By Nina Porzucki; April 22, 2012
There is an old Chinese proverb: “With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.” Let me just re-phrase that: with time and patience an idea becomes an application becomes a visa becomes a trip to Guangzhou, China, which becomes a story that you will listen to as you commute to work.
It’s been a long, slow bloat from receiving the fellowship in August 2011 to my pieces airing this April 2012 – an enjoyable ride to be sure, but long nonetheless. This fall I set my sights on going to China. No problem, I thought. I’ll just apply for a visa and bam, off I go! Wrong.
Obtaining a short-term journalist visa to China is tricky endeavor. It took three months of back and forth with consulate officials. At one point in the negotiating process I received a phone call from one official asking me to email a list of every person whom I might talk to during my time in China. “Everyone?” I asked. “Yes, everyone,” he replied. So I sent him a list of everyone whom I might talk with in China: African merchants, taxi drivers, business people, street vendors, factory workers, pedestrians – you get the idea. Finally, after no news and the idea dawning that I might not even get a visa, I received a casual email from the consulate. Beijing had approved. My visa was issued on a Friday; Saturday morning I was on a flight for Guangzhou. Little did I know that patience would become the theme of my adventure in China.
Making radio is an exercise in perseverance. There’s a general grumble that the best stuff usually happens just after you turn the microphone off. This has often been the case for me. I have spent hours with someone only to miss the most poignant statement the minute that I put down my recorder. In China I was determined to record everything from the moment I set foot in "Little Africa."
However, what I naively thought would be a matter of course – take out my recorder, interview people, let the tape run – was a much more complicated undertaking. My very first day in the marketplace, merchants eyed me suspiciously, a security guard even kicked me out of one of the trading malls, and no one wanted to talk. That is, nobody wanted to talk about what I wanted to talk about. People talked. They asked me what I was doing there; they asked me whether I believed in God; they asked if I was married. And I did something that I had sworn I wouldn’t – I put my microphone away.
The next day I walked back into that same market that I was escorted from my first afternoon, sat down on a little, red, plastic stool in the middle of the market and waited. I didn’t even take my microphone out of the bag; the next day was the same. What I realized was that I was not the only one waiting. Everyone in the market was sitting on those tiny, red, plastic stools waiting. The merchants were waiting for customers, the customers were waiting for goods, the porters were waiting for shipments to be delivered, I was waiting for a story and everyone was waiting to make it big.
While we waited we argued about politics. I was schooled in Nigerian hip-hop. I learned how fashion differs in East Africa and West Africa. I learned how to properly eat a Nigerian soup with fufu, a polenta-like dough that you use to scoop up the soup. Sure, I missed recording a lot of memorable moments but in lieu of those moments I gained something even more precious – access. Slowly, people started to agree to record their stories.
Patience is perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned throughout my journey as Above the Fray fellow. This week you will hear from Niceguy and Fortunato (yes, those are their nicknames) who opened up their home to me after weeks of hounding them at their shop. You will meet one of the most important men in the African community, Mr. Ojukwu, who led me on two-week goose chase before I could pin him down for an interview. But first you will hear from Kelvin, a trader I met at KFC with whom I experienced one of those rare radio moments of being in the right place at the right time with my microphone turned on.
I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. Thank you to everyone who has shepherded me along from applying for a visa to the final broadcast especially Ted Clark who has been a source of immense patience and guidance. Many thanks to the amazing folks at the John Alexander Project who have been my cheerleaders and my support. Most of all thank you to the many merchants who patiently bore my endless questions. And thank you for listening! —NP