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.
“No – South Africa.”
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.”
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.
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.
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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