Postcards from China: A South African Documentary

Postcards from China is a documentary series that was produced for South Africa’s eTV, first aired in 2011. “The Art of Learning” (below) is one of four episodes, and follows the pursuits of three South Africans living in Beijing and Shanghai between 2008 and 2011, one of whom is me.

The show was intended to provide a window onto the lives of “South Africans from different walks of life who have decided to make China their home.” For me, it has become a personal record of my three years in Shanghai, capturing my aspirations and naivety, along with my changing identities in a country that started out as entirely foreign to me.

My partner Iain Manley – with whom I travelled overland to Shanghai from London, and who is also featured in the show – reflects on how learning a language like Chinese gives writers an opportunity to reflect on what language really is, among other things.

“China was becoming big news,” said Iain – a fact that, seven years ago, had not yet dawned on many of our peers – and rapidly developing Shanghai was among the best cities from which to gain insight into modern China.

Lebogang Rasethaba (the third South African in this episode) had made a life for himself in Beijing, where he was making short films about the African diaspora in China and studying Chinese.

“[Learning Chinese] is like being born again as a newborn baby,” he said. “You have to learn how to say all these new things. And then [suddenly] you’re like a child because you’ve only got the expressive abilities of a six-year-old – but you’re a child who is growing up very, very quickly.”

The episode was named “The Art of Learning” because, while Lebo was studying Chinese and film, Iain and I were dividing our time between studying Chinese and writing our first books: a traveller’s history of Singapore, and the story of China’s contemporary art scene from Mao to the present.

Lebogang Rasethaba graduated with a Master’s in film and now has a budding career as a film director in South Africa. Iain and I left Shanghai to pursue a life of exploration and writing in equal measure, while building an acclaimed (now dormant) travelogue. When we returned to South Africa in 2014, Iain found a way to marry storytelling with exploration via his own location-aware audio tour app, VoiceMap.

I still like to remind him what fresh-faced Iain said to the camera in Shanghai:

“There’s something about travelling and being in a foreign place that allows you to learn faster than you ever could in your own environment. You’re forced to learn with all of your senses. That’s very exhilarating; it makes you feel very alive.”

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