In my informal search with Peter Hessler into the Get out of my China Fantasy Effect—the possessiveness foreigners feel toward China and their shunning of other foreigners—we’ve surmised that several causes might be pushing foreigners to feel possessive about China:
The learning curve: learning Chinese is difficult, and after we’ve completed the arduous process, we come to feel like we’ve earned it, and this place is ours.
The hardship factor: living in China can be difficult. As with language, this gives us hardcore points for living without internet, clean air, etc., so we come attached to the place, perhaps like someone who struggles through working to pay for their own college education then thinking that others should do the same.
The adventurer myth: foreigners in China have in the backs of their minds the romantic dream of being an adventurer in a strange land. Whether they’re in a remote place like Fuling or a metropolis like Beijing, the addition of other foreigners dashes this dream, so we want them out.
Yet throughout all of these explanations, I can’t shake my suspicion that things happen differently for foreigners in Africa. To understand exactly what happens when Westerners go to live in Africa, I asked an old friend who is now in his second year volunteering with the Peace Corps in Cape Verde. He responded:
I’ve thought about more or less the same question as well, throughout my time in CV [Cape Verde]… . I don’t think many of us PCVs [Peace Corps Volunteers] feel hardcore here, with the main dangers of alcoholism and STDs. Even tourists feel that way, that it’s Africa-lite. That would tend to lessen the possessiveness factor, I believe.
It’s almost like the least involved people think they’re most hardcore. As PCVs we’re deep in our communities and kind of live like locals, whereas other development people make much more money, live in the nice cities, and can’t believe how terrible it is that there are power cuts every so often. We feel different as well because we live here, have lived with Cape Verdean families for two months. We resent it when Cape Verdeans tell us we’re just tourists spending two years visiting.
We at times resent tourists, businesspeople, or NGO workers who are here to play and mess around without respecting or helping Cape Verdeans… .
So I guess in the end, I can’t rule out a sense of possessiveness, but I don’t see it much in CV.
Best, or as we say in Kriolu, fika dretu,
It looks like the answer is tricky. On one hand, visitors and residents in Africa certainly do seem to have the same criterion of hardcore-ness that visitors to China have. The harder, dirtier, and more dangerous the place is, the more hardcore points you have. Conversely, people who jet about the “easy” places with steak houses and fancy hotels become an object of sneering or resentment.
On the other hand, the feelings of hardcore-ness seem to exist in Africa without a feeling of possession. Andrew may judge other foreigners for being tourists and decry his own “Africa-lite” experience, but a sense of possessiveness is not a part of the equation.
That leaves a nagging question: if Africa doesn’t inspire a possessiveness in visiting Westerners, then what is it about China or East Asia in general that does inspire this possessiveness?