off, in my head, as delusional.

Representatives of the China Africa Press Centre, the training organisers, were waiting with a big sign at the arrival lobby. Some other African journalists had streamed out before I did. I ticked off my name on a list and went round, saying my name and country. There were journalists from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, every corner of Africa. For the next ten months, I would travel across China with this group and make unforgettable memories. But on that cold February morning, we were complete strangers.

On the bus, I tried to keep awake and watch a foreign city for the first time. It was just past midnight. Skyscrapers rose against the night sky. The wide roads, the elaborate, intricate bridges, the almost saintly magnificence of the city. It was a lot to take in at once.

We were domiciled at the Diplomatic Residence Compound (DRC) in Jianguomen, situated at the very heart of Beijing. The DRC consists of a series of residential towers, tree-lined roads and guards swaddled in heavy coats and wool hats. During my time there, it was serene and secure. My apartment was commodious and well-furnished. When I had friends come over, I was always quick to remind them I wasn’t paying the rent.

My first night, I could hardly sleep. I was brimming with ideas. My vision of China was already being reset. This was a modern city. And what about the apartment? It was one of the biggest and most comfortable I had ever lived in. So I sat down at the dining table (yeah, I had one, thank you) and wrote my first story from Beijing.

It was about The Evolution of Big Brother. Of course I had read about censorship and human rights abuses and inequality and environmental pollution and degradation, and all the other question marks hanging over modern China. But now that I was here, none of those things mattered or, perhaps, they mattered differently. And the article was exploring the idea that maybe the Chinese are right. Maybe a dictatorship, not a democracy, was the future of the human race.

The next morning, I went out looking for a proper extension port for my phone charger. No one had told me that China’s electric ports were different, two slanted lines running from each other. Walking down Guanghua Road, my hands tucked into my jacket, I passed a number of bars and embassies, including the United States consulate. But I didn’t find an electric-store shop. I turned into Ritan road. The farther I went, the more people I came across.

Along the sidewalk, people queued in front of shops, apparently for morning snacks. I found a shop selling a variety of things, including toys. But the attendant wasn’t interested in my frantic gestures. I left, deflated. But, up ahead, I found another store. And this attendant spoke some English. She was excited to see me and asked where I was from. She also had the extension port I was looking for.

When I returned to the apartment, I stumbled on Omphi, my South African colleague in the elevator. She said she was having issues with her phone’s Internet connection. I told her I could fix it and invited her to my apartment.

Omphi is fair-skinned and exudes a soothing intelligence formed through more than 14 years of professional journalism. She was one of the most critical, curious and honest minds I met in China. And she had a great smile, which appeared when I fixed her Internet connection problem, by installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) application. I think I would be a very rich man now if I had charged a dollar for every VPN related issue I fixed in China.

Later, we had our first meal in the new country together at the Italian restaurant opposite our building. We shared a medium sized pizza and two glasses of chocolate milk. It would be the beginning of a marvellous friendship.

*

Our first few days were about settling in. We received our first monthly living allowance (just over a $1,000), registered for a Chinese phone card, visited the hospital for a medical check-up and a nearby supermarket to shop for household items and groceries. It could have been overwhelming if we didn’t have two Chinese assistants, Pinky and Marshall, to guide our every step.

One of my first biggest challenges was finding something to eat. The Italian restaurant served a lot of really great meals, but I soon got tired of asking for extra pepper. Together with Omphi, I tried a Chinese restaurant, which advertised itself as a great place for Peking duck. But when our order arrived, it was cold and sour. I almost threw up. So I started to finagle with my phone and soon found the Chinese McDonalds web app. Somehow, I managed to input my address in Chinese. When the delivery rider called, I would just mutter dui dui dui, which could translate to mean yes, yes, yes. And it worked. It would be a long time before I learnt enough Chinese to download the Meituan app and fully delve into the magic of food delivery in China; but with the McDonald’s efficiency, I was beginning to get a glimpse.

One evening, during our first few days, I stood with some colleagues on the sidewalk, trying to flag down a taxi. But none stopped. It was windy and terribly cold. We bantered: perhaps the taxis were not stopping because we were black. At some point, I pulled out my phone and translated ‘stop taxi’ with Google. Then I screamed the phrase at the next taxi. To our surprise, the vehicle stopped. We ran towards it. Later, after acquiring a bank account, I started using Didi, the taxi-hailing app, and life just became a lot easier.

I also quickly learned that, in Beijing, cash was a burden. Whether it was at the big supermarkets or the petty trader selling used goods in the underground, all you had to do was retrieve your phone and scan the seller’s Wechat or Alibaba QR code. As at 2018, the volume of mobile payments was the largest in the world, totalling more than US$ 12 trillion, from more than 700 million mobile users. And the numbers are not expected to slow down. Some analysts have predicted that by 2023, the country’s annual total transaction value via mobile could reach $96.7 trillion.

And then there was the subway, which is one of the busiest subway systems in the world with nearly two billion rides a year. At first it seemed intimidating. I did several Google searches, inquiring how to pay and know when to get off. There was a lot of good stuff on Reddit. Descending down the subway stairs, for the first time, I felt my heart pound. At the ticket counter, I held up my phone towards the counter to reveal my destination to the attendant. She understood and sold me the appropriate card. It ended up being pretty easy. The signs were in Chinese symbols and Latin letters. The announcer spoke, first in Chinese, and then in English. The train was on time. There weren’t a lot of seats, but it was clean and airy and fast. The only thing I could think of, as I ascended out of the metro, was why Lagos didn’t have one.

