“We fell in love but it was very difficult at first,” Xu Jing explains from the courtyard of the Fairmont Hotel in Nairobi.
“My family didn’t know much about Africa at all. They hadn’t even seen a Kenyan before so they were very worried.”
Henry Rotich – the Kenyan in question – was just as concerned.
The pair had fallen for each other after Henry was sent to China to learn Mandarin as part of his government job.
It took him many weeks to get his language skills good enough to meet Jing’s father over a nerve-filled lunch, at which he asked for his blessing.
“Her father didn’t say much so I was really worried about what he was thinking, whether or not he even liked the food we were serving him,” Henry recalls.
Apparently his mastery of Mandarin was enough: a decade later, the couple are living in the Kenyan capital, proud parents to two children.
Jing now teaches Mandarin at the Confucius Institute based at the University of Nairobi, one of an estimated 10,000 Chinese nationals who have moved to the East African state.
Their family provides one snapshot of the growing links between Chinese and Kenyans – propelled somewhat by China’s massive investment in the country.
It is a pattern seen across the continent. Back in 2000, China-Africa trade amounted to $10bn (£7bn). That figure is now believed to have crossed the $300bn mark.
Jing and Henry’s story is a success, but the relationship between the two peoples doesn’t always go so smoothly.
Along the Thika Road, a major new Chinese-built superhighway linking Nairobi to the industrial town of Thika, rumours of so-called “Thika babies” abound.
According to the whispers, Chinese construction workers have fathered hundreds of babies with local women, before disappearing into the ether.
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Media outlets even reported the story of a schoolgirl, pregnant with a worker’s baby, who was unable to identify him among the hundreds of other construction workers.
But for all the hysteria – there is even a song dedicated to the phenomenon – most Kenyans say they have never seen evidence of such children.
But that doesn’t stop some believing the rumours.
“I would say I’ve seen around 20… It’s very hush-hush as many of the Chinese fathers didn’t stick around,” Thatcher, a Kenyan-Chinese translator who lives close to the Thika Road, tells us.
“I think in 15 or 20 years’ time, when these children are all grown up and going to colleges, then we will know the true scale of it.”
‘African time is changing’
Disappearing fathers are not a problem in most Chinese-Kenyan homes, of course.
For Jing – who grew up during China’s one-child policy – it is sometimes the sheer abundance of family members that can be somewhat overwhelming.
“We are used to having big extended family and lots of big families coming to spend time with one another a lot,” Henry says. “We’re used to having say our nieces or nephews coming to stay with us for long periods of time.
“In China they don’t have that as much. Family may visit but for a shorter time and I don’t think that closeness with the extended family is the same.”
And there are other cultural difference, such as over attitudes to time.
Jinhua Lu, a consultant advising Chinese companies how to best operate in Kenya, says there are still barriers.
China and Kenya: In numbers
- Kenya: 580,000 km² (224,000 sq miles)
- China: 9,597,000 km² ( 3,700,000 sq miles)
GDP per head:
- Kenya: $3,500
- China: $16,600
Source: The World Factbook
“I hate to generalise but there is a notion that Kenyans take things more slowly,” he says. “They like to enjoy life and have a sense of community that the Chinese don’t have.
“The Chinese come here and just have the end goal in mind. They work long hours – they take very few breaks and will even work over weekends just to get the project done as quickly as possible.”
It is something Jing and Henry recognise.
“Yes it’s true Kenyans can be more relaxed about these things but Kenyans are changing… this concept of African time is changing. The pace of development is progressing well and people have many things to do – so we have many things to do in our time.”
And anyway, the civil servant adds, he has learnt to be on time: “Xu makes sure of it.”
And with more Chinese than ever before arriving in Kenya, larger efforts are being made to overcome the cultural gap.
The Confucius Institute – where Jing works – is one of the Chinese government-funded programmes which they hope will help smooth relations between Chinese and Kenyans.
For the Kenyans who study here, the hope is that they will go on to get well-paid jobs in Chinese companies. For the Chinese, this is a strong statement that the country plans to have strong ties with Kenya for the long run.
But the sight of a Chinese mother at the schoolgates still creates a bit of a stir.
“All the other mothers want to speak with Xu and all the children jump up and down and say: ‘It’s the Chinese mummy!'” Henry says with a broad grin.
“Our children look like ordinary Kenyans so when I go out with them, people ask what language is that they’re speaking?
“When I say: ‘Chinese’, they say… ‘What?! They can speak Chinese!’ They get so excited and everyone wants to ask us questions and become our friends.”
As for Jing, she sees Kenya as her future.
“I do miss China but Kenya is my home now,” she says. “Many of the Chinese who come here love this country and I think many of them will be here for a long time to come,” she concludes.