Saturday, April 16, 2011

Preschoolers and the Chinese

"Cacana!" The teacher calls
"CACANA!!!!" 30 preschoolers scream in unison

Every tuesday night I go to sleep with the deluded idea that I will sleep in Wednesday morning. Mondays and Tuesdays have half of my hours, so Tuesday night is the celebrated halfway point of my week. And yet...


Their united scream echoes mercilessly around my house. My roof and walls conspire to reflect the soundwaves directly into my face. It's Portuguese lessons for the preschoolers. Through repetition and exposure they soak up the language like sponges. It's to their benefit to learn the national language young while it's so easy. But I suffer. Red eyed with exhaustion laying sleepless in my bed I begin to have fantasies of putting on a mask and run screaming into their classroom.

Until I see them of course, and heart melts and burdens are forgotten etc etc


I was in Inhambane City having one of the most memorable and challenging weekends of my life when I decided to get something special. Tucked away in the market is a small stand with barred windows. They sell a strange collection of things; a stuffed animal chipmunk between two hamburger buns, fake coca cola cans, enormous pencils, and foreign beauty products. Sitting in the back is a soft serve ice cream machine tended by a kindly and tired Mozambican lady. Sleeping at the table (the one with the fake coke cans and oversized pencils) is a small chinese girl.

This little shop is chinese owned, explaining the bizzare selection of goods available. It is just one of many Chinese owned small businesses in Inhambane city, including a giant supermarket, and represents the larger Chinese presence throughout Mozambique.

The Estrada Nacional #1 is the largest and most important road in Mozambique, spanning the heighth of the country. It's in terrible shape, so bad that cars drive in the dirt alongside it because the road is so far beyond driveable. Or I should say that it was in bad shape. In the time that I have been here huge sections of the road have been completely repared. Along the roadside Chinese workers can be seen, overseeing the reparations.

Mozambique has a brand new soccer stadium in the capital city. It makes an impressive image just outside the city limits, huge and alone on the horizon. On a massive banner hanging from the side are Chinese characters.

As I ordered my ice cream a chinese teenager loitered next to me. The teenager heard my portuguese and in perfect portuguese of her own said, "wow, you speak portuguese very well!" I was floored, a chinese person that speaks Portuguese? The chinese nationals' lack of portuguese ability is famous. This was the first one I had met that spoke any portuguese at all. I was flabbergasted.

And she stared at me in equal disbelief. White peoples' lack of portuguese is, well, famous. This girl must see dozens of large south africans lumber through the market with nary a word of the spoken language between them. I must have been nearly the first white person she had spoken to.

And there we were, staring at each other mouths agape waiting for the punchline. I asked her where she was from, commented that it was very hot outside. Our small conversation drew the sleeping girl outside to join us. She stared up at me mystified, and I'm sure I stared down at her with the same stupid expression. What the hell were we doing there, as far from our homes as we could possibly be, speaking some strange tongue? I said goodbye and sure enough the little girl's portuguese was good too. I wish I had taken a photo.

There is a lot of vitriole towards the Chinese presence in Mozambique, from Mozambicans and Americans. Most of the Mozambican resistance manifests itself as outright and mostly clumsy racism. Americans decry China's exploitation of Africa, and that their donor money is just a lure to sink their teeth into the country's resources. In an open discussion with the American ambassador he mentioned that American aid dwarfs chinese aid in Mozambique, it's just that Chinese aid is targeted at visible, public projects.

But what does that matter to one English teacher and a small shop owner in Inhambane City? Our small exchange was awkward and fascinating to me, because it didn't make me feel like "its a small world after all". It made me feel like the world was unfathomably huge.

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