Silent China, Loud China: iCog Makers’ Long March

By: Hruy Tsegaye

The first thing I thought after I left the airport in Guangzhou was that Evolution Theory must be ridiculous! The mainstream evolution theory affirms that the skin colour of humans has changed from black— darker skin— to white— lighter skin— over the past 75,000 years as they migrated from the mother continent—Africa— to the rest of the continents suggesting the lesser the intensity of the sunlight, the lighter the skin colour becomes.

When I left the airport and the comfort of its shade and the air conditioner, the sun over Guangzhou welcomed me with unforgiving burning rays and the scourge of the heat was worse than some of the deserts in Africa are. Evolution my foot! I cursed while covering my head with Selamta Magazine– Ethiopian’s complimentary in-flight magazine. Under such a sun, why aren’t the Chinese pitch black? Before I reach to a conclusion, I remembered some of my lessons from my high-school days about UV radiation. Okay maybe this sun, even though it is burning my skin more than the sun in Africa, has a lesser UVR.

I flew to china because I was invited to the Belt and Road Summit for International Maker Cooperation. Shenzhen was my final destination; a city dubbed the ‘silicon valley of hardware’. One of the event’s organizers, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL), covered my travel expense and half of my hotel accommodation. Thank you SZOIL!

Guangzhou, from up above, looks like a beautiful city surrounded by a monstrous yet gentle silverfish python. The river Zhujiang circles the city; crosses the city; slices the city; and again embraces the city just like an Amazonian anaconda that is swallowing, coiling and covering its prey instantaneously. I confess that my observation of this city is mainly from the window of the aeroplane and I am sure the city has so many wonders than a mere scene of skyscrapers, green basketball courts, and traditional small Chinese boats floating on Zhujiang.

SZOIL had arranged a welcome party. Before I felt the wrath of the sun and the fury of the heat, before I cursed evolution theory, and while I was still inside the compound of the airport building, I met my first Chinese friends. As I walked towards the gate, I saw my name written on a white paper along with my photograph waving midst the welcoming party at the exit of the airport– like a schoolboy, I struggled to mask my zeal.

Two young Chinese men welcomed me. One of them can speak a little English and he said, “Welcome to China: we are here to take you to Shenzhen and you can call me Housing”. As they led me towards the car, I figured the welcoming speech was the only complete sentence Housing can orchestrate; he must have memorised it. His companion is called Yangtze and he speaks fluent Mandarin! Still, to your surprise, he was the most helpful one. When I began to ask about the name of the river, why China is so hot and many more questions, Housing’s English disappeared paralysing our conversation.

Yangtze asked me to give him my phone; of course, we used a sign language. Wondering why, I put my phone on his hand. He opened my WeChat App and began to scan its QR code via his own mobile. Then he returned my phone and started to operate on his own. Within seconds, I received a ‘friend request’ from a user called Yang.

The message he sent was written in Chinese Characters and I stared at him with the most perplexed face a man can pull toward a perfect stranger signalling HELP. He understood instantly that like many travellers to China, I just installed WeChat, probably on my way to the airport, and that I am not familiar with the numerous super cool, and most helpful features of that app. He grabbed my phone and indicated I should lean forward and observe what he was doing. He long-pressed the text he just sent and options appeared on my WeChat screen. Among the options, ‘Translate’ caught my attention in a way a crocodile sees a gazelle leaning at the mouth of its hid-out river. After this trick, everything changed and in the remaining seven days, adding the WeChat number of the restaurant waiters and the grocery shop owners I visited became my first priority.

I discovered that Yangtze was named ‘Yangtze’ not after the famous river in China but after a sheep. I don’t remember much about the ride from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, which is 150 something kilometres, I was dog tired and I could barely open my eyes.

The next day I learned something; China, in simple words, is not as bad as her image! Thanks to the constant Western Media’s bamboozling coverage on China, most of us, at least half of us, think that China is one colourless, polluted and rude landmass of lifeless industrial machines. Wrong! For God’s sake, why is the mainstream media so keen on deception?

The city, even though has more than 11 million people, is one of the cleanest, less crowded, and a calmingly silent city I had ever seen. Most importantly, the people are polite and so friendly. My Mandarin is as good as my quantum physics so I only know one word and it is ‘ni hao’, which means ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ and am not even sure which one of these is it is exactly. Yes, ‘hi’ or ‘hello’, basically, are the same but I don’t know if I am allowed to say ‘ni hao’ over the phone. Perhaps, asking a stranger via signs and gestures which bus goes to a certain place might be easy for me, but answering it after understanding the question is a task only the divine above the heavens can endure. Starting from day two, I became one of the actors from the era of the silent movies– to make matters worse, am not a good actor. After I stopped the first stranger, I would begin my dancing and miming session. It will take three to five minutes of ridiculousness and the stranger will patiently wait. If the stranger understood, s/he would help me, if not the stranger would ask for more explanation!

