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 concluded, 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 my brief drive through. I am sure the city has so many wonders than a mere scene of skyscrapers, green basketball courts, and sampans; traditional small Chinese wooden 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. When I saw that, like a schoolboy, I struggled to mask my zeal. This was the first time someone made a placard to receive me at airports.

Two young Chinese men welcomed me. One of them can speak English (or I thought so) 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 sign language. Wondering why I put my phone in his hand. He opened my WeChat App and began to scan its QR code via his 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. My face was as transparent as it can get; with the most perplexing face, I stared at this stranger signalling HELP, I have no clue what this is. He understood instantly. Like many first time travellers to China, I just installed WeChat, probably on my way to the airport, and 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 Abay river (white people call it the Blue Nile). 

After this trick, everything changed. In the following seven days, adding the WeChat number of restaurant waiters, grocery/shop owners I had visited had become my priority.

I discovered that Yangtze was named ‘Yangtze’ not after the famous river in China but after a sheep. Housing was laughing when Yangtze explain the similarity of his name which is after a certain sheep stock and how often people like me confuse that with China’s longest river.

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 of China, most of us, at least half of us, have this preconceived picture; a colossal, 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 calmingly silent cities 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 exactly.

Yes, ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ 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 which place might be easy for me; after all, necessity is the mother of invention. However, replying back after understanding the question is a task only the divine above the heavens can endure. 

On day two, I had changed my profession. I became an actor from the era of silent movies– to make matters worse, I am not a good actor. Here is the routine emm the rehearsal; stop the first stranger, start dancing and miming. I swear to God, it will take me three to five minutes to explain what I want. The miracle is the stranger will wait patiently until I finish the ridiculousness. Who does that? Try this shit in the US or on the streets of some famous European cities and if you are lucky the stranger will curse you while running away, and if you are not lucky it will become a police business. 

In China, especially, in Shenzhen, if the stranger understood me, 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.

I remember the face of one man. I had approached this man and immediately started miming. I was asking for directions; a bus to the nearby bank. This man stood next to me nearly for five minutes in absolute silence. He then understood me. Now it was his turn to reply. He started miming. As I told you, I am a dummy when it comes to the art of acting. Well, after three minutes, he gave up. By now, eight minutes had passed. He looked at me smilingly and just grabbed 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, I will refer Webster again.

Compared to Shenzhen, Addis Ababa has roughly 5 million people, but Addis 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, one is doomed to end up with an Elegy. Upon further inquiry, my trusted sources told me that except Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, many Chinese cities are like Shenzhen; friendly people, green, clean, quiet streets, and less crowded. Furthermore, Hong Kong, according to my sources, is full of rude and snobbish people toward strangers—good job England, good job!

In the afternoon, I took a bus to the park, the Sino-Finnish International Maker Community park. 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. At times, there is a slight difference in their meaning. Designing and building things from scratch is often associated with Makerspace. A hackerspace is a place for repurposing already existing software/hardware. Regardless of the definitions, the Sino-Finish Maker Community park is open for all.

There I met Vicky Xie in person. Before that day, I knew Vicky Xie only in the cyber world; God, I am just making it fancy; I knew her via email exchanges. I assumed she would be mature, sullen, and tall (for some mysterious reason). The Vicky Xie standing in front of me was the exact opposite— a little bit shorter, maybe not in China, very young, maybe in her mid-twenties, and smiley.

One thing that matched my expectation, though in its other meaning, is maturity; she is very good at what she does; a display of keen understanding of cooperation and business. She is the first Chinese I met who can speak fluent English but certainly not the last. My English is crappy, so what? My Amharic is fluent.

She checked for 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 friends with her co-workers.

The sun and the heat, my new two archenemies, had tried to stop me. Okay, “archenemies” is a word too…

I wondered in the park regardless of the heat and the burning sun. The park is home to eight four-floor-story buildings. Each of the eight buildings is adorned with orange colour on both sides; the outer and interior, walls. Sadly, the park was empty. Makers and Hackers did not move in yet, and the park was not open officially.

I returned to one of the buildings where Housing and Yangtze were engaged in fast-paced packing and sorting tasks. They were preparing stuff, and it must be for tomorrow’s main event. I started WeChating Yangtze. We talked about makers in China. Then we shifted to Chinese adventure movies. Finally, we jumped to the tourist destination topics. He capitalised on Xiaomeisha, Longgang, and Happy valley as the paramount place in Shenzhen that are a must-see for any tourist.

Later on, Wang Rui joined us. Although her English is not as fluent 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 at Shenzhen University. After a couple of friendly chats, I asked whether she had a VPN. Ah, the ‘V’ word in China! 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 media platforms and websites; they seemed perfectly content with better alternatives.

I am not a supporter of a totalitarian government, and I have no exception. Hence, I do not approve People’s Republic of China’s government and its decision toward banning most Western Social Media Platforms, Websites, and Satellite Televisions. However, 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 long before the relatively recent Nuland-Pyatt scandal. I had also given up on Facebook; here in my country, Facebook is pure filth! More of the content on most Ethiopian pages is endless racism, religionism, and prostitution.

We have witnessed the Western mainstream media and the giant of the social media platforms calculatingly being used to misinform the mass. This malevolent manipulation is not just a problem for the third and developing world. I assure you it will become a global problem.

We saw countless sabotages with credible proof; the Western mainstream media and the lucrative social media corporations are failing their citizens deliberately. Why would I argue that China should open her doors? It is all about the cost vs benefit analysis, and if the banned media are [>50%] deceptive and filthy, then I guess the folks of China are in better hands; at least the deception they are fed is from one source.

