Cairo in Chinese

When Shen Yitong left her home in China to study French at Cairo University in 2008, she didn’t know that she would come to think of Egypt as a second home, or that she would see revolution come upon the country so suddenly. Her parents came from peasant backgrounds and they devoted everything to supporting her education, including moving from a smaller city in Jilin Province to the capital city, Changchun, in 2004.

I met Shen while in Cairo for an arts festival in the spring of 2013. Interested in how Mubarak’s toppling reverberated through the small Chinese expat community (whose members number in the thousands), I was drawn to how Shen and others perceived the joy and despair that Egypt has undergone. Outsiders to the factional disputes, Chinese expat fates are still intertwined with their outcomes—in part because they live in Egypt but also because they are Chinese citizens, for whom the tradeoff between political freedoms and the uncertainty of regime change has immediate resonance.

I thought Yitong and her friends’ stories would reveal a side of globalization that American audiences don’t often think about—a globalization that is not centered on the West—and would help illuminate the Egyptian revolution’s global significance.

I filmed Shen last January and February as part of a larger project I am working on. She has since left Cairo to start a Master’s degree in Paris. This short film produced for ChinaFile focuses on a conversation Shen has with a close Egyptian friend, Asma El Nagar. El Nagar works for a Chinese company in Egypt after having studied Mandarin at Cairo University. The two friends laugh over a meal of Lanzhou noodles and converse in rapid fire, relaxed Mandarin with occasional Arabic mixed in.

As their conversation turns to current events, the two friends draw parallels between the Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Neither is a historian, political commentator, expert, or activist, and this film does not aim to portray them as authorities. In fact, before coming to Cairo, Shen, like many of her peers at home, had never heard of the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square in 1989. There are of course many strong distinctions between the Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre. What they do have in common is they are both examples of overwhelming state violence against civilians. In both Egypt and China, these events are marked by an inability to freely discuss or even commemorate them without fear of retribution.

Ultimately that is what this short film is about, a conversation about free speech, about the idea of freedom itself. For me, it’s an example of the kinds of commonalities and tough questions that will necessarily materialize when such cross-cultural connections, exchanges, and friendship are made between young people.