Anti-Black racism from Arabs is nothing new, but anti-Black racism from East and South-East Asians is not what most Nigerians expect. I work at an Asian embassy in Nigeria, and here’s what I witnessed.
An update on the article you are about to read:
Since the publication of this essay, there has been renewed interest in the situations I mentioned here. I wrote this immediately after those negative incidents occurred, when I was still upset that they occurred at all. Since then, the environment has improved considerably. The diplomats who have always been respectful, as I mention in the essay below, took the allegations very seriously. They organised meetings with foreign and local staff members during which grievances were aired and measures were taken.
While reading this essay, it must be kept in mind that the offending parties have been either chastised or have been relieved of their positions at the embassy. Steps have been taken to improve mutual respect and tolerance that are required for better relations, and I hope the environment continues remains favourable. End of update.
When relations really started booming between Africa and China, I was based in the UK and, as a result, had an outsider’s perspective on things. At home in Nigeria for a few weeks a year, I would constantly catch glimpses of the presence of China, and, as time moved on, of other Asian countries that didn’t want to be left out.
I blogged about Asian-African social encounters – the Chinese chef flirting with the Nigerian waitress at this Chinese restaurant I frequented; my cousin’s friend who is Malaysian Chinese and always trying to speak pidgin to her; my other other cousin (you know how it is with us Africans and cousins) who works with a Chinese construction company and testified that his bosses were always at clubs in the weekends trying to chat up Nigerian girls; my Igbo friend telling me about his Chinese neighbours in Equatorial Guinea whom he learnt Chinese from and taught a bit of Igbo to.
But one thing I didn’t blog about was how – despite these seeming positive stories – my people did not have good things to say about Asians. “Asians are greedy”, “Those Chinese are so stingy”, I heard it all including the horrid “ching chong” jokes. I spent hours lecturing people about how their views were wrong, and wondered at the Western influence on these anti-Asian and anti-Chinese remarks (I’m sure Nigerians did not come up with “ching chong” on their own).
Earlier this year I came to Nigeria with the intention of staying for a month or two, then heading to China. In that month, my mother saw a job advert for a position with the embassy of a certain Asian country (I shall not name names and remain vague for reasons of privacy). She thought I should send in an application, which I did. To my surprise I got called for an interview and got the job. I started almost immediately, and knew almost immediately, subconsciously, even though I’m only just admitting it, that all was not right.
Still, it is considered good to work at an embassy and, as a graduate of international relations, this was just in my field. In fact I had been queried about my dissertation on Africa-China relations during my interview. My friends thought the job was perfect for me because of my love and consumption of Asian media. I looked forward to enjoying the “international” environment.
Yet one of the first things a Nigerian member of staff told me on my first day at work was “We are a family, you know these Asians never respect us. You can never trust them.” She spoke in a mix of Yoruba and pidgin. I felt disconcerted. Not this again, when will I see the end of Nigerian anti-Asian behaviour? Little did I know that what would come to disturb me was not anything the Nigerian staff had to say but the way the Asian staff acted towards them.
When you read a news report about the dark side of Africa-Asia relations, you read with a degree of detachment, but to witness what’s being described is a different ball game. I have been at this embassy since March 2013, and since then I have witnessed the humiliation of Nigerians in their own country, ironically at the hands of Asians with whom we’re supposed to be in “win-win” partnership.
Anti-Black racism from Arabs is nothing new, but anti-Black racism from East and South-East Asians is not what most Nigerians expect. For an Asian to call us “monkeys” is beyond preposterous. For Asians to shout and yell at us, even to the point of physically assaulting a woman in her 40s is unbelievable. As you may be aware, Nigerians thrive on respect, as do Asians. Older people, Asian and African, command respect, yet to my non-Nigerian colleagues this does not translate across nationalities. I see that they have respect for each other, but literally zero, zilch, none, for older Nigerian staff.
I know a bit of the language, so I can understand when they are insulting us in our presence, calling us “bastards.” Just a few weeks ago, one of the younger staff (in her 20s) reported some Nigerian staff member (in their 40s) to the admin head for “disobeying” her. I was out of the office when I heard this news and was blown away by the sheer ridiculousness of it all. What does it mean to “disobey” someone?
I was there when the incident that lead to this “disobedience” went down. The Asian lady colleague was rude as hell, snapping her fingers and banging on the table to get our intention when a simple “excuse me” would have done. And we are supposed to be working together. One question that often runs through my head these days is “would they do it to us if we were from their country?” I very much doubt it.
