|Ye Quing at her restaurant in Lusaka.|
|Jackie during the graduation ceremony.|
|Toddlers graduating at the Chinese school.|
By Jack Zimba
A young waitress pours a steaming brew of green tea into a small cup in front of me. The cup is so small I could have emptied its honey-coloured content in one gulp. But, of course, that would be rude and disrespectful to my host seated on the other side of the small table.
My host, Ye Quing, is a spritely Chinese entrepreneur operating a restaurant called Tina’s Restaurant in the up-market Millennium City, a complex of villas situated behind Hotel InterContinental Lusaka.
As we both sip on our tea, we discuss China and its growing influence across the globe. Occasionally, Mrs Ye scurries off the table to welcome her customers, mostly young Chinese men dropping in for lunch. Fried rice, chicken noodles with lots of dried red paper are high on the menu. Green tea, served without sugar or milk, is complimentary.
Open-minded and free-spirited, Mrs Ye is a far cry from the media-shy roughneck Chinese labourers I have tried to interview without luck in the past.
Mrs Ye gives an impression of a new China – a nation no longer veiled in secrecy behind the red curtain, but one that has become part of the global village. She presents an image of the communist nation very different from the one still portrayed in many Western media.
“Communism is weakening as a result of economic advancements,” Mrs Ye tells me. “China is becoming part of the global village.”
She talks about a melting of cultures due to globalization and cross-culture marriages. Mrs Ye, herself, has a Chinese friend who recently got married to a Zambian man.
A devout Buddhist, Mrs Ye also has a deep sense of spirituality and talks highly about Zambia’s status as a Christian nation.
“Faith is very important to every person,” she says. “You have to ask yourself why you are here on earth.”
Buddhism is said to be one of the most common religions in China, with followers numbering about 300 million, according to Wikipedia.
Mrs Ye is also a strict vegetarian who fears adding more weight to her slim Oriental frame. She has unveiled admiration for Zambia’s most famous vegan – former president Kenneth Kaunda.
“I don’t want to be fat,” she says. And she believes consuming green tea can help in weight loss.
Her English is polished, though she still has to refer to the Chinese-English translator on her smartphone whenever she is not sure about a word. Back in China, Mrs Ye worked as an English translator for a company before heading to France to study for her Master’s in business administration.
“France is a romantic place,” she says with a bit of nostalgia. Mrs Ye also worked in Ireland, before finally coming to Africa.
She could have settled in Tanzania, but she found the enthusiasm and aggressive nature of the east Africans unbearable.
“You can’t make long-term friends there,” she says.
Mrs Ye has lots of praise for Zambians for their peaceable and friendly nature. However, when it comes to work culture, her general perception of Zambians is a bit offensive.
“You don’t have much ambition,” she says.
One of Mrs Ye’s biggest culture shocks in Zambia has been the lack of time consciousness exhibited by many Zambians, but she says she has come to accept it as part of culture.
“To us time is very important,” she says. “My parents taught me to respect time from an early age.”
She says the pressure to work hard in China comes from the country’s huge population. Official statistics put the Asian country’s population at 1.3 billion people, although some estimates put the figure at 1.6 billion.
“In China if you don’t work hard, you can easily be replaced because there are so many people,” she says. “We have to survive.”
And the instinct to survive is what is leading the younger, more educated and ambitious Chinese like Mrs Ye to become global citizens, seeking opportunity that China cannot offer them due to over-population and other factors.
“It will be very hard for me to do business in China,” Mrs Ye tells me.
She says her husband would not let her do business because China is still a very sexist society that does not favour women. Her husband, who works for the government, and her five-year-old son are still living in China.
“More tea?” asks Mrs Ye and beckons to the waitress to refill my small cup.
But there is more that China is bringing to the table than just a steaming cup of green tea.
After making its footprint on Africa through trade, the Asian country wants to spread its influence through language and culture.
During celebrations to mark Zambia’s 50 years of independence from Britain on October 24, it was China that took centre-stage with the night’s performances choreographed by the Chinese complete with displays of kung fu and t’ai chi. Even the army adopted the Chinese military-style stiff-body march.
Ever since the Asian Dragon embarked on reforms to open up to the world in the 70s – the famous Open Door Policy - it has been on a huge public relations campaign to change how it is perceived internationally. Not a very easy task some will admit.
There are many who are still uncomfortable with the spread of Chinese culture probably because they cannot distinguish it from Communism, a political ideology blanketly demonized by the West.
“We know each other through the Western media. But secondary information can be very misleading,” says Jackie Pan, a principal at the Chinese International School in Lusaka.
The school she runs was established by a group of seven local Chinese businessmen in 2012 with the aim of popularizing the Chinese language or Mandarin among Zambians.
With only 20 pupils in its register at inception, the school now enrolls 172 pupils with classes going up to grade seven.
“All our classes are full and we are now thinking of expanding,” says Jackie, a petite woman with a pretty and benign face.
The school uses a method called emersion, which encourages interaction between the pupils and native Chinese teachers in Mandarin.
By the time the children graduate from nursery, they are able to exchange greetings in the Chinese language. There is more emphasis on spoken Chinese than the written one at the school. The reason is simple.
There are reportedly tens of thousands of characters in the Chinese language, although you only need 5,000 to read a newspaper, says Jackie.
And although she admits it is hard to learn how to write in the Chinese language, she insists it is easier to learn spoken Mandarin than English.
And as a way of sharing the Chinese culture, the school observes three important Chinese holidays; the Spring Festival, which marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year in February, and the Moon Festival, which celebrates the end of the autumn harvest. The Dragon Boat Festival is also part of the school calendar, while Kung fu and t'ai chi are mandatory for all the pupils at the school.
But the bigger plan is to take such learning to government schools.
Early this year the Zambian government, in conjunction with the Confucius Institute, introduced a pilot programme where Chinese is taught as a foreign language in one selected school in each of the 10 provinces.
I met He Yi, who is director of the Confucius Institute based at the University of Zambia.
Although she is friendly, Prof He makes it clear before the interview that she won’t discuss Chinese politics.
The Confucius Institute operates in the same line as the British Council and Alliance France, spreading Chinese culture and language.
In Zambia, the institute was set up in 2010 in response to the high demand from both China and Zambia.
“We both need the language,” says Prof He, “It’s a bridge.”
Currently, the Institute enrolls 7,170 students and facilitates cultural visits for dozens of Zambians to China.
Prof He believes the perception of China is changing through efforts by the institute to introduce “the real China” to Zambians.
The Confucius Institute is now present in many nations across the globe, including the US.
“I think the world will be a better place when people understand each other, and the only way you really start to understand another culture is when you start to understand its language,” says Dr Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland in the US.
The University of Maryland was the first to have the Confucius Institute in the US.
Indeed, if there are 1.2 billion speakers of Mandarin in the world and every nation on earth wants to do business with China, then Chinese may be the language of choice for future generations.
It’s Friday, a big day for a dozen or more toddlers graduating from reception to grade one at the Chinese International School. Jackie, who is dressed in a bright red gown, is beaming with joy as she watches performances by the pupils with parents of the graduating four- and -five-year-olds.
There are various performances by the older pupils, who also exhibit their knowledge in Chinese language.
“Xiexie (thank you),” chorus the children from the grade two class as they end their performance with a bow. They will definitely have better understanding of China than their parents.