South African in China

By Claire vd Heever Nov 12, 2011

An illiterate old lady in a Shanghai linglong that was due for demolition last year. We spoke to her on camera.

Shanghai is mainland China’s most cosmopolitan and outward looking city. It is – in a line that was used and reused, ad nauseum, ahead of the city’s World Expo last year – China’s window on the world, with a population of well over 200,000 expatriates. There are Japanese and Koreans tucked away in neighbourhoods that they have made their own; in the old concession areas, there are Germans, French and Americans making a life amongst the buildings put up by their pre-1949 forebears. Chilean students mix with Nigerians, Norwegians, Turks and Scots in its dive bars on Friday nights, and there are even a few South Africans, who meet once a month at a pub called The Spot, to drink and complain, about China and home in equal measure, and to help each other find Prestik, Western Cape wines and boerewors, made by a butcher in a suburb on the city’s outskirts. For three years, from 2008 to 2011, Iain and I were two of them.

The Chinese are still not used to all the foreigners they now find living amongst them and, in the course of three years, we found ourselves having exactly the same curious conversation with different locals on a hundred different occasions.
“Which country are you from?” the local would ask. “America? France?”
“No, I’m from South Africa,” I’d reply, forming the words clearly, knowing it wasn’t what they were expecting to hear.
“South America?”
“No – South Africa.”
“South Africa?”
“Yes.”
“Aah…”
A few seconds would pass as he or she processed my response. Sometimes they’d continue by asking which country in South Africa I came from. ‘South’ and ‘southern’ are as distinguishable in Chinese as in English, but the question didn’t surprise me: I have been asked it everywhere from India to Egypt, by the educated and the ignorant. Many people simply don’t know where South Africa is; I have accepted that. The next part of the conversation was more confounding.
“But you’re white! You can’t be South African!” they’d say, frowning at my pale skin.
“Well, I am.”
“But people from Africa are all black!” they’d protest.
“South Africa also has white people,” I’d say. “About ten percent of the population is white.” The more I was faced with this logic, the more I felt like I was having an argument over my own identity. “There are all kinds of people there – lots of different races,” I’d say, but this didn’t satisfy the Chinese, who think of race and nationality as things that are more or less the same. The people of China’s diaspora, whose families might have lived in the US or Canada or the UK for generations, are still Chinese. Iain and I must, as a result, still be European.
“Aah… So your parents must be from England,” the local would continue. “That’s why you’re white!”
“Well, originally my mother is – yes. But lots of white South Africans have Dutch ancestry, including my family. That goes back hundreds of years. We are white South Africans – not Europeans.”
“So you are a British person.”
“No, I’m not. I’m South African.”
“You can’t be – you’re white.”

In our local Lanzhou noodle restaurant, with the owner and his grandson

At this stage, I usually gave up. For my first year in Shanghai, I simply didn’t have the language to argue. By the time I did, I was already tired of arguing against such a narrow view of the world. Whether they accepted that we were South African or not, the conversation usually continued with the local listing things they knew about South Africa: it had diamonds, gold, extreme heat and Nelson Mandela.
“Aah, South Africa,” they would say, thoughtfully. “You have lots of diamonds. You are rich!”
“Our country has diamonds – yes. We don’t have diamonds!” I would joke, but normally our interrogator was deadly serious. They had heard about South Africa’s diamond wealth. There must be hundreds of the rocks buried in our gardens, free to be dug up and cashed in. A country with diamonds was, it seemed, automatically a rich country.

The plural form of “you” in Mandarin partly explains our alleged wealth. “Nimen” is used to address a group of people as often as it is to refer to a nation’s people. “Our China is different to your South Africa,” people would say, but sometimes country names were unnecessary and it was enough to say “we are different to you” or “you have diamonds and we do not.”

“Oh, it is so hot there, in Africa!” might be the local’s next remark. As the months became years, and more and more Chinese I met broached the same subjects with equal confidence, I came to believe that this set of stereotypes was taught in schools around the country. That Shanghai was hotter in summer than Cape Town was almost as incomprehensible as the fact that “we white people” weren’t all rich.

