Sunday, June 26, 2011

Week 2: Being Chinese in Zambia

A quarter of my internship, and a third of my time in Africa, is already behind me.

This week was spent translating company workflow/operating procedures for Human Resources, watching and analyzing “Rain Man” in my English class (not a big hit with my students, as it turns out), and tagging along on a few outings with co-workers (vegetable market, container pickup at the Zimbabwe border). Last night we had another delicious party: massive crayfish, shredded potatoes, boiled dumplings, and chicken and onion stew, followed by plenty of toasting and several rousing games of ping-pong. Experts agree: if Brian Jacques had spent any significant time in China, his books would have had to be banned for excessive epicurean sensuality.

The trip to the border turned out to be a lot of fun. There was a miscommunication and it wasn’t until we got there (after waking up at 5 AM in order to arrive on time) that we found out the container had already been sent up to Lusaka. It was a beautiful drive, though, and on our way back we took a clandestine detour (shh, don’t tell the boss) to Lake Kariba, the largest man-made lake in the world. The only way I can describe to you how big it is, is to say that from the mountain road overlooking the lake, it looks like you’re looking down at a bay and out across the ocean. The Kariba Dam is, as you might expect, similarly massive. I have some great photos of the froth, steam, rainbows, and general impressiveness made by the cascade of water down from the dam… and at the time we went, they had only opened one of the six gates in the dam. (Apparently on the rare occasion when the water level is high enough to warrant opening all six gates at once, the President often comes down to see.) And although the dam was originally constructed by the English, we also ran into some Chinese workers from SinoHydro (
中国水电) doing expansion work on it.

Chinese companies, it turns out, are everywhere, at least in Lusaka, and are into pretty much everything industry can legally be a part of. There are so many of them that there’s a whole subset of them dedicated to providing things for the Chinese community: you can buy your favorite snacks or spices after a meal and maybe some karaoke at one of the more authentic Chinese restaurants in town; every week a guy comes around delivering high-priced Chinese-brand cigarettes; and there’s even a huge, Chinese-run “Great Wall Casino,” which I’m told is the reason behind my company’s strict anti-gambling policy.

“Made in China” takes on a completely different meaning here. Not that there aren’t cheap, low-quality goods coming in from that country – I’ve heard businesspeople and ordinary consumers alike complain about that, though some say it’s getting better. But in a country without much of a manufacturing sector of its own, it’s often just not economical to buy local. At the Chinese compounds, it’s understandable that a lot of things would be made in China – and most are – because they fit Chinese tastes, habits, and requirements. But go into the warehouses of any of my company’s three subsidiaries – machinery, department store, construction – and you’ll also find that most products, even large building materials that I imagine must be difficult and costly to transport, are imported from China. I asked about these latter materials in particular, and I was told that either they don’t make them (up to specifications) locally, or they do but it’s actually cheaper to import (probably because production is done on a small scale). I finally understand a bit better how, in a country whose standard of living and wages are clearly not equal to China’s, the cost of living in Lusaka can be significantly higher than the cost of living in Beijing.

The Chinese-Zambian relationship within the company seems, at its core, pretty strained. On the Chinese side – to which I am unavoidably biased, since I’m really not “in” with any Zambian workers – it’s mostly a question of theft and diligence. Theft is the biggest complaint, both from my co-workers and from my boss: supplies like cement and paint often go missing (so often that one of the construction company’s supervisors now lives on site), and valuables will sometimes disappear from rooms that are cleaned by local housekeepers. I have no idea whether this is accurate, but the more forgiving long-time Chinese employees have described it to me like this: “They don’t see it as stealing. It’s just taking. And a lot of them think that if they go to church the next day and confess, then it’s fine.”

The second-biggest complaint is always diligence: that local workers take thrice as much time to complete a task than Chinese workers would. I suppose that on the one hand it’s important to know that, in a country with a higher cost of living than China, the construction workers only make around 1/5 of their overseer’s salary. But I don’t think that negates all expectations of efficiency, especially in a country with sky-high unemployment – and when the tan, leathery construction site overseer tells me that he had to train all of them himself and that a Chinese crew would have gotten the new warehouse built twice as fast, I absolutely and without reservation believe him. I know his type. He came from a family with no money, quit school after the ninth grade, and worked years of day jobs, night jobs, and weekend jobs to get where he is today: spending three years living in a shack on a construction site in a faraway country, away from his wife and child, so that he can make a better wage and support his family. He is a Chinese laborer – that same, dying breed of man who built railroads in the American West in the 19th century; worked the sugar plantations of Hawaii into the 20th; built subway lines and high-rises in every burgeoning metropolis of China in the early 21st. He looks down on men who were unemployed last month and yet are already starting to show up late for work or refuse to come in on Sundays.

And that’s it for this week’s notes and observations. It’s taken me quite some time to write even these few paragraphs, and I want to start reviewing the second half of last semester’s vocabulary today.

Until next weekend.

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