Shanghai is mainland China’s most cosmopolitan and outward looking city. In 2010, ahead of the World Expo, it was touted and re-touted ad nauseum as “China’s window on the world”, until most of its 200,000 or so expatriates never wanted to see or hear the slogan again.
The city has communities of Japanese and Koreans tucked away in neighbourhoods that they’ve 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, my partner and I were two of them.
To this day, the Chinese are not completely used to all the foreigners they now find living amongst them and, in the course of three years, I found myself having exactly the same curious conversation with different locals on a hundred different occasions.
“Which country are you from?” the Chinese man or woman would ask. “America? France?”
“I’m from South Africa,” I’d reply, forming the Mandarin 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, assuming I’d meant “southern”, not “south”.
“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.
“Actually, about ten percent of South Africa’s 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.
“South Africa is home to lots of different races and ethnic groups,” I’d say, but this didn’t satisfy the Chinese, who generally think of race and nationality as the same.
The people that make up China’s diaspora are still considered “Chinese” by China’s citizens, even when their families have lived in the US or Canada or the UK for generations. My European ancestry, therefore, made me 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.”
“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.
Sometimes – though far less frequently than the country’s diamond mines or “extreme heat” – Nelson Mandela would feature in the list of things Chinese people knew about South Africa. As my Chinese improved, I started to ask them what they knew about him. If he was the hero who fought against white oppression and racial segregation, 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.
Whether they are Chinese taxi drivers or American diplomats, people seem to think of South Africa as very far away. It is far away because they know little about it, though everyone seems to have heard about how beautiful – and “dangerous” – the country 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. They are questions asked in ignorance that nevertheless informed my own idea of the home that I eventually returned to in 2014, after ten years abroad.
Here, in South Africa, questions about my identity and sense of belonging – on personal, social and, increasingly, racial levels – have become far more pervasive than I imagined when I planned my homecoming. I wasn’t homesick or eager to leave my homes in China, India, the UK, or Laos, but some part of me felt that a return to the country of my birth – where family, friends, and shared contexts are supposed to be enough – was important. It’s ironic that I question my place here – and how far I’d go to fit in – more often than ever from this new home.