“You guys must come from Taiwan…” said the foot masseuse as she submerged my feet in a bucket of hot water. She gave me a suspicious look. “You guys are very polite compared to locals. Too polite.”
My friend Danlei and I were in a typical Shenzhen foot massage parlour, with diagrams of the foot’s reflexology points on the walls and full-to-the-brim ashtrays on all of the reclining sofa’s armrests. The massage parlour was packed with people. At 9pm, most Chinese cities were going to bed, but Shenzhen’s night was just starting.
Danlei explained that we had recently returned from South Africa, not Taiwan. While we aren’t originally from South Africa, we had both just spent over a year in Cape Town, we explained. We had developed a strong emotional tie to the city, and considered it our African home.
“Africa?” the masseuse repeated. “But your skin is so pale! Did you not get tanned in Africa?”
Danlei gave the woman the short version of her Africa story: she had spent a year teaching Chinese at Cape Town’s Confucius Institute, and recently came back to Shenzhen to reunite with her boyfriend and look for a teaching job.
“At first I got really excited telling everyone about Africa,” Danlei told me, adding a footnote to her African story. “People were really interested in my stories. But family and friends’ attention would only last for five minutes. They couldn’t possibly picture what my African life was like. The version of the story that I tell has become shorter and shorter.”
She wasn’t surprised when the middle-aged woman massaging her feet, whose dark skin suggested a rural upbringing, quickly changed the topic of our conversation to property prices in China. The masseuse had to work over 12 hours a day just to earn enough to buy an apartment in her hometown, so that her son would meet the minimum requirement for finding a woman to marry him.
“Everyone is so busy making money here in Shenzhen,” Danlei sighed.
Danlei did not mind telling the long version of her back-to-China stories to me. I was taking a break from my PhD research at the University of Cape Town, had just visited my parents in Beijing, and was passing through Shenzhen before taking a flight back to Cape Town via Hong Kong. In Shenzhen, I was probably the closest thing to Cape Town, at least for Danlei.
We walked around the crowded modern city at Cape Town pace, chatting about everything we saw: fancy restaurants, American coffee shops, pet stores, busy pubs, salons branded with English names, and blocks and blocks of luxury residential and office buildings. Everything looked shiny in Shenzhen, reminding us that we were walking in one of China’s richest cities.
But only three decades ago, Shenzhen was nothing more than a fishing village peering enviously at its neighbour, a much wealthier Hong Kong under British control. Things started to change in 1979, when the city was chosen to be one of China’s special economic zones, where foreign investments were first allowed. Today, Shenzhen is not only a hub for giant manufacturers of phones and gadgets, it also hosts tech companies and startups yearning to be players on the world stage, and attracts people from all over the country to work and live in the young city with a population of 12.53 million.
The crowds were in fact one of the first things that Danlei had to get used to again. There was a queue for almost everything: we had to queue to go through security checks at all the underground stations, to get a cup of milk tea from popular vendors, and to get a table at a restaurant specialising in fish with pickled vegetable soup.
“It’s all just commercial packaging, the new consumer culture in China. The food is really average, but its powerful branding gives people the desire to buy it.”
Danlei proudly showed me an app that would let us jump the queue at the fish restaurant. It’s an app that customers use to book and queue for a table before they physically arrive there. In fact, there’s an app for almost everything in urban Chinese life – from ordering taxis and food, to tutoring, to laundry services. She was amazed by the strides that have been made in China’s smartphone culture – something else that she had to get used to.
“All these apps…they save us a lot of time. But the time saved is just put into work. Apps only help us become more efficient, not happier.” Danlei didn’t look very impressed when a fruit vendor scanned the bar code on her phone: cashless payment for a pineapple she bought on the street.
Being happy was what Danlei missed most about Cape Town. Life in Cape Town, for Danlei, was lived at a much slower pace, in a much healthier manner, and she was much happier. In Shenzhen, she had to give up her Cape Town habit of going for a run every morning because of the city’s pollution, and her Cape Town greetings, which involved asking and answering many ‘How Are You’s in a day. She even had to drop her Cape Town sense of time, where she had the freedom to do as little as she liked on a rainy day. Now, she felt repressed in the concrete city of Shenzhen; drowning in the strong flow of China’s grand narrative of ambition and success.
We said goodbye before midnight as Danlei still had a lot to do. She was heading to her boyfriend’s office, where the architect had just finished a day’s work. To the couple, the evening was still young. She wanted to show him what she had bought from the market for their rented apartment. She wanted to tell him that she had met up with her Cape Town friend and done things at Cape Town pace. She wanted to plan a hike, a trip to the beach, and do things she would be doing in Cape Town. In truth, she wanted to take the next flight back to Africa’s southernmost city.
Danlei’s story is one of a series of upcoming posts on reserve culture shock experienced by the Chinese diaspora in Africa.