The first African I met in China was a Rwandan named Gahiji, who was studying Mandarin at Nankai University. I was downing some beer in the hot Tianjin night air in 1998 at a joint called Alibaba’s when I noticed a haunted-looking man hunched over at the table next to me. His appearance shocked me. He had purplish, craterlike scars all over his arms and legs. He wore a loose, mud-colored tank top, stained with sweat, over his chubby torso.

But it was his eyes—yellow, pit-like, almost lifeless—that drew my attention. I watched him down 14 shots of vodka before he looked over and grunted for me to pull my stool over. When I did, he started speaking in a drunken blend of Chinese, French, English, and what I later learned was Kinyarwanda. It was hard to understand what he was saying, but over the next few months I spent many nights drinking and talking with him, listening to his story and gradually piecing the fragments together.

Gahiji had ended up in China in the aftermath of the genocide in his home country four years earlier. One million Rwandans had been slaughtered in ethnic clashes in a six-week period while the rest of the world did nothing. I detected deep pain in his voice (which I later noticed again during my talks with Lili Li), and during our discussions I thought to myself how lucky I was to have had a peaceful life growing up in America and how chaotic some parts of the world can still be. ...

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