Again, I object to the banning! It is against my fundamental principles. However, if the ban is fair, I should not mention it. I hope China will consider a relatively better ban that will exclude email services and other essentials like navigating maps and browsers [Firefox and DuckDuckGo]. In short, such a totalitarian ban is acceptable. But again, it is a smart move for a country like China. Their overseas business depends on cross-continental platforms, and I am sure those platforms are wide open.

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

Always install a VPN before you travel to China, a good one, not the likes of VPNs on the play store but the ones from the dark web.

When I left the place, I dared to take my first bus ride without anyone’s help. Wan Rui had already texted the hotel’s name in Chinese character and its location. All I had to do was search it on my new shiny Baidu app. Even if I cannot understand a single character I can understand a symbol. The big car means the bus and the small ones mean the cab, and the train is the train. Just like a powerful charm, it worked, and I was in my hotel an hour later. Furthermore, it was only a 2 Yuan bus fare.

I don’t know how many of you have noticed it. Tourists like me, who are limited by language, and who therefore cannot navigate through the public transport system, a chunk of our daily budget is spent on private taxis. Either on the meter system or the ones by negotiation, cabs are way too expensive.

I have decided to go for traditional Chinese cuisine. My three-star hotel serves European dishes mainly. And each of their Chinese dish on their Menu costs more than two high-copy Jordan Shoes in the Dongmen massive shoe market. In my hotel, Chinese dishes are way more expensive than European ones.

After I walked a couple of blocks, I found a restaurant that looked authentic. It took me a 15 minutes walk. Of course, I have passed by a dozen of restaurants and street food vendors. However, to my touristic taste, they were not authentic enough.

The pace was deserted. There were only two customers at the far end of the room. Two people operate the restaurant; A smiling taller woman who serves food and a short man who later turned out to be the owner and the chef. I sat down. Using my Google Translator, I 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 out his phone, wrote something on it and via a different Chinese app translated what he wrote to English. He then pushed his phone up my nose. It says, “Sorry we finished that food, choose another”.

After I picked another dish, 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. A couple of minutes later, 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. On another glance, I saw that the other team’s name is Hamburger SV. No disrespect to German football, but where can one find club names that sounds like a delicious snack unless the Bundesliga?

Now I can say indeed the world is becoming a village! The Bundesliga, compared to Europe’s top four leagues, probably the least-watched European league outside of Europe, is live 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. Usually, the translator distorts the grammar. If the sentence is too long, probably its translation will be unintelligible. The best way to communicate was to write short ones. Ah, my English teacher from high school, is this why he insist on short sentences?

From Africa.
“Which Africa”?

Here again, I was surprised. Most Westerns tend to treat Africa as a single country. Once you say from Africa, they won’t bother to find which African nation. Treating Africa as one country is a more obvious fallacy often committed by Americans, even with Black Americans. I know this is not racism; it is just ignorance. I don’t think they know Africa is three times bigger than America.

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

The way ‘Ethiopia’ is pronounced and spelt in China is slick, isn’t it? Before we knew it, we were discussing things from food to the weather, and then we clicked. I began telling him I found China to be different and opposite 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”!

Through absolute silence and calm, in such a manner, the restaurant owner and I became engaged in a hot debate. We both defended our side fiercely. In the end, I lost my argument. For the past ten years, Liverpool had been nothing but a loser, underdogs in their 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 returned, I had already drunk four beers, and that is not counting the first one I had 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, and he laughed with me. He grabbed a beer and joined my table. 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’ throats and laugh at their agony.

After we tripped in the perfect silence for 10 minutes, he tapped my shoulder and pointed to my beer. No, I 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 for times ‘goodnight’ in English. Each time he said it, he raised his voice, and by the fourth time, he burst into laughter. His happiness was so contagious. All the way back to my hotel, I smiled.

After midnight, the beep of my phone awakened me. Eskender, my colleague from iCog had just sent me a text.

“…my flight to Guangzhou has been delayed by eight or more hrs… expect me for Saturday morning”.

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

I woke 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.

A couple of guest speakers had already made it before me. They were engaged in Kickstarter discussions dissecting makerpaces and related business activities worldwide. Representatives of makerspaces or organizations related to maker activities from the US, Peru, Pakistan, France, Nepal, and China were about to give a speech. We were told to take our seats. After the group finished their respective speech, a 30-minute panel discussion to reflect on what had been discussed proceeded.

My group was scheduled to speak after the tea break.

Before and after the event, I met makers; makers from Japan, Nepal, Germany, Australia, and Belgium next to many Chinese entrepreneurs and students. The place was truly 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 Japanese men— one is a researcher, and the other is a 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 enthusiastic to help in any way they could. Again, they were very polite!

I was wondering why I instantly recognised this polite character. I speculate that I am a man from a nation where the majority are polite only to strangers. I think we Ethiopians are only polite to strangers, maybe we used to be polite and honest to one another, but we are losing that nowadays. 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 to one another by then, it will not bring us any good. Instead, it will make us cruel and visionless pirates that are at each other’s throats all the time.

In the remaining days, I met a dozen start-ups and business owners. iCog has sealed a cooperation deal with one of Shenzhen’s most popular fab labs. SZOIL is now an official partner of the iCog Makers Initiative, and in addition, 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, finding a partner for mass production will not be an issue.

I had a good time, alone and with Eskender. Since you are not here to waste your time reading my adventures, ohh, I will not waste any more space on those intriguing and wondrous experiences. Don’t worry, both, Eskender and I, had bought tones of Chinese tea.

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, we Africans can collaborate certainly. At least with each other.

It is the ripest time to do so.

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