In the Liminality Trap: Neither Reintegration in China Nor Integration in Ghana

The Point of No Return: Chinese Ways Unlearned

It is therefore not surprising that few Chinese traders maintain close interpersonal relationships. Even within the small groups of two to four persons that run the businesses (either collectively as shareholders or as owners and employees), the relationships often lack emotional attachment. Forced to work and live under the same rooffor long periods oftime with little privacy or freedom from social control and largely without alternative personal relationships, many avoid each other whenever possible. Interpersonal relationships become superficial. Quite a few informants, especially the older ones, said that keeping social relationships with fellow Chinese to a minimum freed them from the social obligations known as renqing—the exchange of favours as core element of cultivating and maintaining social networks within Chinese society. However, they find that their communicative and interpersonal skills deteriorate as a result. Because they maintain old ties at home solely by electronic means, they see themselves as less and less compatible with the social fabric in China. Efforts to stay abreast of developments at home become ever less meaningful. Quite a few interviewees feared they were “unlearning their Chinese ways” and losing their vital connection to China and their own culture.

As I mentioned earlier, signifiers of “Chineseness” and cultural, national and religious symbols are abandoned in the absence of ethnic solidarity and community. Given Ghanaian prejudice against Chinese and goods made in China, some traders see any public display of their nationality and ethnicity as detrimental. The importation from China of African wax, regarded as part of Ghana’s national cultural heritage, has been particularly controversial. While there is huge demand for cheaper Chinese-made alternatives to established cloth brands, imports from China, particularly by Chinese traders, are seen as illegitimate. Although African wax ceased to be produced in Ghana before imports from China started, and although Chinese cloth imports compete mainly with expensive Dutch brands, Chinese selling African wax feel obliged to operate secretly and underground. Other Chinese imports are less disputed, but the widespread perception that these goods are shoddy and that their import is harming local manufacturers has led most Chinese traders to play down their goods’ origins. This also helps explain the suppression of visible signs of Chinese identity.

This renunciation of Chinese identity, the long absence from China, the much slower pace of life in Ghana, the lack of a Chinese social life and the simplicity of economic interactions has made the traders feeling too weak to fight off the fierce competition that they regard as the core characteristic of the domestic economy in China. As the prospect of completing their ritual journey by reintegrating into their society of origin fades the longer they live abroad, these Chinese traders tend to postpone their return indefinitely.

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