While all kids love their grandparents, we were in especial awe of our mother’s father, who was a diplomat, and by virtue of his job had lived and worked on two continents and three different countries - Germany and France in Europe and our neighbor Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.
Grandpa’s stories of different cultures and places made me decide as a child not to look for other jobs when I grew up but to join the foreign service of my country and become a career diplomat like him. To be a diplomat, you need to know one or more foreign languages and so, when I got my bachelor’s degree in international relations, I decided to learn Chinese.
Why Chinese? Well, China has one of the largest economies and an expanding relationship with Africa to boot. It also has very close ties with Guinea and in 2019, both will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations. I can see China becoming more and more important for us in the future. However, very few people in my country speak Chinese. Indeed, when I came to China in September last year to study Chinese at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing with a Chinese government scholarship, I was the only one from my country.
My family was most supportive. From my father, who teaches Guinean culture in school, to my mother, who runs a boutique and a food business, and other relatives, they all know I have set my heart on learning a new language and becoming a diplomat and encouraged me to go out to this unfamiliar country and master a language little spoken in our country.
When my language lessons are over next year, I will stay on for another two years learning diplomacy. I am already somewhat fluent in Chinese, which never fails to amaze those I run into. "How do you speak Chinese so well?" they exclaim. "Did you learn it before coming to China?" and then, "Where are you from?"
I realize very few people I meet outside my university know about Guinea. Many foreigners know Guinea as the place where Ebola broke out in 2013, after which the epidemic spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. But in China, few have such awareness and I tell them that my West African country is like any other country though of course it is not as hot as Beijing. We have a tropical season with a long monsoon but our summers are not as dry and hot as Beijing’s burning summer.
But despite the heat, I love living in Beijing and the Chinese people. They are friendly and do not try to make trouble for others. Our Chinese hosts have tried their best to make us foreigners feel at home and we had a taste of their generous hospitality during the Chinese New Year celebrations. I was invited to a friend’s home and the feasting and reunion of so many relatives amazed me. I have never ever eaten so many different kinds of Chinese traditional food or indeed, so much of it.
Before I came to China, I knew the Great Wall was one of the most famous Chinese icons. So my goals included visiting the Great Wall. I knew it was a tough job and I would have to be in the best of health. So I concentrated on staying fit and when we finally did scale the Badaling section of the Great Wall last year, my efforts paid off. As I stood on the 16th-century edifice built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that has endured till today and looked at the magnificent view around, I had a sense of achievement.
However, I also knew that there are many more wonderful things and places out there in China, which are not written about so much, waiting to be discovered. I want to explore as much as I can.
(Alane Diakhaby Alhassane is a Guinean studying Chinese in Beijing)