Sometimes, though far less frequently than diamonds or heat, Nelson Mandela would feature in the list of things Chinese people knew about South Africa. As my Chinese improved, I started to ask what people knew about Nelson Mandela. If he was the hero who fought against white oppression and racial segregation, and united the country’s people, how was it that South Africa had no white people? But logic didn’t play much of a part in this way of thinking, this neat categorisation of people and countries into separate boxes. It was the same in India. When we told Indians where we came from, a list of white cricketers’ names – “Jacques Kallis! Graeme Smith!” – was followed by the same assertion that we couldn’t be from South Africa because we weren’t black.

Backpackers we meet while travelling often respond with an enthusiastic “Wow!” when we tell them where we’re from. People seem to think of South Africa as very far away – no matter where we are. It is far away because they know little about it, though everyone seems to have heard how beautiful it is. People’s ideas about the country you grew up in can make you re-examine and reform your own. They may express fear about the country’s crime and wonder at its beauty in equal measure, as if going there would be taking a leap into a beautiful unknown. Their ideas pose questions about identity, my sense of belonging, and what it means to be a South African; questions asked in ignorance that nevertheless inform my own idea of the home at the end of our road.

One of eTV's cameramen in a Shanghai linglong

As the end of our third year in Shanghai was approaching, when Iain and I were preparing to pack up our lives and begin our long overland journey home to Cape Town, we were asked to participate in a documentary for the South African television station eTV. It would tell the stories of a handful of South Africans living in China; it was called Postcards from China.

Though our lives were in a state of flux, and we were in the midst of packing up our apartment, we were excited by the opportunity to take part. The documentary would focus on what had defined our life in Shanghai: what had been the predominant themes, and how they could be represented on film. We chose a few of our favourite places as locations: places that we visited often; places that we knew would return to us in our memories of life there. In one sense, the timing couldn’t have been better. As we prepared to leave a city which had become our home, it was easier to reflect on what had characterised our time there; what we loved about it and how that had defined our experience, and the sense of China we’d gained.

The Postcards from China episode that Iain and I feature in is airing for the first time this Sunday, the 13th of November 2011, a year after it was filmed. China is no longer our home, and we have travelled through several countries since leaving. I don’t know who I will see when I watch the person I once was wandering through a place that I came to know so well; a place that moulded me more than anywhere else in adulthood. I suspect I will watch with nostalgia as I pass through my old neighbourhood, talk to our old landlord and move about in our old apartment. I will probably even feel nostalgic about the excitement that I felt as our journey – now a part of my present – loomed in the future. Now that journey – once pure concept – is as much a reality as the life I made in Shanghai. And every day, in every new place, I look to China and what it taught me, as Iain and I recreate a slice of home wherever we take ourselves.

Claire and eTV's crew in Moganshan Lu's art zone

For more on Africans in China, visit:

  • African Boots – A multi-author blog documenting the evolving relationship between China and African countries.
  • African Boots of Beijing – A documentary by Jeremy Goldkorn and Luke Mines, about the Beijing football team Afrika United.
  • China in Africa: The Real Story – A blog on Sino-African affairs by Deborah Brautigam, author of the definitive book on the subject The Dragon’s Gift.
  • China Talking Points – A series of podcasts about the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China.
  • Pambazuka News – A weekly newsletter focused on Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world, including China.
  • Exporting China’s Development to the World – A blog by MqVU, a team of anthropologists in Australia and the Netherlands, with analyses of China’s economic ties with other developing countries everywhere.

For more on just South Africans in China, visit:

  • Shosholoza Shanghai – The Facebook page of Shosholoza Shanghai, a group of South Africans based in Shanghai that meet once a month.

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30 Responses to “South African in China”

  1. I can be accused of being biased but, as you know, I try not to be. I thought the documentary was thought provoking and that both of you were consumate. Well done.

