« The Marco Polo Effect | Main | Ruined Life Now on Display in China Daily »

Get Into my Africa

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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:

Hey Tom,

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?

Comments (5)


hey, thomas, pls check ur e-mail, i need some helpXD

Brian Granger:

Hello Thomas,

Your website and blog are fascinating. I'm finally getting the courage to start something of my own, along the lines of what you have, researching China, and, one might say, psychology (or even the reason for why we humans are on earth . . . that can be researched in any number of ways, and you've in the last years chosen to do this through the medium of China).

I found what you describe here also happening to me in China, in Beijing and Nanjing. A curious phenomenon. We'll have to research this more.

Best regards,

Brian Granger

Brian Granger:

PS It may be that Westerners have stumbled upon something in China which has long been lacking in the West: the right to happiness. This is well described in the book 'My Country and My People' from the 1930s. The book, despited the fact of it being a little dated (the author notes the best place for women is in the home, that is where it will give them the greatest fulfilment and joy) sums up well the results of millenia of the Chinese way of life and values. This influence is very strong and foreigners, when the go there, when they find themselves in such a 'powered environment' with regard to these kinds of influence, have something happen to them which is akin to a second chance at life. They are not to blame . . . but then the possessiveness and competition, ingrained in us from early childhood, from preschool even, is like a thorn in our side which pricks every time a foreigner is seen.

We have been trained to be possessors and owners. But can one really own one's 'own' (interesting, how English works) experience? Experience is to be had by all, it is a shared commodity, and the Chinese know and appreciate this better than others.

Just a few thoughts, perhaps not entirely on the right track, but an attempt . . .

Brian Granger

Brian Granger:

PSS Last couple of notes to finish the train of thought . . . one great plus of Chinese (the language) is that it often tends to bring the speaker into the present tense. The senses, possibly long dormant from our training in Western countries, are suddenly, or fairly quickly, brought 'online', or into play more than usual. More than usual than, say, a person's senses are brought to life when visiting the Netherlands. One is granted the grace of being allowed to be outside one's head for a while (inside one's head = our European inheritance) and experience life as it is, now. Sometimes in China one is not only caught off guard, but one has no guard, and cannot keep one up if one tries . . . the old patterns no longer work and are certainly less applicable to a Chinese environment. (Not to go too scientific, however.)

Imagine, an August day last year, being driven around Nanjing on a 'tour' with a dozen other Chinese tourists (these from other parts of China). These others do not know each other very well, apart from their spouses or children, and they get on and off the rickety van at intervals, one deciding the trip 'is not for them', while others are picked up along the way at the sites we visit; they want to come along. We see, say, seven or eight places, great historical sites, massive city walls, temples, gardens and pavilions, etc. in the space of five hours. (The tour guides at these places speak very fast.) We are, halfway through, crammed into a dingy restaurant with the lone toilet sitting right next to the kitchen entrance, no door (on the toilet), so you just go in there and do what you have to do, stench and all, the cooks tossing the food in their pans and woks above the flames a few yards from you.

Keep one's guard up? Keep distances? One's Western, highly proprietary nature is not only thrown into confusion, but dispersed to the winds.

It is interesting that the idea of 'Chinese' or 'China' was only ever a cultural one, as a first principle, even more than territorial . . .

I am not sure what it is like in Japan, but I have heard that life there is less like this.

Our tour ended with a visit to the local 'Nanjing Commerce Centre', where one could stock up on all the necessaries, such as Ginsu knives (or their Chinese equivalent) and all the kitchen implements one could possibly dream of . . . This following a half-hour presentation of cutting, slicing and some dicing just after visiting one of the highest historical fortifications of Nanjing.
The bus then, around 5:00 pm, stopped in an unknown district while the driver went off to transact some business with one of the tourists in a large, nondescript building. I took a taxi home.

Proprietary distances, one's guard . . . perhaps we're getting a taste of the future with China.

PSSS Last note (for real) . . . it is very interesting that 'propriety' comes from the same root as 'proprietary' (there's only an extra 'ar' there) - both come from the word 'property'. Does the foreign sensibility, its sense of propriety, get replaced by a sense of property when in China? One level is banished, the other rises in strength to take its place.
The Western sense of propriety gets thrown to wind, and what we are left with is . . . the lower level, perhaps, a proprietary sense of 'owning' . . .


OK, I was doing some research and happened upon your blog. I appreciate your self-reflectiveness.
I think you are having a hard time seeing yourself outside of your own cultural context. The question of what makes China different from Africa is really a question of belonging. The Chinese are willing to allow you to pretend you are a native, and they are willing to play along. My father was from Ghana, and we would visit a fair amount when I was growing up. As an American, even one that was half-African, I was an outsider, and abrunni (my mother more so than me as she has light skin). Your friend Andrew is very likely a white male. No white person is going to be considered African, not even the ones born there. A white South African is not really considered African because Africans are supposedly black. Whereas the Chinese are willing to allow anyone who wants to be Chinese membership into their club. Another reason this is true is because even though there are ethnic differences in Chinese people, those ethnic differences are not codified into separate tribal groups with separate languages, traditions, and customs. Ans when they are, in the case of Tibetans or the Uighurs, the Han do not separate themselves out to oppress or engage in violence against them. My Manchu friend doesn't really get treated any differently from her Han friends. However, in most African nations, tribal leaders still have power and ultimately control the land, and thus, the resources. When resources are scarce or valuable, you will have tensions over them. Your tribal belonging has a lot to do with who you are and where you are in society. Technically, anyone of any ethnicity can be Chinese. So a white guy in China can learn the language, master the public transportation system, enjoy the food, date a Chinese girl, and suddenly he feels Chinese. I can go to Ghana, learn the languages, master transportation, cook the food, marry a Ghanaian...but I won't feel Ghanaian. Because I won't belong to any tribe. I won't have a family group to share a recorded (oral) history, to share my local tongue and inflection, to share my look and the way I wear my clothes. That is my two cents worth. I hope it translates.

Post a comment