I spoke to another staff member about the incident (she hadn’t witnessed the incident) and the lady said, “You know, the problem is that they think they are white when they are just bloody Asians!” I cringed at the “bloody Asians” bit, and at her implicit assertion that only white people can get away with disrespecting Nigerians (when really no foreigner should get away with treating you like shit in your own country), but as I said above, Nigerians are generally not used to anti-Black racism from anyone who is not white or Arab. Despite my qualms, I can honestly agree that Asians here do act, or at least try to, act like white people. Essentially, they look down on Africans while viewing themselves as superior. How many pale-skinned people are walking around in African countries behaving like “masters”?
Working here has lifted a veil from my eyes and now I see more examples of Asians behaving badly in Nigeria, in the media, through friends and on my own. For example recently two Chinese men tried to rape a Nigerian woman (it is hard reading the comments at the end of that report). When my older Nigerian colleague was physically assaulted by one of the younger men at the embassy I work at, she could have gone to the media as well.
The Chinese men who attempted rape will face the law, but this Asian man at my embassy won’t. We were told he had lost his job but I just learned that he actually served out his contract before taking up another job with a heavy industries company in Port Harcourt. A case of my enemy doing well? Fortunately I can rest assured the dude will be beaten the hell up if he tries any shit in Port Harcourt. I won’t even go into how this dude tried to date me (this was before he physically assaulted my colleague); I quickly realised that I was not been accorded the respect I deserve, especially from someone who claimed to “like” me. It ended before it began, but not before he tried to grope me in the office.
Mixing with the locals
The few times I’ve gone out clubbing, I see more Asian men with white women than I should be seeing in an African country. Same at dinner places, Asians hanging out with the white folk. A friend and I took our Korean teacher out for a late lunch and she bluntly told us “The Koreans here don’t like Nigerians at all. They think I’m strange for going out with you girls.”
A new friend of mine who aspires to work at an Asian embassy strongly believes that, before leaving their respective countries for Nigeria, their respective foreign affairs departments tell them that they are only in Nigeria to work, not to mix with the locals. I personally think it is the other way round, they come here and initially all is well, there are smiles, curiosity and then a few months down the line someone is shouting at you for not giving them your car keys and refusing to call you by name but preferring to bang on a table while shouting “Listen to me!”.
When I told my mum all the sagas I’ve witnessed at this embassy, the first thing she asked was “Do they treat you like this as well?” Surprisingly the answer is no. Maybe it’s my “global citizen” background, or the fact that I come from a wealthy family and my salary here doesn’t mean much to me (Another theory the Nigerian staff have is that the initial respect they have for us initially held rapidly diminishes when they discover how little we are paid).
The only person who has tried to bully me is the physical assault dude, and it was a really silly situation that seemed, to me, to have more to do with his wounded pride. I really wish he had tried to yell at me or put his hands on me like he did to my colleague. Unlike my colleague, who amazingly did nothing, I would have beaten him back. Still when I was new here, I became the one who got asked “Why do Nigerians always try to cheat us?”, to which I responded “You know, not all Nigerians cheat; people from your country cheat Nigerians too”.
In other words I was now lecturing Asians about how not to be anti-Black, but I got tired of it pretty quickly. I now adopt a policy of no-smiles, and no greeting until I am greeted first. I don’t care if I’m labelled rude and disrespectful but respect is mutual. I must add that this sort of behaviour is not coming from the older generation, but from the young ones. Those in their 20s and 30s.
I’ve been here for 10 months and I find that I’m exhausted emotionally and mentally. I detest coming to work and rubbing shoulders with those BlackInAsia calls “neo-colonial Asians”, a term that I would not have been comfortable using before this year. It has also become really hard for me (since I started working here) to enjoy media from this particular Asian country the way I used to.
It took a reminder from Hateya (a friend who gives me advice) that these are poor representatives of their country for me to pause and take a breather. Yet something must be said because so many Asian countries are sending bad eggs to Nigeria, and I can imagine to other African countries as well.
What does this mean for Blasian Bridges, to borrow a term from blogger Silver Tiger? What I keep seeing is the lack of kinship at best, and the dangerous idea that white people are better than Asians. We are not moving forward if Asians in African countries struggle to have the basic respect for Africans and adopt anti-Black attitudes towards us.
This article appeared originally on The Blasian Narrative and is reproduced here in edited form with the author’s permission.