  2. Michael says:

    Hi, I too am a white South African having lived in China for almost two years. I chuckled reading the dialogue on your difficulty in explaining just why we're white and living in Africa. It used to experience the same thing, but to avoid frustration I've later changed my intro to avoid it: "I'm Dutch, but I grew up in South Africa." Which is sort of true genetically, but a way to simplify the process. It sort of makes you wonder about your identity being so misunderstood by others. Next time I'll say I'm Chinese!

    • Hi Michael, thanks for getting in touch. Your tactful white lie made me laugh! It still amazes me just how entrenched the idea of race/ethnicity and nationality are in China. After a while, I tried telling people I was an ethnic minority, and that seemed to make a lot more sense to them in the context of China's modern day empire. Did you catch the show on eTV, or are you still in China?

  3. Heather says:

    What a lovely article Claire. It brought a lump to my throat. A good life is always laced with longing for places, people & times past.

    • Thanks Heather. I agree that nostalgia has its place – and is unavoidable. But sometimes it does me good to remind myself that I'm likely to look back with nostalgia and longing on the present moment too.

  4. My boyfriend Tyrhone is a South African who lived in London for ten years, and has called Australia home for the last three. And he is white. Talk about identity crisis! When we travel he usually says he is Australian, because its easier. I really enjoyed this wonderful article about travel, culture, race and identity.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah. If Tyrhone hasn't tried saying 'South Africa' as his nationality since we hosted the World Cup, tell him to give it a try. Iain and I have generally noticed more awareness about the country, and some really positive responses because of the friendly image the country gave people. (China – which is not particularly interested in soccer – is an exception.) People sometimes even mime blowing into a cone and ask what the name of that crazy South African instrument is – the vuvuzela!

  5. Julian Hewitt says:

    Great article Claire. Hope you and Iain are still having fun and look forward to catching up in SA! It took me two plus years of these repetitive Mandarin conversations before hitting on the perfect response of "Women shi Nan Fei de xiaoshu minzu ren" Essentially that we are an ethic minority from South Africa. That got light bulbs going on every time especially if you ask why the ethnic minority Turkick Uighurs or Eurasian Russians are Chinese even though they don't look 'Chinese' or have culturally Chinese ancestry…It is a great localized example that kills off the debate

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Julian. We, too, cottoned onto the ethnic minority approach after having the same conversation / argument way too many times! Yes, catching up in SA (though it seems so far away) will be great!

  6. Interesting story says:

    You should have told them that you were the Descendents of "Barbarians" (albeit sophisticated ones) like the Mongolians had done to them Centuries ago, that Killed, Stole and Conquered the Natives until the System Fell, *shrugs* #justsaying

  7. @TravelEater says:

    Great article. I find the same thing about Canadians too, although I suppose there is more awareness that Canada is a multicultural country of mostly immigrants. However, everyone thinks it is always cold here (even some Americans within a few hours drive of the border!). I've even been asked if I live in an igloo in the winter and a teepee in the summer.

    I'm visiting South Africa (& Namibia) July / Aug 2012 and am really looking forward to seeing what I hear is an amazing country. Any food recommendations to share? Favourite dishes or restaurants (especially for Cape Town)?

    • Thanks @traveleater. The drastic misconceptions about Canada made me laugh. I have been asked by several people whether it can be dangerous walking outdoors in South Africa, on account of all the wild animals! I'm sure you will have an amazing time next year. Food is one of SA's strong points – in terms of the quality of the ingredients, more than the style of the cuisine, I'd say. The steaks, from beef to venison to ostrich, are nearly always tasty and tender, but most people from other countries go mad for the seafood.

      One of the most memorable meals I've had in Cape Town was a chocolate chilli fillet at a restaurant called Madame Zingara. The company has since morphed into a restaurant-chain and travelling circus -not a circus in the traditional sense, more like an upmarket cabaret-variety show. I have been told that an evening at the circus – which includes one of their amazing dinners – is unmissable. You are bound to be in one of the cities where they tour during your visit (Cape Town, Durban and Jo'burg). Tickets sell out months in advance, so buy them early. You can check out their website or their Facebook page nearer the time for details. Enjoy!

