Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Asian fetish

For some strange reason, many Nigerians think I look Chinese. Sometimes they will call out "Chinaman!" as I walk by on the street, or speak in mock Chinese behind my back. Today I had someone ask me, straight out, "are you a Chinese man?"

Chinese man?? Never in my life had I once been mistaken for an Asian, and here it happens every couple of days. I've seen a handful of Chinese businessmen here (although Chinese investment in Africa is dropping now, according to this NY Times article), but nothing to explain the pattern of mistaken ID.
Even now, my best explanation is this: with no tourists, Nigeria is incredibly isolated. If you avoid a few fancy hotels and upscale Victoria Island, you can easily live or travel here for weeks without seeing another oyibo (white person) or Asian, for that matter. If you were born in Nigeria, never left, and never see any foreigners, China might as well be the U.S. or Europe to you. Either way, sadly enough, you are never going there, and you are probably never going to speak to a person from there in your lifetime. Thus the confusion.


  1. More importantly, in this day and age there is no reason to make unpleasant comments about someone simply because they look different to you. Nigerians abroad are always the first to shout about racism. So one would have expected parents to bring up their children in a more culturally sensitive manner these days. Alas this is obviously not the case.

    Even if you were Asian, there is no need to for snide remarks behind someone's back and laughing at them. That is plane rude and inhospitable. The fact that someone asked you if you were Chinese shows the level of ignorance that clouds their mind. That is no way to treat guests or strangers. Is it any wonder that many visitors leave with a negative impression of the place?

    Not that you need any reassurance, but you appear 100% Caucasian to me. Maybe one day the error of their ways will be pointed out to them. I'm glad you were able to take it in your stride.

  2. hey please, dont get this wrong...Nigeria is a lovely nation with great people..we arent RACIST...people asking if you are from Asia doesn't make them a racist. we are fun to be with...Here in Nigeria...some kids love Asian movies even more than our local movies just because of the know the fight and all that...jackie Chan, jet Li and Yon Fat Sho are all household names here in Nigeria and kids were only trying to copy the act of Jackie "the way he speaks " ....does that make them a RACIST?.."Tomi sheba" means "are you alright" in Cantonese(chinese)..that shows how much we love Asians movies

    please you need to withdraw the last post....

    check out my blog.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I don't think CodLiver was accusing Nigerians of being racist, hayo -- and I don't think they are. In fact, to me, they are very welcoming of outsiders, and calling out "oyibo!" (which I hear about 50 times a day) or "Chinaman!" is their way of saying hello. I usually just wave and say "hello" or "how far?"

    BTW I usually don't resond to "white man!" because it doesn't have the same friendly ring to is, even though it is said for the same reason -- as a greeting and/or way of getting my attention.

    More and more I am sure that the "Chinaman" mistake is just a function of lack of exposure to the outside world. I've learned that a lot of Nigerians think "London" and the U.S. are the same thing. Close enough, right? All they know is it is not Nigeria.

  4. Codliver oil i feel sorry for you. Nigerians are not racists. Like Mr. Sean said it's their way of greeting you, recognizing the fact that you are a visitor.
    And visitors never ever leave with a negative impression of my Country Nigeria. It's people like Sean (sorry) and CNN who tell stories with a negative edge and show the world pictures that do reflect the state of the country but not "WHO" the people really are.
    Ask all the expatriates in this country who have refused to leave and then you'll know. Nigerians are good people just plagued by bad leaders!

  5. haba Sean, Nigerians don't think London and America are the same. Abroad to most uneducated Nigerians is Europe, America and London which is better than the typical American child who know only about America or most time about his city or state.

  6. A chinese! That is a Premiere for you! It makes sense if they have never travelled in their life. Before going to Asia and living thete I couldn't tell the difference between a Chinese, a corean... Now I can tell and they look very different. I was just uneducated