Sadly, we have been sold the idea of love as something that mainly exists in a romantic relationship. Media conglomerates constantly push the fairy-tale heteronormative love story that magically fulfils every need of each individual. On Valentine’s Day, it comes to a head and romantic love is celebrated above all else.
But we need to expand our concept of love. Nomadic expats quickly learn to look for love everywhere. Perhaps it is an exercise that is born of necessity? Human beings are social creatures, we depend on social networks for survival and certainly the sustenance of our mental health. So what is love?
In the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, we are taught to love our neighbours’ as we love ourselves as a way of honouring God. In Amharic (the language of instruction) the saying goes “ባልንጀራህንእንደራስህአርገህውደድ”. The keywords here are “ባልንጀራህን” which is an old term for “friend” and “ውደድ” which means “love”. In the English language “ውደድ” is the equivalent of“Agape love”. This form of love is a state of unconditional giving of self to another. Love in this context is demonstrated by selfless acts rather than an emotion. A concept which applies fabulously to friendships and other interpersonal connections beyond romantic relationships.
When we live our lives on auto-pilot there are all too many things that we don’t question. When we are too comfortable in our bubble there is much we take for granted. But one thing that happens when you uproot your life and move to a foreign land is that come hell or high water you have to start all over. Nowhere is this truer than China.
Most Black people who move to China do so with their eyes blind. Very little is known about what awaits us on the other side of the 10+ hour flight journey at the start. It can be described a bit like New York City during the early 1900’s – when around 12 million Europeans travelled crossed the ocean in search of ‘a better life’. There must have been electric energy in the air, a sense that things were on the up and up. People willing to uproot their lives with no guarantees, motivated by hope and a healthy dose of risk-taking gumption built new communities for themselves in the city ‘so nice they named it twice’ – New York, New York.
China thins the herd in a similar way. Most Black people who relocate here have the same optimism and bravery. When people with that mentality all congregate in one place, the capacity to connect with each other based on shared values is enhanced. Coupled with the fact that most of us didn’t know anyone prior to moving here, the threat of loneliness forces us to seek new friendships.
With thousands of students in lockdown at their respective Universities in China, it’s impossible to forget that most Black people here came to earn an academic degree. Often these students are involved in formal or informal social activities with other members of our community, building lasting friendships with them as they go. It would be naïve to assume that all of these friendships will transcend the tests of time and eventual distance. But there are certainly some that will.
Friendships are critical to our emotional and therefore physical wellbeing. Children are quick to make new friends because it’s such a natural part of being human. Black culture has social ties seeped into the chemistry of our blood. Legally, Africa announced that our priority was collective prosperity in the ‘African Charter of People’s Rights’.
Legalities aside, it’s indicative that our languages – from ancient phrases in Amharic all the way to Eubonics blur the line between blood relatives, extended families, and friends. Being someone’s aunt or uncle can mean anything from a blood relative to the neighbour of your best friend’s older brother’s ear doctor.
We ingrain friendships into our social fabric because they are the family we choose for ourselves. All relationships take work; the resilience of friendships is proven by the consistent choice made to invest in them.
Residents of China’s magical melanin family know that we need to stick together to flourish. We know what our friends on the ground hold us down when things spin out of control. They are here when a fool touches your hair, when you finally pronounce that one Chinese character right, and when you march down the podium with a well-deserved degree in hand.
No matter where in China we know that we need to cultivate friendships with the extraordinary black people in our midst. Life in China reinforces the argument that romantic love isn’t the be all end all mainstream media would have us believe. By caring for ourselves and others in line with Agape love we can nurture genuine friendships with our sisters and brothers in China and beyond.