Hurdles to a new home: a Chinese adolescent arrives in South Africa

“I didn’t get admission into a very good university in China, so my mom suggested I study here in South Africa instead,” Wang tells me over a cup of green tea. “In China, even if you go to a good university, after graduating you still just get a job where you only earn 3000 yuan [approximately US$ 470] a month.”

Whether you’re moving to another country for work, studies, or to be closer to family, bureaucratic hurdles are inevitable. Wang wasn’t even sure he wanted the new life in South Africa that his parents had planned for him, but that didn’t make the accompanying bureaucratic hurdles any easier to avoid.

Wang had been living with his father in China since 1997, when his mother first moved to Johannesburg. The couple were newly divorced and, in the hope of avoiding the loss of “face” that usually follows failed marriages in China, Wang’s mother opted for a fresh start abroad.

“She just wanted to leave China,” Wang tells me. “Life was difficult. She had just divorced; she wanted to go to America. But she got cheated on a US visa. She went to an agent and they disappeared. Then she wanted to go to Fiji because you can go by boat from there to the USA. That plan also failed.”

Another immigration agent said they could get her a business visa for South Africa, and this time they delivered on their promise.

And so it was that Wang arrived one spring Johannesburg day in 2009, completely overdressed from China’s frozen northeast.

It wasn’t the move abroad that many young Chinese aspire to. South Africa doesn’t bring to mind the prestige that Chinese often associate with wealthy countries like the US, Australia, or the UK. There is also generally more ignorance about the continent’s southernmost nation, and the fact that nan fei (South Africa) can also loosely refer to southern Africa doesn’t help matters.

“Before I came to South Africa, I thought it was like a poor village – that the whole country was rural,” admits Wang.

“In primary school my classmates knew that my mom was overseas, and they often asked me where. ‘South Africa’ I said, not feeling very proud. Even when I arrived I felt like that: embarrassed.”

Before leaving China, Wang had visited a state medical facility where vaccination certificates are issued for Chinese travelling overseas. “There were two students in front of me, filling in a form. The nurse at the desk asked us where we were all going. The two students in front of me said ‘US’ and ‘Australia’. When my turn came, I just quietly said ‘South Africa’.”

But South Africa feels more like a home than an embarrassment for Wang after two years in Johannesburg and almost seven in Cape Town. Returning to China has become less and less appealing, and he plans to stay in South Africa after doing his postgraduate studies at the University of Cape Town.

Wang arrived in South Africa before he turned 21 and, as the dependent of a mother with permanent residency in the country, he too was eligible to apply. But the entire process has been mired in red tape, requiring a liberal dose of bribery every step of the way.


This is part one of a two-part portrait of Wang, and belongs to a broader series of portraits of Chinese living in Africa.

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