Born in China, Zhao Huiling first moved to Ghana with her parents when she was 11 and lived there until she was 18. Now, she is part of a small but growing crop of Chinese vloggers that are trying to change perceptions of Africa.
In the description for her first video (embedded above), she writes:
“During recent years, there has been a growing interest on Africa [sic], especially amongst the Chinese. Unfortunately the narrative remains the same: the safari, the wildlife, and the usual Discovery Channel imagery. But through my travels, I have discovered […] vibrant, young energy bursting with creativity in many parts of Africa I’ve traveled to. That’s what I will showcase in my channel: the social entrepreneurs; the fashion designers; the artists and more.”
Zhao spent her formative years growing up in Accra — Ghana’s capital city — and returns frequently to visit friends from high school and university. It was on one of these trips that she had the epiphany, as she puts it, to make a vlog about African life. “There was a moment where I was at my friend’s house in Kenya,” she recalls. “I felt really aware, connected, and content just being in this little garden, looking at the flowers and the sky. Everything just added up, and I thought, ‘I really need to share this with people.'”
When Zhao’s father first visited Ghana, her aunt and uncle were already settled there, having moved in the early ’90s after China’s opening up to set up a trading company. Zhao’s father visited on holiday, fell in love, and decided to relocate his family there. It was there that her parents set up a restaurant, and eventually came to do some trading themselves.
She recalls experiencing some culture shock when she first moved, but that it faded quickly. “I think the benefit of me being very young is that I was in the middle of forming my worldview,” she says. She grew up in a close-knit community of Ghanaian friends and classmates, learning three languages and enjoying the perks of big city life. “Accra is more modern than I think most people expect it to be,” she says. “It’s city life. There’s lots of restaurants, big shopping malls, and vibrant creative and nightlife scenes. We’ve also been quite blessed with the political stability that we’ve had.”
Many of the friends and friends-of-friends she grew up with have become successful in their respective fields, and are the subjects of current and future vlogs, according to Zhao. She gushes about one high school friend who loved to sew his own clothes, and who is now a successful fashion designer, while another capitalized on his interest in music and became a DJ.
She also maintains a close connection to Kenya via her best friend from university, who she met on her first day of orientation in the US.
“I think because of my experience growing up, more than other international students, I still attracted the African crowd,” she says, laughing.
Zhao captured a ton of footage from her two-month voyage last year visiting friends in East Africa, which gave rise to the first wave of her vlog posts. Between interviews with local entrepreneurs and tours of elephant orphanages, Zhao eats breakfast at friends’ homes and talks about seeing their children grow up.
It’s this kind of footage that she thinks distinguishes her from other Chinese vloggers in her space; while others are documenting a “safari” or travels through Africa to entice fellow tourists, she strives to share what life is like for her and her friends that live there.
“I think what makes me different is that I have an insider’s perspective,” she says. “I grew up in Africa. I consider it home.”
She told the China-Africa Project that after only a handful of episodes, the series has already connected her to other Chinese her age with a similar trajectory. She says, “I had this guy send me a message saying, ‘It’s so wonderful to realize after all these years I’m not alone! I’m Shanghainese, was raised in Ghana as well, but I went to school in Switzerland.’ He felt like someone [was telling] his story as well.” Her vlogs have attracted attention and praise from both Africans and Chinese — even retirees her parent’s age, which she says surprised her.
Today she primarily pushes her series on WeChat, but plans to explore other localized apps such as TikTok to better reach her Chinese-speaking audience. “I’m still just a one-man show,” she admits. In the future, she plans to take her followers through nightlife in Nairobi, a 700-person wedding she attended in Rwanda, and eventually, the towering dunes and stunning beaches of Namibia and Zanzibar respectfully.
Zhao says that while she didn’t initially undertake vlogging for a particular purpose, she now hopes that it grows into a profitable platform that gives back to the people and communities she features. “Eventually I want to build all of this into an ecosystem,” she says. “The fashion labels, the social entrepreneurship, the wildlife conservation projects — a lot of these stories are untold in mainstream media. Hopefully piquing the curiosity of a Chinese audience can help me pinpoint the more tangible ideas to develop.”
She uses her elephant orphanage episode as an example, where questions from Chinese users about how to adopt the elephants were so overwhelming that she published a follow-up video tutorial on how to navigate the website. Still, the problems remain. “It’s in English, it loads slowly, and you need to use a VPN [virtual proxy network],” she says. “A lot of things in Africa still feel far away for most Chinese people. You need a good mouthpiece to share the message and put it in the right context.”
To view past and future episodes of Zhao Huiling’s vlog, visit her YouTube channel or on WeChat: 慧玲带你非
All photos courtesy Zhao Huiling.
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