  8. @TravelEater says:

    Thanks Claire! Chocolate chili anything sounds awesome to me! And this circus dinner thing intriguing – I'll check it out. In the mean time, be wary of giant pandas on the streets in China, and I'll be particularly careful of the killer whales who have a tendency to burst through Canadian manhole covers when it rains. Not to mention the polar bears downtown ….

  9. Rachel says:

    From my experience, Americans can be just as guilty of assuming all Africans are black. A good friend of mine is South African (5th-generation), and she's had people tell her to her face that she couldn't be from Africa because she's white. When she became a U.S. citizen, that was a whole other problem, since technically that made her African-American. People couldn't handle it.

    • Wow, what a bizarre situation for your friend to find herself in. It strikes me as very strange, though, that in a multi-racial society like America, people still insist on pigeon-holing according to race. If you were born in Africa and grew up in Africa – and have a passport from there which, believe me, makes travel in many first world countries far from easy – it is sad that people feel they can reject your identity. If you don't fit in with their idea of 'African' – because your skin is the wrong colour – perhaps their idea of 'African' is too narrow.

      Thanks for sharing this interesting case!

  10. Tamsyn says:

    Oh my goodness this is so weird, I found your link to this artcile through the Hao Hao report, which I read every morning. I had such a good laugh because I am South African and the perplexed taxi quizzing happens to me ALL THE TIME! I wrote about it in my blog a couple of days ago, (http://sidespitting.blog.com/2011/11/17/a-bite-racist-yeah/).

    All the best,

    Tammy

    Thank you for the 'lekker' laugh this morning.

    • Hi Tammy, good to meet a fellow South African in China! I also had a lekker laugh reading your version of the never ending (and sometimes rather bully-ish) interrogations! Iain and I will be in Beijing in March – maybe we could get together for a drink and a moan!

  11. Tammy says:

    Hi Claire, would love to meet you both when you come to Beijing, let's defs have a drink ( or three), a moan and laugh. I think your blog is so interesting, funny and insightful. Keep on writing!

  12. April4 says:

    You have Mark Shuttleworth (Ubuntu), we not. You have Freedom and we not. I my love my country, but i hate the CCP…

  13. Dear Claire,

    Thank you for a lovely article about life in China. Well done to you and Iain. I salute you!!!

    I can certainly relate to your article. During the Asia World Expo in Hong Kong, in April 2007, the same questions were asked to us exactly the same way you have described above.

    It took some explaining, but eventually it paid off.

    I have lived and worked in Wuxi(Jaingsu Province)very close to Shanghai, from February 2008 until June 2009. During May 2010 we attended a Cultural Fair in Shenzhen too.

    I loved every moment thereof and would love to return back to China on a more than permanent basis. The experience I have gained while living there is absolutely priceless.

    The only problem for me was my own inability to communicate freely with the locals. That's why I have started learning Mandarin(Chinese) on my own. At this moment I do know the very basic survival Chinese, but still have a long way to go.

    I am now looking for opportunity to study Mandarin(Chinese) fulltime in China or South Africa. I do prefer China though. The best way to learn Chinese after all, is to be in China amongst Mandarin native speakers itself.

    My reason for studying Chinese is purely business related. Once I am Mandarin fluent, a lot of opportunities can be explored and a lot of doors can be opened up for me. And that is what I am aiming for. This is my ultimate goal!

    There’s an English saying: “I can give you a hand-up and not a hand-out.” And that is exactly what I am looking for at this very moment. I am not looking for a hand-out at all. I want a hand-up in order to help myself in the long run. This way I will become independent and self sustainable for the future.

    My reasons for learning Mandarin(Chinese):

    1. To be able to communicate freely and fluently in Mandarin.

    2. To act as interpreter and or trade assistant at Chinese Trade Fairs and Chinese Expo’s worldwide.

    3. To assist Chinese exporters with “International Trade” and “International Sourcing”.

    4. To assist Chinese manufacturers and suppliers in finding new customers for their products worldwide.

    5. To assist international importers of Chinese products with trade related matters.

    6. To be able to do business with all Chinese manufacturers and exporters worldwide.

    7. To better my chances of getting hired by international companies that needs bi-lingual/multi-lingual speakers in their trade departments.

