As George Mbugua grew up in a small village in rural Nakuru, he dreamt of soaring the skies one day and seeing places far away from home. As fate would have it, his opportunity presented itself when he was in his late thirties. Eager to write a new chapter of his life, he grabbed the opportunity to go to China with both hands. From finding work to being in lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic, George takes us through his journey of adventure and discovery in the most populated country in the world.
George Mbugua’s search for greener pastures led him to the People’s Republic of China six years ago.
“A number of factors influenced my decision to go to China. Most important, was the availability of working opportunities and secondly, the ease by which you can acquire a visa to China”. George, who had been presented with the option of travelling to the middle east, opted for China as he felt like there were more opportunities there.
“I landed in China in the depth of winter on the 6th of January in Shanghai city”. George had arranged to stay with a friend before he could find his way around and get on his feet. Upon settling down, he had to report his arrival to the local police station within the next 24hrs where he was expected to register where he lived and his house number. This registration he says is a rule that all visitors coming to China must adhere to. “I had gone to China on a one-month business visa and I needed this registration so that I could extend my stay.” In China, you can not apply for an extension in your visa without house registration. All African countries are offered a maximum visa of one year in China. For you to continue living there, you must renew the visa before its expiration date.
Once in China, George planned to pursue a job in teaching English in Kindergarten schools and other training centres. Teaching posed an immediate challenge because of the language barrier between himself and his students. “To break the barrier, we used flashcards with pictures of things that we translated to the class so that they could understand its meaning in English.” Having gone to China on a business visa, he could not get a working permit and he, therefore, had to play hide and seek with the law. This also meant that he had to settle for a lower salary and lesser benefits. “As a teacher coming from a country where English is not the first language, the process of getting a work permit is long and tedious.”
Less than 10% of China’s population speaks English. George says that you have to take it upon yourself to learn Chinese and break the barrier as this will open doors for more opportunities. “It is not so hard to learn Chinese, the challenging thing about it, is the different tones. It has a high tone, flat and low tone. One word could mean something totally different depending on the tone.”
As a black man in an Asian country, George describes the racism he faced as “the curse of a black man”. While applying for a job, he could not state that he was from Africa. If he did, the chances of him getting the job would be very slim. Chinese people are more tolerant of African Americans than they are to Africans, so he changed his nationality to improve his chances. George recalls times when he sat next to a Chinese person in a bus and the person switched seats immediately. This, however, isn’t to say that all Chinese people are racists, a bigger number consists of those who are welcoming, kind and friendly.
George says that the best thing about being in China is security. He doesn’t recall ever witnessing any kind of crime, theft or even accident on the roads. All this while also considering the fact that the police in China do not carry guns. “Chinese people are very orderly and obedient to the law, it is a character that is instilled in them since childhood. They queue everywhere without shoving or pushing, they never take what is not theirs and they are taught the virtue of hard work and honesty.”
The government of China is very particular about the information that its citizens consume. Most communication is monitored to prevent any form of organized crime or other illegal acts. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are all banned in China. Instead, they have their own apps which they use to communicate and socialize. To access Facebook in China you have to use a VPN bypass which is illegal.
Coronavirus broke out in Wuhan city, 1800 kilometres away from where George lived. He remembers that at first, no one took the virus seriously until it started killing people in big numbers, forcing the government to take drastic measures of locking down the entire country by February 2020. The lockdown would last for the next 65 days. ” The entire population of 1.4billion people was tested for COVID 19. Personally, I was tested five times. The government was not leaving anything to chance.”
During the lockdown period, people were not allowed to go outside their houses unless they were going to the supermarket. For those who could not afford food, they contacted the local police and the police officers would provide them with shopping supplies to their doorsteps to last a week. The structure of the major cities in China made it easy to contain the virus because the cities have a few entries and exit points making it possible to control who went in and out.
Desperate to come back home, the Kenyans in China pressured the Kenyan embassy to facilitate their transportation back home because all flights had been cancelled. After a considerable amount of clamour, a plane was finally provided by the Kenyan government. Anyone willing to fly home was expected to pay a Ksh 85,000 one way ticket.
“Had we not applied pressure to the Kenyan government through the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, I believe we would still be in China today.”
Upon landing in Kenya, one hundred and sixty-one Kenyans from China were taken to Karen for a 14-day quarantine. “They asked us to pay Ksh. 4250 every day but we refused!” George and the rest refused to pay any charges because back in China, they had not been charged to quarantine before boarding the flight. After much resistance, the government agreed not to charge them. “We were tested regularly in the course of the two weeks and no one ever tested positive for COVID 19.”
Talking about his reception back home after coming out of quarantine, George says that he experienced mixed reactions; most people received him well while others acted in ignorance, wanting to avoid him because he’d come from China, the epicentre of the Coronavirus. “We had gone through extensive tests even before we left China. Coronavirus takes just a few days to show its symptoms so if I indeed had Corona, the signs would have shown long before I got home.”
Having been in China and seeing the country’s response to the pandemic, George believes that the Kenyan government should consider reopening the country and restoring normalcy for the sake of the economy. ” We need to re-open the country and learn how to avoid its spread without straining our small economy too much”
When asked whether he would consider going back to China once things have gone back to normal, George says that he will now focus on building his life at home and use his contacts in China to conduct business.
“The thing I will miss most about China is the fact that all their systems work. It is the most secure place I have ever lived in. Food other basic needs are cheap and affordable for all people. The government works hard to improve the lives of its citizens, there is no corruption and once you learn the language, it is a very nice place to live.”