On Diversity and Similarity In a Melting Pot of Culture: A South African Girl in Shanghai

Thandiswa Losi is a freelance columnist

Thandiswa Losi is a freelance columnist

Published Jun 14, 2024


Thandiswa Losi

Before moving to Shanghai in October 2023, I had been to China on two previous occasions; the first being in 2019 when I visited Beijing and Guangzhou and the second in April 2023 when I visited Beijing and Shandong. On both ocassions I was in the country as a delegate for the China-Africa Youth Festival. Hǎojiǔ méi kàn dào lǎowàile! Which meant Haven’t seen a foreigner in so long! was a phrase I heard uttered out loud — not once, but twice — during my second trip to China in April 2023. It was directed at me, a South African woman with dark skin and long braided hair who had ventured into the Middle Kingdom a month after it had reopened its borders to international visitors following the covid pandemic lockdown.

Unbeknownst to me, I had stepped into a China that has had the lowest number of foreign visitors since the 1970s. For a black South African in China, who previously had no experience of being part of a minority group, the experience of being different — of being pointed at, talked about, and generally noticed — meant acquainting one’s self with a persistent feeling of unearned low-grade celebrity, which, if I am to admit in the quiet of the night, is not as unpleasant as I might hope it to be.

I often find myself approached for a selfie or complimented for my hair and sometimes people ask to feel it. I once remarked to a Chinese lady I sat next to on a train that I wanted sometimes to blend in, in China. “If you did, if you were just another number” she replied, “would you still like it here?”

Six months after my first post covid pandemic trip to China, I made the decision to move to Shanghai from South Africa. Perched at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai stands tall as a beacon of financial institutions, fashion, art, and culture in China. In October 2023 this dynamic metropolis, a magnet of an extraordinary calibre, drawing diverse energies and churning them into a vibrant fusion of tradition and modernity became my new home.

I live on the fifth floor of a red brick building just outside the French Concessions. A brisk ten-minute walk from Jing’an Temple, a temple with a history of more than 780 years in downtown Shanghai surrounded by contrasting skyscrapers.

On my way to the metro station I pass the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, the pioneer of China’s democratic revolution and the Songze Cultural Ruins from a primitive tribe which existed 6000 years ago are a few metro stops away. These ruins are currently the oldest historical places in Shanghai.

Of course, I knew none of the history until I started studying at Shanghai University. I was clueless about many things, including but not limited to the Chinese language, Chinese history, and most Chinese culture beyond kung fu and Peking duck.

In those first few weeks, before lectures began, I wandered the lanes around my neighbourhood looking for coffee shops to service my caffeine addiction. I couldn’t read or speak Chinese, which meant that I couldn’t differentiate between a convenience store and a massage parlour.

But coffee shop design, I discovered, has a transnational aesthetic: plants, books, glass, exposed brick, wood, skylights. I found one near my apartment with good lighting and a small indoor fountain but a habit of playing the same one-hour English-language playlist, on repeat, every day.

One day at the coffee shop I met a young lady who later became a good friend of mine. She approached my table and asked where I was from; a question that, more often than not, precedes a greeting, how are you, or nice dress, in this cosmopolitan city. She introduced herself as Sharon from Shanghai and we became good friends.

Sharon is a 30 year old who has spent most of her life in Shanghai, apart from her university years at Columbia University in New York. She now works as a marketing executive at a French cosmetics company with offices in Shanghai.

A few months ago I had the honour of meeting her family for dinner at a Xingjiang style restaurant, which is noticeably different cuisine compared to the Yongshuo, Xian, Chengdu, Henan, Shanghai, or Sichuan styles that Sharon had exposed me to over the few months we had become friends.

Not only have my taste buds expanded, but I have also developed a greater understanding of how relationships are forged over meals in Chinese culture, quite similarly to African culture. A few other similarities between Chinese and African culture are the concept of family, respect for elders, traditional medicine as well as youth activism that have changed the trajectory of both countries.

As we draw closer to the 48th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto students uprising in South Africa, I reflect on the sacrifices made by previous generations of youth in order to allow us the privileges we now enjoy in our respective countries. In China The May 4th movement of 1919 grew out of student protests and is considered a significant turning point in modern China’s political and intellectual history.

It dramatically changed the country’s political trajectory. At this moment, China went from a feudal, introspective society subject to semi-colonial rule by imperial powers, to a more open, forward-looking civilisation ready for social revolution and political independence.

The movement emphasised a growing sense of China’s national unity and the awakening of Chinese nationalism. Similarly, in South Africa, June 16 Youth Day holds a profound place in South African history, serving as a poignant reminder of the brave actions and aspirations of the nation's youth. This day commemorates the Soweto Uprising of 1976, a pivotal moment when young South Africans stood up against the oppressive apartheid regime, demanding justice, equality, and the right to quality education.

As I continue to anchor myself in Shanghai I do so with an appreciation of the different cultural nuances, similarities and with an even greater obligation to explore and deepen my understanding of Chinese culture. I dedicate this youth day to the forging of deep relations between the youth of South Africa and China.

Thandiswa Losi is a freelance columnist

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