Window onto a Chinese adolescent's life in South Africa

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.

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African students lining up to learn Chinese at Mlimani Primary School in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Meet the Africans students lining up to learn Chinese

Zimbabwean Daniel Mugandiri had no Chinese contacts nor any knowledge of China when one day he sat down to write a letter to the outgoing Chinese ambassador in Harare. He had recently been named Entrepreneur of the Year in Zimbabwe’s equivalent of “Dragon’s Den”, and was faced with the challenge of turning his business idea into reality. The 26-year-old wanted to manufacture solar panels to help address the nation’s electricity shortage. He wasn’t certain how to go about it, but he knew where to start.

“China is the hub of manufacturing, so I knew I had to learn from them,” he says. “If you buy something in the US or in the UK, it’s made in China. Every country in the world looks East.”

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George Shum, owner of the Chinese Pagoda Restaurant in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Portrait of George Shum: A Chinese-Zanzibari Entrepreneur

I first met George Shum, owner of Pagoda Restaurant, surrounded by ubiquitous Chinese restaurant paraphernalia: red-tasseled symbols of good fortune, golden good luck cats and a fish tank, in which lobsters and other sea creatures awaited their fate. It is the only Chinese restaurant in Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar City.

At first glance, I assumed that the 44-year-old entrepreneur belonged to the substantial community of Chinese citizens that had begun to forge a life for themselves in recent years in East Africa. But when I asked where he was from, he replied in a thick Cantonese accent: “Wo shi sang ji ba er ren” — “I’m Zanzibari.”

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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.

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Lingling’s Chinese New Year

Twenty-four year-old He Lingling just spent her second Chinese New Year away from China. It was also her second Spring Festival in her temporary home in Cape Town, where she has been working as a teacher at the Confucius Institute at the University of Cape Town for the past year and a half. Although she badly misses her family and her hometown in a small town in Sichuan at this time of year, she has also found a sense of belonging among new friends and colleagues in a Cape Town suburb, her home away from home.

I asked Lingling what she misses most about Chinese New Year, and what her last two holidays in Cape Town have been like.

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Ms Fang in her Chinese curio shop in Cape Town

Ms. Fang’s Chinese New Year: Story of a middle-aged woman in Cape Town

Isabella Fang is showing off a range of festive red and gold envelopes adorned with the character fu – or “wealth” – in her Chinese curio shop on Cape Town’s Atlantic coast. It is the day before Chinese New Year’s eve, or Spring Festival, when red envelopes (hong bao) filled with money are traditionally given as gifts to children and older relatives.

An estimated 385 million people are returning to their hometowns in China this year from wherever in the world they are working or studying, making it the largest human migration in the world.

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Master Liu, the Kung Fu teacher at Zambia's Confucius Institute

Portrait of Teacher Liu: A Chinese Kung Fu teacher in Lusaka – Part I

Teacher Liu’s Intermediate Chinese class was due to start five minutes ago, but there’s no sign of him or any of his students. The University of Zambia’s Confucius Institute is growing quiet as the afternoon descends on Lusaka.

Just then, a short, stocky man with Emporio Armani emblazoned across a maroon sweater strolls into the lobby with a sling bag on his shoulder. “Are you Teacher Liu?” I ask. “Yes…” he replies, with something between a guilty and a naughty expression on his face.

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The Chinese-built Confucius Institute at University of Zambia, Lusaka

Inside Africa’s Confucius Institutes

This is a presentation I made on 20 November at the annual Africa-China Journalists Forum at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. It describes the investigation that took me to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania to be a fly on the wall in the classrooms where China’s Ministry of Education is helping to shape the way people think about the world’s next superpower

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Zizhu Zhang, a Chinese journalist in Nairobi, Kenya

Portrait of Zizhu Zhang: A Chinese Journalist in Nairobi

Zizhu Zhang’s parents sent her to the United Kingdom for her final year of high school to improve her chances of getting into a British university. Six years later, with a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics, she returned to her home in the southeastern city of Shenzhen, in China. She had her sights set on working in Beijing, but found that she had no competitive edge — was “unwanted,” even — in a job market that she described as overly pragmatic.

China’s pervasive political system was a factor, too.

“It wasn’t likely that I’d get into government-affiliated Chinese institutions because of [China’s] unwritten rules,” Zizhu, now 26, said. “I wanted to work in an area that was dynamic, where I could have a social impact.”

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Spring Festival - or Chinese New Year - in rural Jiangxi

South African in China

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.

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