    8. To learn and understand more about the Chinese culture.

    9. To learn more about “Guanxi” and the business ethics and culture of Chinese manufacturers and suppliers.

    10. To meet new Chinese friends while travelling in and around China.

    Being Mandarin fluent will certainly open up new opportunities for me with regards to getting fulltime employment with South African companies doing trade and or companies in the process of establishing trade relations with The People’s Republic of China.

    Personally, I am looking forward to broadening my perspectives of China and at the same time gaining a better understanding of Asian culture itself. Being Mandarin fluent is my ultimate goal for the near future!

    All the best of luck with future ventures. You certainly have brought back some good memories with your article.

    Thanks a lot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Gawie. I agree with you – having Mandarin skills can potentially open a lot of doors. Learning Mandarin was definitely among the most useful things I have done with my time. Until you are able to China, I can strongly recommend a Mandarin-learning website called Chinese Pod. It has challenging exercises that focus on listening skills, and if you work through them consistently, you'll undoubtedly make a lot of progress. They go all the way up to advanced level too. Good luck and jia yóu!

  14. Akila says:

    Claire, What a fascinating post. Race is such a strange and bizarre thing for people from other countries to comprehend. I had this issue when I was in China — people would ask me whether I was from India and I would say, "No, I'm American." And, they say, "No, but you are not white."

    Actually, this happens to me all-the-freaking-time in the United States. People say to me, "Where are you from?" "Alabama." "No, where are you really from?" "Auburn, Alabama." "No, but you're not really from Alabama." "Yep." Eventually, I say that my parents immigrated from India but I am American – always have been and always will be.

    Anyhow, I can imagine how frustrating it can be to try and explain your identity to people who don't know much about Africa in general or South Africa specifically. I think it's the continent that people have the most misperceptions about because the news media coverage is so one-sided (everyone's starving, people walk around in tribal clothes, and lions are everywhere, etc.). I was so thrilled that the World Cup gave so much exposure to a different view of Africa.

    • Thanks, Akila. Yours is clearly the more frustrating situation – being told in your own country that you can't be from there. I find that truly baffling! I've definitely noticed a general increase in awareness about South Africa since the World Cup, though the stereotypes -some of which you mentioned – still prevail… Thanks for reading.

  15. I know, April 4. You and millions of others, I'm sure… At least you aren't bei xi nao le like so many others! (We're having a technical problem displaying Chinese characters within comments -sorry.) Brainwashing is among the scariest of their tactics…

  16. DEK says:

    I would have loved to see Shanghai between the wars. ". . . an international city of fat money deals, bountiful brothels, and languorous opium dens." My wife's uncle, a poor farm boy from Virginia, went there in the early '20s with the State Department and by the end of the '30s was judge on the International Court and one of six people specifically named by the Japanese to be expelled when they took over. A young man could go far in Shanghai in those days. It was the milieu of Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson in "The White Countess" and young Jim Ballard in "Empire of the Sun".

  17. Greg says:

    Hi there – I'm another South African, but based in HK (China SAR, ahem)

    I get that question a lot too – which was why I learned to say "90 percent are black people' so early in my Chinese studies. And I've also simplified the truth a bit to keep the conversation, by explaining that my parents and grandparents will all also born in SA.

    Since the Soccer Worldcup was held in SA, I've found that to be another common "Ah yes I know all about you South Africans" linking factor :-)

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Hi Greg, thanks for getting in touch. It's always good to hear that there are more South Africans than I thought floating around China. I would have thought Hong Kong-ers would be a bit more open minded about nationality, race and identity – but I didn't have any of those nationality conversations while I was there myself. It must be a bit of a challenge keeping up with your Mandarin studies while surrounded by all that Cantonese!

  18. Greg says:

    In HK people are certainly more clear on the difference between nationality & race! And although I don't get to practise my Mandarin listening skills much in HK, I can still practise the speaking with most (patient) people :-)

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