I don’t know how many times I can say it but those people are polite and patient even to the extent that they will quit their business temporarily and see through my troubles. One man, after waiting for nearly five minutes of my street mime, understood what I was saying, held my hands, walked across the street to the nearest bus stop, waited for the right bus, instructed the driver to drop me where I wanted to go and left with a broad smile. If this is not polite and friendly, then I will refer Webster again.

Compared to Shenzhen, Addis Ababa has roughly 5 million people but the city is one big super-noisy dirt potty. Finding green, in Addis, is a legend worthy of its own Epic! Unfortunately, if one wants that epic, then one is bound to end up with an Elegy. Upon further inquiry, I was told that with the exception of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, many of the Chinese cities are like that; friendly people, green, clean and quiet streets, and less crowd. Furthermore, Hong Kong, according to my sources, is full of rude and snobbish people toward strangers—good job England!

In the afternoon, I took a bus to the Sino-Finnish International Maker Community. The orange colour of the newly built maker park struck me; our very own iCog Makers theme colour is Orange. The Shenzhenites built the place to provide ample space to old and new Hackerspaces/Makerspaces/FabLabs/Techshops. At times these four terms are used interchangeably and at times there is a slight difference in their meaning (designing and building things from scratch is often associated with Makerspace while Hackerspace is a place for repurposing already existing software/hardware). No matter what the meanings are, I was told that the Sino-Finish Maker Community park is open for all of them.

There I met Vicky Xie in person. Before that day, I knew Vicky Xie only in the cyber world via email exchanges. For some mysterious reason, I assumed she would be a mature and taller woman. The Vicky Xie standing in front of me was the exact opposite— a little bit shorter maybe not in China, young in her twenties, and smiley. One thing that matched my expectation, though in its other meaning, is maturity; she is very good at what she does displaying a keen understanding of cooperation and business. She is the first Chinese I met with fluent English but certainly not the last.

She checked everything beginning from the comfort of my hotel room to the last detail of my presentation’s slide. When she finally got satisfied, she told me that I could wander around the park and make friend with her other co-workers.

The sun and the heat, my two archenemies, tried to stop me. Okay ‘archenemies’ is too… I wondered in the park regardless of the heat and the burning sun. The park is made of eight four floor-story buildings and adorned with Orange colour on both, the outer and interior, walls. Sadly, the park was empty. Makers and Hackers didn’t move in yet and the park wasn’t open officially.

I returned to one of the buildings where Housing and Yangtze were engaged in some kind of packing and sorting task. They were preparing staffs for tomorrow’s event. I started a WeChat conversation with Yangtze. We talked about Makers in China, Chinese adventure movies, and some of the paramount places in Shenzhen that are a must-see for any tourist.

Later on, Wang Rui joined us. Although her English is not as good as Vicky’s, she can communicate pleasingly. She told me all three of them— Housing, Yangtze and herself— are interns in SZOIL. Wang studies Life Science in Shenzhen University. After a couple of friendly chats, I asked if she uses a VPN. She smiled and nodded her head; don’t be so happy it was the other nod, the ‘no nod’!

As it happens, for almost all the Chinese I met, VPN was unnecessary. I thought they would be unhappy because their government has blocked predominantly Eurocentric Social Medias and websites; they seemed perfectly content with better alternatives.

I am not a supporter of any kind of totalitarian government and I have no exception. Hence, I do not approve the government of the People’s Republic of China’s decision toward banning some of the Western Social Media, Websites, and Satellite Televisions. However, honestly speaking, what good are they if most of the content they provide is a deliberate deception, stupidity, or utter filth?

I gave up on the mainstream media after the Nuland-Pyatt scandal. I have also given up on Facebook; here in my country, Facebook is pure filth! More than 70% of the content [in the Ethiopian side] is endless racism, religionism, and prostitution.

We have witnessed that the Western mainstream media and the giant of the social media are calculatingly used to misinform the mass and this malevolent manipulation is not just a problem of the third and developing world but almost all of the developed ones too.

So in a time where we have noticeable situations and credible proofs that the Western mainstream media and its lucrative social media corporate are failing their own citizens, why would I argue that China should open her doors? It is all about the cost and benefit analysis and if the banned media are [>50%] deceptive and filthy, then I guess the common folks of China are in better hands; at least the deception they are fed now is from one source which is that of their own government.

