Portrait: Wang Hui Li

Wang Hui Li cropped 2

Wang Hui Li came to work at Harare’s China Garden restaurant five years ago because a relative needed an extra pair of hands. “My mother’s mother is the boss’s sister,” she told me, sounding a little uncertain. Ni mamade mama shi laobande meimei? I repeated. She thought for a moment before repeating the sentence quizzically, and we said it back and forth a couple of times, knowing that something about the description sounded strange. Her mother’s mother is her grandmother – but she must have become accustomed to “mother’s mother” from explanations of how she’d come to this Chinese restaurant in Harare’s suburbs.

Five years is a long time to be away from home, I suggested. Had she adapted to life in Zimbabwe’s capital? Yes, she nodded, with a smile. “The air is good, the climate is good, and there’s no cold winter like in China.” Xi’an, the central Chinese city she calls home regularly sees snow in winter. She’d be going home next year she said. And would she return? I asked. “ I don’t know,” she said calmly, as if uncertainty were the most inevitable thing in the world.

“Wang Hui Li” she told me, when I asked for her full name. She drew the character for Wang in the air with four strokes of her index finger, patted my arm, and said goodbye with a smile.