So we’ve been in Cotonou, Benin for a little more than 4 months now after spending 3 years in Xi’an, China. People keep asking me to compare the two so here I go.
I am so much happier in Benin! People are nice here, the air is cleaner, I can find anything I need in the shops, oh and did I mention people here are nice? My husband and I say all the time it’s like being back home. For sure it is poor here. It’s really poor but the people are so nice. Walking down the street here is a lot like walking down the street in the US South. Almost everyone says hello, and asks how you are doing, people smile at you. If you’re in a shop with a slightly confused look on your face someone will always offer to help. Even if there are language barriers they’ll try. Now am I saying every single person in this country is nice? Of course not. Assholes are everywhere. The difference is in China the norm is asshole and the outliers were nice and here it is the opposite the norm is nice and the outlier is an asshole.
If you drop something here several people will help you. If you drop something in China no one will help and even worse if you help someone that has dropped something people will point and laugh at you. In China, if an old woman drops something and a child moves to help her the child’s mom will hit the child and say NO! That is not your problem! Leave her alone. Here, if an old woman drops something a woman will send her child over to help.
When we had only lived here about six weeks and I was out for a walk a woman riding on a moto taxi dropped her purse in the middle of the road. I walked out in the traffic and grabbed it for her and returned it to her. People clapped for me and everyone was telling me how nice I am and someone even reached out and touched me to say thank you. In China had that happened I most likely would have been hit by a car in the street and left to die there. And no I’m not exaggerating. I saw many times where pedestrians were hit and left in the road with no one going to their aid or when a scooter carrying two people was hit by a car, both people went flying into the middle of the road, and the traffic didn’t even slow down as they were left to fend for themselves. Think I must be exaggerating? See this and this and this
We had an emergency the other day when we were in a strange city we had never been and Trinidad collapsed. People came running to help us, one person picked her up and carried her to the car for us, and then hopped in the car with us to guide us to the hospital. He stayed with us the whole time and helped us with everything even though our French is poor and he could not speak a word of English. In China we would have been completely on our own. There’s no way we could have found anyone to help us. It was a REALLY stressful time for us and everyone was honestly just trying to help us. The hospital didn’t gouge us for money. No one that helped us tried to get money out of us. People genuinely cared and wanted to help. Two days later I am still emotional about it. In fact it was that experience that has finally prodded me to make this post.
In China, for 3 years anywhere from 5-15 times a day I was called fat and ugly. Complete strangers would walk up to me on the street, grab my arm and tell me I was fat and ugly and I ate too much. AT THE GYM the employees called me fat and lazy and were in general really mean to me(See my post about it). I quit going to the gym. Once in a cafe a stranger sat down at the table with me and told me I was too fat and ugly to be out in public and I needed to go lock myself in my apartment. I developed a huge complex about it. I had never been so self-conscious about my appearance than I was in China. When you are constantly being told how fat and ugly you are it can really fuck with you. I’m not even that big! It’s just that in China the average woman is a US size 2 so anything bigger than that is considered fat. The Chinese woman pictured below is considered the epitome of beauty in China. The picture on the right was taken of me at approximately the same time. Here people call me beautiful.
In China I was sexually assaulted more than ten times. A man attacked me at 8am in a elevator while returning from walking the dog while wearing my flannel pajamas(I hesitated on mentioning what I was wearing at all since it shouldn’t fucking matter what a woman is wearing) it was recorded on camera. A man walked up to me on a busy sidewalk and grabbed my breasts. I was jumped on and dry humped in a bar. The list goes on an on. I had a taxi driver offer to buy me a new iPhone if I would go to his apartment and have sex with him. Taxi drivers trying to get me to fuck them was a regular occurrence. Here men hiss at me, and say gross things, make suggestive faces at me, and constantly ask me for my number but after 4 months I still have not been touched by a man and when I stand strong and repeat I am not interested he always leaves me alone. In China they don’t care. It’s like all the stories I’ve heard about being a woman in Morocco. Men simply think it is their right to do anything they want to women. And sadly women are taught from birth that a man has the right to do anything he wants to her. So since I’ve only been here about half a year I can’t say it won’t happen here but so far here it’s been no worse than walking down the street in Atlanta while in China it was horrible. Having a man grab me, or jump on me, or solicit me for sex because so commonplace it didn’t even surprise me anymore. And that’s fucked up.
People do pee fairly freely here but they don’t do it directly on the sidewalk nor do they let their children shit anywhere they please. One time in Xi’an in the elevator in my fancy apartment building a grandma let a toddler take a shit IN THE ELEVATOR with me!!! Then when they got to their floor they just walked out and left it there. Children up to about the age of 8 just piss or shit absolutely anywhere there: in the supermarket, in the mall, on the bus, in the middle of the sidewalk, in the restaurant, in the damn elevator. That doesn’t happen here and people would be mortified if it did.
There’s also a higher level of expats here. In China you had friends if you wanted to party until you couldn’t stand up straight but that was about it. Expat life there is about drinking every night until you blackout, sleep, work, repeat. Think the movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Here, and this is because “Teaching English” is not a thing here, the expat scene is mostly diplomats, Peace Corps, and various NGO workers. I’m much more comfortable here and I fit in a lot better than I ever did in China.
I have a nice big house here, a car, and even a housekeeper/cook and a gardener, and I love my job. I think every day about what an amazingly lucky life I’m living but I am not lying when I say I would choose to live in a shitty mud hut here before going back to Xi’an. It’s easier to drive here, it’s easier to find things here, it’s easier to make friends here, I know if I get hurt here someone will come to my aid, I can go out with people and not be expected to drink all night long, I can leave my home without wondering if a guy is going to attack me today, I don’t constantly get called fat and ugly, and people are kind.
The ways things are similar in both: people really fuck with you over money. It’s not as bad here as it was in China but they still try to overcharge you by a lot. People point out the fact that your skin is a different color although here it is more of a novelty and in China it was often said in disgust. People are really superstitious. It’s really poor but they don’t think so and they’ll argue with you if you mention it. This comes from a lack of experience with the outside world. If everyone you know has more or less the same as you then you have no idea how poor you are. It works in reverse too… just look at the 1% that claim to be middle class.