Again, I object the banning! It is against my fundamental principles but if the banning is fair, maybe I would not even mention it. I expect China will consider a fair banning that will exclude email services and other essentials like navigating maps and browsers [FireFox and DuckDuckGo]. In short, the ban is not a smart move for a country like China; obviously oversee business depends on cross-continental platforms.

Wang Rui shared an app with me; Baidu Map, especially for those who can read Chinese Characters is an excellent navigation tool within China. She figured that my sign language might not be enough and she told me the government didn’t ban Google Translator. She also told me that if I needed to see places, all I have to do is send her a text and she will send me back the Chinese name written in Chinese character so I can copy and paste it on my Map. She assured me that she would also send me the location on Baidu via WeChat.

When I left the place, I dared to take my first bus ride without anyone’s help. Wan Rui had already texted the name of the hotel and as well its location and all I had to do was search it on my Baidu map. Even if I cannot understand a single character, I can understand a symbol of a big car means bus and small ones means normal car etc. Like a charm, it worked and I was in my hotel only for a 2 Yuan bus fare.

I don’t know how many of you have noticed it but for tourists limited by language and are not capable of using public transport, the chunk of their daily budget is spent on private taxis either on the meter system or the ones by negotiation.

I have decided to go for traditional Chinese cuisine. My three-star-hotel serves European dish mainly and each of their Chinese cousins on their menu costs more than one high-copy Jordan Shoe in the Dongmen massive shoe market.

I found a restaurant that looks authentic after a couple of blocks. It was not more than 15 minutes’ walk. Of course, I have passed by a dozen of restaurants and street food vendors, but to my touristic taste, they weren’t authentic enough.

The place was deserted; there were only two customers at the end of the room, one woman serving food and a man that looks like the owner and as well the chef. I sat down and using my Google Translator began to navigate through the Menu. When I showed the woman what I wanted she said something in Mandarin.

I typed, “I do not speak the language and I want the particular food I pointed on the menu please”, I gave her my phone so she can read the translated version of that text. She smiled warmly and called the Owner/Chef. He said something then she replied and then he took my phone. He then pulled his own phone, wrote something and via his own Chinese app translated it to English and offered his phone to me. It says, “Sorry that food finished today, choose another”.

After I picked my second one, I asked him to let me be his WeChat friend. All went smoothly after that. The food was spicy and strange to my tongue. I just hoped it would not be strange to my stomach. After half an hour or so, the other customers left and the owner came out of the kitchen and sat behind the counter. I wrote on my phone, “I want a Chinese beer” and presented that to him; the woman was nowhere to be seen. While he wrote the reply, I peeked on his laptop, and to my surprise, he was watching German Football. I have instantly recognised Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow jersey with the black stripes. With another glance, I saw that the other team’s name is Hamburger SV. No disrespect to German football but where can one find names of football clubs that sounds like a delicious snack unless the Bundesliga?

Now I can say that indeed the world is becoming a village; the Bundesliga, probably the least-watched European league outside of Europe compared to Europe’s top four leagues, is on in a traditional Chinese restaurant!

The man gave me his phone and it says, “Take what you like. All in the freezer. No need to come here with phone, text on WeChat”.

On my second beer, my phone vibrated, new Wechat Message.

“Don’t feel alone. You from which country”?

I smiled back and began to write. Mostly the translator distorts the grammar and if the sentence is too long, probably it will be unintelligible So the best way was to write short ones.

From Africa.
“Which Africa”?

Here again, I was surprised. Most Westerns tend to treat Africa as a single country and once you said Africa, they won’t bother to find which nation. This happened a lot especially with Americans, even with Black Americans. I know this is not racism; it is just ignorance.

“Oh Āisāi’ébǐyǎ, you are becoming popular. China knows you”.

The way ‘Ethiopia’ is pronounced and spelled in China is slick, isn’t it? Before we knew it, we were discussing things from food to the weather and I began telling him that China is different from her image.

“Too much bad news. I think”, he said.
Are you watching football?
Which club do you support?
“Big fan of Dortmund. You?”
“We share a great manager”.
To hell with Klopp!
“No no no! Can’t say that. One of the Best”
Maybe for an underdog like Dortmund.
“Now am mad. You shut up”.
Am not kidding Klopp might be king in the one eye kingdom but in the Barclay League, he is no more than a clown in knight’s armour.
“Long English, can’t understand”.
He is a clown in the English premier league. Not Good Enough!
“You say Liverpool is better?”
“Not even man on opium claim that”!