*

As I am sure you know already, meeting people from different countries gives you a feeling akin to spreading your wings across the universe. You feel like you are close to something truly universal. This was how I felt when I had dinner with Billy, who is Mongolian, Hafyza, who is Maldivian, and Tenga, from Namibia. Billy and Hafyza were part of the team of journalists from Southeast Asia who were also on a similar training program like ours, the Africans. We met at the Italian restaurant and talked about life in our different countries, about work, love and wine. Being selected for the training, it appeared, was also a defining moment for them.

I soon became close to Laetitia (Mauritius) and Ahlem (Tunisia), two of the most important people I met in China. They both spoke French but also enough English for me to, sometimes, interrupt their never-ending communion. My Kenyan colleague, Trix, became my de facto cousin, because she knew so much about Nollywood and Nigerian pop. We lived in the same building and, sometimes, when the writing was awry, I would appear at her doorstep and she would play some music and watch me dance drunkenly. And there was Tlotlo (Botswana), a magical adventurer, who always urged me to leave the apartment, leave the books and live. Go skydiving or hiking, she would say, do something different.

It was a thoroughly stunning education meeting these people. When someone asked me, some few weeks before I left China, what my biggest takeaway from the training was, I didn’t think too deeply. It’s the people I have met, I replied. To have friends from across Africa, especially, helped me think differently about the continent, about how we are all so different and yet so similar.

*

We had a bus. It was one of those long, tourist buses with enough space for up to 40 people. Our driver was Wang Bing, a chain-smoking, calm and dependable man in his forties. He didn’t speak any English and his accent was too sloppy for me to even pick up the occasional phrase. But he was always early, ready to ferry us across the city, through traffic jams and toll booths. He was there, from beginning to end. And when he wasn’t focused on the road ahead and lines formed across his brow, he had a disarming smile etched on his face

Our first official briefing was delivered by Mr Chen Zhe, the CAPC director whose English was a bit forced but kind. My English name is Alex, he said. But everyone I knew called him Mr Chen. When someone asked him whether we have to submit our stories to him for vetting before publication, he looked amused. We don’t have such rights, he said.

The briefing was about getting us ready for the next ten months. The training was about helping us understand Chinese media, politics and society. And we were scheduled to attend conferences and summits, visit Chinese media houses and government ministries across the country; and also be treated to a staggering variety of Chinese culture tourism. In addition, we would receive a number of lectures at Renmin University, with guest lecturers from universities and think tanks across the country.

After the briefing, the group broke to head for our first lecture. Downstairs, I stumbled upon Hazem, the Egyptian journalist and asked him whether he was enjoying his stay in Beijing. He shook his head. I’m lonely, he told me. I mumbled something about how time will help him adjust better, but he looked disinterested.

Marshall, one of our assistants, sat beside me on the bus, making a phone call. When he dropped, he continued to tinker with the screen, his lean fingers dancing across the surface. Bespectacled, he was usually busy with his phone, focused intently on its machinations. I wanted to ask him how long it took for him to learn how to type in Chinese. The day before, while at the hospital conducting a physical examination, he had suggested that I focus only on learning how to speak and listen. It will be too difficult to learn how to write because of the characters, he said. So I wanted to ask him how long it had taken him. But, again, he was on the phone receiving a call. So I turned my face to the window and watched Chinese life in 3D: jacketed pedestrians standing at a zebra crossing, rows of bicycles parked on the sidewalk, sleek cars and giant billboards. I had never been to Europe, but I had read about London and Paris and the resplendence of Amsterdam. Beijing evoked those literary memories.

*

When I started to get some sleep, they came with nightmares. The dreams all had a common theme: I would suddenly be back in Nigeria and then struggling to return to China, to return to this life where the electricity never blinked and water didn’t stop running. I would wake and my heart would be thumping, beads of sweat on my forehead in the chill of winter. It wasn’t difficult to understand what my subconscious was telling me.

The previous year, in 2017, I had interviewed a Nigerian who had embarked on the journey to Libya. Friday Eneji. He came to THISDAY headquarters in Lagos and said he wanted to tell his story. He removed his clothes to reveal the scars he had collected while trying to get into Europe. It was a difficult story to write, because I struggled to understand why someone would take the kind of risks he took, to leave. But, thousands of miles away from home, I was beginning to.

I was beginning to understand panic, desperation, but only a little bit. I still had no intention of staying back in China illegally. But that was because of the countless privileges (Oh Lord, these should be rights) I have had growing up, the parent that provided shelter, food and books, the public-subsidised secondary and university education I received, the newspaper internship that nurtured my journalism instincts. I could return and get a job and be relatively comfortable. This sort of privileges come with pride, the kind that protects you from the panic that pushes you to the edge.

But I don’t believe the subconscious is subject to our hubris. At least mine wasn’t. It was reminding me to do all it takes to remain here. You can’t go back. You can’t go back and not be able to return.

In a way, it was a warning. ✚

This essay was adapted from the author’s China memoir, Travelling With Big Brother, which is available on Amazon here. 

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