Adapting to life in Shanghai

Updated: Mar 9

The day had arrived to leave my grandparents nest and join my parents in a new province. After having lived with gogo and thatha (grandparents) for most of my early childhood, this was a very bittersweet day. I cried myself to sleep in the car on the way to unknown terrains; after stewing in the hot vehicle for some time I eventually took off my top.


A Whole New World

Excited and nervous to see my new home (which I’d been told had a shower and a toilet INSIDE the house and not outside!), we finally arrived. I stepped out of the car (still sleepy eyed and bear chested) and was met with a gaze I will never forget! Mom gave me the most confusing stare ever!! A dash of embarrassment, a sprinkle of withheld laughter, and a fat spoon of WT* you doing child! I wasn’t sure what to make of this new stare (which if you knew mom’s stare, is a rare occurrence). Mom then said, “You can’t be topless outside anymore” to which I responded “Why mama, it’s hot?" Then I looked up at my new surroundings to find nothing familiar. No kids playing in the wide perfectly paved streets, no mama carrying brooms on her head shouting “mshanyelo” (brooms for sale), just legions of trees, "ama-beeg-house" and silence. Mom handed me my top and tried her best to diplomatically appeal to my developing brain the reason behind why I could no longer deal with my overheating body in this manner.

Early lessons on adapting

This moment was my first conscious encounter with the life skill of adapting. If you look closely at it, what was fundamentally wrong with an 8 year old innocently taking off her top in that moment if it had never been an issue before? Did I suddenly grow tits in a few hours? NO! Was the sun still blazing hot? YES! So, what had really changed?


This new “tops on” rule baffled me for weeks and pretty soon I would be baffled by and introduced to so much more. Race became a very real thing in my daily reality. Suddenly I knew I was black. Having lived in an all black community before, this factor had been a non-factor prior to this time. In my new community my newly realised blackness meant playing in the park was literally a racial war zone involving rocks, stones and whoever had elder brothers as back up soldiers. My new peers introduced me to terms like ‘keffer’ and being black apparently had levels like those blacks and black. VERY BAFFLING STUFF!

Boys could still be topless in this community but girls couldn’t, the dots on my face had a name ‘freckles’ and nobody teased me about them anymore. Eventually, I baffled myself into adapting to my new home.

Adapting in China

My collective adaptation experiences that started in those interesting childhood days, included being the only and youngest black girl on the senior chess team, Eistedfod and media teams, transitioning from small-town living to big city life, and eventually relocating from Joburg, South Africa to Shanghai, China have taught me many useful lessons on adapting. I'd like to share 3 of them with you, within my current context as an African expat in China.


1. There's no place like home

Dorothy was oh so right! Those first few weeks in my new suburban home gave me a greater appreciation for my grandparents and my old home, the freedom of being topless and playing in the streets, amaskopus & kotas (snacks and food from the hood) etc. Naturally, I Ionged for what was familiar. As an adult now immersed in a different culture and society, I appreciate home in all its glory, the people, the vibe, the language, the daily clean air and clear skies (that's not a thing here). At the same time my childhood experiences also taught me to embrace both the opportunities and challenges that come with the new things life brings. I can safely say Shanghai has become my second home with incredible opportunities and useful perks like almost no crime, but it's taken an insane amount of open mindedness, a trait that started developing as a topless 8 year old.


2. Make the most of your differentness

Moving to China meant that again for the first time in eons I was reminded of my 'differentness'. I can choose to let the stares and unending paparazzi get the better of me, or I can choose to see this as a unique setting where being different is an opportunity to package my differentness profitably. Whether it's offering the different knowledge and experiences I have or importing unearthed products from South Africa or packaging a different way of thinking, It's interesting and there's a gap for it.

3. Find Common Ground

As different as we are are, Chinese people and South African people actually have tons in common from a cultural perspective. The most fascinating for me has been the similarity in Manderin (Chinese language) and Xi-Tsonga (one of the 11 official languages from South Africa) from the spelling (using Pinyin) to the pronunciation, it's insane! And that's just Tsonga, it doesn't stop there. These common elements are not only great conversation starters when getting to know a local person, but they bridge the 'we're alien' to each other gap and bring us closer together, we're more similar and connected than we realise.


Find the balance between adapting and conforming

In navigating new realities and spaces, how much did I adapt vs. conform? My experience dating back to that pivotal topless day has taught me that both adapting and conformity are crucial to survival, and growing is about learning which to lead with, at what intensity in order to remain true to yourself whilst still making the most of where you find yourself!


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