In such manner, through absolute silence, the restaurant owner and I became engaged in a hot debate. We both defended our side fiercely but in the end, I couldn’t defend his point that Liverpool, for the past 10 years, had been nothing but a loser, underdogs in their own league and as well the Champions League.

“Beer is on me friend”
Thank you. Oh, this city is so full of good and friendly people.
“Welcome to China, enjoy”.

Then he went back to the kitchen. By the time he came back, I had already drunk three beers not counting the first one I have ordered.

“Man, drinking too much is bad for health”

I looked up and saw him smiling mockingly. I nodded my head and texted back.

Free beer is free beer.
“No worry you can drink to death. Just don’t make me supply free funereal beer”!

I laughed aloud. He laughed with me too and joined my table with his own beer. We just stared at the street through the glass window.

It was a quiet night. I don’t know what he was thinking but I thought humans are such a paradoxical creature; we can buy beers to perfect strangers and laugh with them or we can slit perfect strangers’ throat and laugh at their agony.

After we tripped in the perfect silence for 10 minutes, he tapped my shoulder and point to my beer. No am full, I gestured back. He took out his phone and started typing.

“It was jock. Drink some more friend”.
I know it was a jock but I had enough.
“Too bad”.
I don’t know how to pay you, you are a good man.
“You don’t need to. Just say good night”.

I paid for the dinner and said goodnight in English. He smiled and repeated the ‘goodnight’ in English four times. Each time he said it, he raised his voice and by the fourth time he burst into laughter. His happiness was so contagious and all the way back to my hotel, I was smiling.

After midnight, the beep of my phone awakened me. Eskender, my colleague from iCog has just sent me a text. “…my flight to Guangzhou has been delayed by 8 or more hrs… so expect me for Saturday morning”.

The plan was for Eskender to arrive on this day, and I was wondering why I haven’t received his text. He was still in the mother continent; too bad he will miss the main event.

I wake up late the next morning. The five-hour time difference has mismatched my sleep pattern. After I booked a hotel for Eskender, I hurried to the Belt and Road Summit for International Maker Cooperation.

Despite my worries and Wang Rui’s constant reminders, I arrived on time. The guest speakers had been there discussing about makerspaces’ activities all over the world. Representatives of makerspaces or organizations related with maker activates from US, Peru, Pakistan, France, and China were about to give a speech and were expected to engage in a brief panel discussions after half an hour.

Before and after the event, I met makers, who just come to attend the conference, from Japan, Nepal, and Belgium along many Chinese entrepreneurs and students. The place is diverse.

I am not sure how impactful my speech was, but I am sure that many of the attendees are now aware of the maker movement in Africa.

Two more Japanese— one is a researcher and the other is university student in Shenzhen— approached me for a brief chat. They were so amazed to see an African in the event and they were so enthusiast to help in any way they can. They are very polite!

I was wondering why I recognise this polite character, instantly, from most of the strangers I met in china. My speculation is that I am not in a place where the majority are polite and honest. I think we Africans used to be polite and honest to strangers, but we are losing that. Yes, I know poverty is the rust of the soul, but I also believe that we can maintain our dignity.

The time is coming for Africa, and we are witnessing remarkable economic reforms. However, when the long awaited economic prosperity comes and if we are rude and dishonest by the time it comes, it will not bring us any good. Rather, it will make us animals that are at each other’s throat all the time.

In the remaining days, I met a dozen of start-ups and business owners. iCog has sealed a cooperation deal with one of Shenzhen’s most popular fab lab. SZOIL is now an official partner of the iCog Makers Initiative and more than that, they are willing to work with other African makers.

The people I met assured me that China is the right place for African makers and if they [Makers and start-ups in Africa] can come up with a working plan in sales and distribution, then finding a partner for mass production is not an issue.

On the fifth day, our friends from Hong Kong came to visit us. Ben Goertzel and His wife Ruiting, Mick Duncan and his girlfriend Jorunn, and Kent Ziatlik gave us a farewell dinner. With the exception of Jorunn, all of them had been in China before and now three of them live there. Ben and Ruiting live in Hong Kong while Shanghai is Kent’s choice.

Our dinner place was Ruitng’s choice; if you are in Shenzhen and if you want to impress your guests, OCT Harbour/Bay is the right place. If it was not for Ruiting, Eskender and I would have never seen that place. For all of you visiting Shenzhen, OCT Bay is a must see!

In the end, of the new beginning for iCog Makers and its collaboration with China, I have one thing to say. If people can collaborate as far from Peru with China certainly we Africans can collaborate, at least with each other, and this is the ripe time to do so.

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