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Adapting to China
A Sudanese man adjusts to life away from home
By Belal Mohamed Babiker | NO. 29 JULY 21, 2016

African students play games together with Chinese peers at an acrobatics school in Hebei Province on June 1 (XINHUA)

People in Beijing, especially Chinese, often say they feel mystified when meeting me for the first time. I look Indian, but I speak fluent Chinese, and I come from Sudan. I am here because I love languages and I wanted to learn Chinese. But, I am also here because Arabic, the language I speak back at home in Khartoum, is becoming increasingly important in China.

When I was a mass communications student at the University of Khartoum, I wanted to learn a new language. While exploring which one would be best for me, I discovered a government-sponsored program that annually selects 25 Sudanese students to study Chinese in China. So, I applied with alacrity, but it was not easy. I was not among the first chosen few but was put on a waiting list. I waited patiently, as I still had the desire to go to China and learn Chinese. Finally, after graduation, I was told I had been selected for a two-year Chinese course at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Of course, I immediately accepted.

It was mid-2009 when I first arrived in Beijing as a wonderstruck 22-year-old. From there, fast forward to 2012, and you have a new Belal Mohamed Babiker—that's me—speaking Chinese at the drop of a hat thanks to two years of slogging to master the language, mingling with people freely, and effortlessly accomplishing feats that daunt less linguistically capable foreigners in China, such as opening a bank account. My newly acquired language ability also helped me to land a job in China with ease.

I now work in the Arabic-language division of China Radio International (CRI), a multi-language broadcaster based in Beijing. We have a five-member team comprising two Sudanese and one person from each of Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria. Cooperation is growing between CRI and African radio stations such as those in Sudan and Mauritania. And, besides regular FM broadcasts of Arabic programs in Africa, CRI also produces podcasts and posts on social media in Arabic.

As China's economic and diplomatic ties grow with the Arabic-speaking Middle East and North Africa, Arabic is becoming an important resource for China. Chinese students are realizing that knowledge of Arabic can improve their job prospects. Many large Chinese consumer electronics companies have factories in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, from where they do business with Middle Eastern countries, and in commercial centers in China like Guangzhou and Yiwu, Africans and Arabs often engage in business.

The Arabic presence in China facilitated my own arrival and stay here. When I first arrived in Beijing, it was the first day of Ramadan, Islam's holy month, when Muslims fast during the day as a purification ritual. Since I was traveling—taking a 12-hour flight from Khartoum to Beijing via Dubai—I was exempt from fasting. Relatives of mine in Beijing met me at the airport and took me to their home. So, I had to deal with none of the problems which first-time visitors with no knowledge of Chinese tend to face.

Later on, when I joined the university, I found to my indescribable joy a community of Sudanese students which included a couple of my classmates from Khartoum. We formed a group and also began to cook together, which alleviated the food issues we faced in China due to the prevalence of pork, which Muslims do not eat. At prayer time, we went to the Sudanese Embassy, which allowed Sudanese in Beijing to meet and to pray there. I was overwhelmed.

Now, I have been in Beijing for nearly seven years. I consider myself a veteran, and every year, I get together with friends to observe Ramadan just the way we would at home. This time, I enjoyed the best of both worlds; I spent part of the holy month, which lasted from June 6 to July 5, in Beijing before returning home on June 30, just before the big finale, to celebrate with my family in Khartoum.

The author is a Sudanese living in China

Copyedited by Chris Surtees 

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