Finance and Workforce Planning Lead, The Home Office
I was born in Nigeria and relocated to the UK with my family as a teenager. As a result, I always had a desire to live in different countries and view the world through the lens of other cultures. At university, after taking up summer opportunities working in America and Thailand, I decided I wanted a longer experience overseas that would allow me to immerse myself in a new culture and learn a new language. I came across the chance to study in China through a British Council scholarship and knew immediately that I would apply.
I lived in China for nine months and would do it all over again in a heartbeat if I could.
I studied in a city called Tianjin, a short journey from Beijing by high-speed train (gaotie). As someone who already speaks a second language (Yoruba) I felt that I was able to pick up the pronunciation of Mandarin quite well. However, I struggled with remembering vocabulary. The words and tones were very new to me, which made it difficult to remember what I had learnt in class. I decided that the best way to address this was to venture into places alone and speak to as many Chinese people as I could, to practise what I had learnt in class. Not only did this improve my Chinese language skills, I also developed great relationships in Tianjin and Beijing. I made amazing life-long friends who I still speak to till today, five years on.
Whilst living in China I spent a lot of my time exploring the country, both with new friends and as a solo traveller. I often found help and support in the hands of strangers and generally encountered people who were keen to help me love my experience in China. One of my fondest experiences was visiting the Great Wall of China by myself. I felt a bit nervous going alone, however on every step of the journey I made a new friend who talked me through how buy tickets, where the best street food was, and acted as a translator. I thoroughly enjoyed this day and felt the warmth and kindness of the Chinese people.
During my scholarship, I also decided to teach English. As a black woman in China, I sometimes experienced hostility from recruiters who often would not believe that I could speak English fluently. This brought much frustration and negative emotions. However, I found comfort and understanding in the African diaspora community in Beijing who were often able to give advice and much needed encouragement.
My experience of being part of an African diaspora community is another fond memory of my time in China. I approached an African American female student at my university accommodation who introduced me to a community of young African students. We would discuss the experience of living in China and learning Chinese, what our home countries could learn from China and how to bridge the gap between African countries and China. This drove many members of the community to prolong their time in China and to get involved in African-Chinese affairs. Being part of the African Diaspora community helped me feel at home in China. My friends were able to show me where to buy black hair products, the best spots for Nigerian food and cool Afrobeat venues.
Before going to China, I had met a black girl who spent a year in China and spoke of her experience in regret. In hindsight, I think a key factor that made my time in China enjoyable was engaging with the African community. Meeting a group of people who were able to understand my struggles and empathise with me brought many benefits. Therefore, my main advice for any black person looking to live, study or teach in China is don’t be shy to approach black people when you see them out and about. Ask about their time in China and how long they’ve been there. Be open about your experience to date, whether good or bad. Swap WeChat details and meet up with them when you can to laugh about life. You may experience some form of ignorance while in China, but do not let it cloud the beauty of your experience.
My time in China affirmed who I am as a person and aided character building. It boosted my confidence and my ability to put myself out in the world. Studying and teaching in China encouraged me to work in education, in order to support the growth and development of other young people. Fast forward five years, I now work at the Department for Education as the Head of Workforce and Finance and will be shortly moving on to a role at the Home Office in a similar function.
Afope participated in the Generation UK scholarship in 2015/2016, studying at Tianjin Polytechnic University. Currently she works at the Home Office as the Finance and Workforce Planning Lead.