Maneza Mohammad Ali has no clear memories of Afghanistan.
Her family, including her parents, three younger brothers and grandparents, left Kabul in 1992, shortly after the start of the country’s civil war. Maneza was 3 years old.
They resettled in Islamabad, Pakistan, where Maneza started school. Her father, a businessman, began doing business in China, and about nine years later the family relocated again, this time to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The transition to China was more difficult, Maneza recalls. The family had left her grandparents behind, in Pakistan; Chinese culture and language seemed very foreign, and they didn’t like the food. The children were homeschooled for about a year, and then the family moved again, to Beijing.
Today, Maneza is a cosmopolitan young woman with global ambitions. She graduated with a master’s degree in international politics and economics from Peking University. She teaches English and writes political and economic analyses on China and the Middle East for think tanks. She’s active in various organizations for professional women.
For how difficult she found it to learn the language at first, now Mandarin is the main language in which she thinks and expresses herself, along with English and Farsi. She loves Chinese food and has surrounded herself with friends.
“I’m almost half-Chinese,” she says.
Yet she sees China as just a stop along the way to fulfilling her dream, which is anchored outside of the country.
When she started school in Beijing, her limited Chinese experience sent Maneza from seventh grade back to third grade. She was the oldest and loneliest among her colleagues. But she focused on her studies. During breaks, she would pay a colleague 1 yuan to teach her more Chinese words. The little girl would teach her a few words, then run away with the money to buy snacks.
As she learned Chinese, Maneza started skipping grades and ended up graduating from high school at a normal age. But she doesn’t feel like she got the most out of her education. She says teachers and colleagues are friendly and helpful to foreign students, but they have lower expectations than from Chinese students.
“They thought I came here only to learn Chinese, but I didn’t,” she says. “I came here to get a normal education, just like the others. That’s a very big problem: When a foreigner comes to China to study, their teacher only focuses on their Chinese. If you don’t do good work in other subjects, they don’t care. They just pass you.”
Similarly, when she attended university at China Foreign Affairs University, she was surprised to learn the school wasn’t offering English classes to foreigners. Most of her colleagues were there to improve their Chinese, she was told.
China had 377,000 international students enrolled in its universities in 2014, the year Maneza graduated from her master’s program, according to China Scholarship Council. That’s more than triple the number in 2004, reflecting both an increased interest in Chinese studies and an opening of the universities to international students.
The master’s program at Peking University was the first time Maneza felt pushed in her studies, outside of studying the language. Her colleagues were top students from around the world, who were interested in foreign affairs, cultures and religions.
The Good, the Bad
One of the best things about Chinese society is that it accepts all cultures, nationalities and religions, Maneza says.
“My friends know I’m a Muslim, and I don’t eat pork. They’ll never offend you for this,” she says. “They know I don’t drink, and they will never offend you to push you to drink. In 15 years in China, I have never experienced any threat or offense. I used to wear hijab. People were just saying, ‘Aren’t you hot?’ But they weren’t saying, ‘Oh, she’s a Muslim. Oh wow! Extremist, terrorist!’ They’re not going to say that.”
During grad school, Maneza also learned to distance herself emotionally from political conversations. This allowed her and her colleagues who have different backgrounds to exchange ideas and become friends.
But though she has close friends who are Chinese, she still has a hard time digesting the typical Chinese guanxi network. She doesn’t feel comfortable maintaining relationships “for profit” and doesn’t like the working environment in Chinese companies, where appearances and submission are valued more than results.
Maneza thinks she needs to continue to develop outside of China. Politics, her passion, is a sensitive topic here. And she’s also looking for a place to belong.
“To be honest, I’m really tired,” she says. “Although I can communicate with foreigners more easily than with Afghans, my heart is really tired being an outsider. I don’t feel at home here.”
Maneza’s dream is to eventually go back to Afghanistan and serve her people – wei renmin fuwu, to use the Chinese phrase.
She is considering going to study in the US, where she wants to learn more about Afghanistan politics and perfect her language skills.
“I work hard… I don’t know, maybe it’s not realistic,” she says. “Some people say it’s not realistic, especially my family because Afghanistan is still at war, security issues are getting worse, but I don’t know. Since I was a little girl I had that dream: I work hard, I study hard, I go back to that country.”