Beijing — My childhood memories and perceptions of China struck me immediately after I was told that I will represent my newspaper in Beijing, China, for one year.
During my childhood in major towns and cities in Tanzania, my understanding of Chinese people was limited to films and railway workers working with TAZARA - the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority.
And occasionally, we received magazines, at the national library and primary schools, with nice colour pictures showing various Chinese workers and some ethnic groups in their colorful traditional attires.
I also learnt about '"zhongguo" from my late father's tales after he visited China in the late 1960s. He climbed the Great Wall and brought a number of artefacts back home, plus some pictures--though at that time they were in black and white and books. He was a civil servant.
All of this, however, increased my perception and confused me even further. As they say, to know a place well, it is better to travel 10,000 kilometres than reading 10,000 books.
No.1 Kung fu
My first perception was that every Chinese knows kung fu. Thus we told each other to not play or joke with a Chinese man or woman; they will flatten you down with their fighting techniques.
This perception followed Bruce Lee movies - Enter the Dragon, The Return of the Dragon, Fist Fury and the like. In some of the movies, Bruce acted with Angela Mao.
This perception has now been elevated by Jacky Chan and Jet Li. But I came to realize that it is not true. Kung fu is a highly disciplined doctrine, which not all Chinese are engaged in.
No. 2 Telling Chinese and Japanese people apart
The Bruce Lee movies taught us that the Chinese are bunch of hard-hitting muscular people. So I grew up thinking that Chinese are tall and well-built, with enough kung fu skills to kill even an elephant with their bare hands.
So in telling the Chinese and Japanese apart, we assumed that the Japanese were soft, thin and short and the Chinese were tough and taller.
Why? Because in one of the Bruce Lee movies one actor was called Suzuki, who was thin and weak, always laughing and could hardly fight. Since Suzuki is a Japanese car brand, we concluded that Japanese people were like that. To perfect our theory, our family used to live near a Japanese diplomat in Dar es Salaam who was short and slender.
No.3 Chinese look alike
To us, Chinese look alike. It is difficult to tell them apart. This is still the case for me to date, even after being in China for almost six months.
But slowly am starting to Chinese people apart, though the similarities still troubles me. I was once in Sweden and the Swedish told me that it is difficult for them to distinguish Africans--whether from east or west Africa.
No. 4 Football
We knew that somehow football started in China. But why did a populous nation which is the creator of football seldom participate in the World Cup? The answer was simple.
China was banned for life by FIFA to participate in football after it was found guilty of substituting the entire team at halftime. Yes, because they look alike. So the first squad just gave their jerseys to the next squad; new team, new spirit, but the same jerseys.
This was a rumor from nowhere. No wonder Tanzania's first president Mwalimu (teacher) Julius Nyerere once branded Dar es Salaam 'rumourville' city in mid 1960s.
No. 5 Wearing uniforms
The TAZARA construction projects also molded our perception. They used to wear construction uniforms. We figured that this was Chinese culture.
Based on magazines and Lee movies we thought even back home these people wore uniforms and each day they had a special color. So on Monday they would put on a khaki colored one, and the next day a green one, right up until the week-end, countrywide.
This was because the TAZARA workers wore uniforms in a certain rhythm for the entire five years of construction. So we thought that China, because of socialism, is a nation of uniforms.
No. 6 A hard work mentality
I grew up believing that the Chinese are a hard working people with no beggars on the streets. The TAZARA project demonstrated the working behaviour of the Chinese to us: they were workaholics. But I came to realise not all Chinese are workaholics.
On the contrary, there are number of beggars on the subways and on the streets, plus homeless people too. Our view was that because of socialism and the hard-working nature of the Chinese, beggars and homelessness were only in the West.
No. 7 Sharing everything
Tanzania also practised socialism, which was more or less similar to China, up until mid 1980s. Therefore socialism was about sharing. We thought that in China cars and bicycles had no owners. If someone bought a car or bicycle it became everyone's property.
The cars on streets were left with keys dangling in the ignition. Anyone could drive to his/her destination and park the car there. That way, somebody else could do the same. And the same went for bicycles. The story was that this was the highest level of socialism.
But we failed to ask ourselves who would put fuel in the car and maintain it. My colleague in Zambia told me that last month when he went back for a short leave he bumped into a middle-age man in one of the Lusaka commuters bragging about the same thing: "In China cars have no owners." This was our childhood myth, and far from the realities.
No. 8 Hutongs
The first thing I was looking forward to after setting foot in China was seeing traditional Chinese houses, just like in the Bruce Lee movies.
But to my disappointment, I was welcomed with a concrete jungle, similar to Western countries. The city has very little traces of ancient times. Where are the hutongs? The houses have been bulldozed to pave the way for more skyscrapers to accommodate more people.
No.9 Zhou Enlai
The first premier of modern china was the first to set foot in Tanzania. Premier Zhou left behind a dress legacy which was the common attire for the leaders of the new China after 1949.
In Tanzania, the dress is still called Zhou Enlai but when we pronounced it "cho enlai." This is still the dress of the high class. But I thought that many people would be wearing it in China. This is not the case. The best place for it is in a museum. - China.org.cn