Updated: Mar 7
Since relocating to China my eyes have been opened to a reality that I kind of knew existed but not quite to the extent that I’m experiencing it.
Before relocating from South Africa, I’d only ever travelled to two other African countries, so my knowledge about other parts of the globe was mainly based on socializing, books, movies, Google, social media, BBC etc. Being raised in a country like South Africa is a privilege that I’ve really come to appreciate as I explore other terrains outside of Africa for this reason: In South Africa there’s a little bit of everything and everyone, there are different looking people and different languages (South Africa has 11 official languages), different food etc. This forces you to develop an inherent awareness that the world is multi-flavored, that people come in all types of shades and accents; which I’d say makes one culturally savvy.
Shades of African - Picture of South African Women
Being African In China
Today I find myself immersed in a society that was cultivated in an ethnic and cultural setting which is opposite to my own, where the idea of “differentness” is only recently, beginning to expand. Based on my experience and a great majority of my peers living in various parts of the globe, something has got to shift in the right direction when it comes to the African narrative and consequent perceptions.
Perceptions of African-ness
In China, I’ve been told there’s no way I could be African, because my skin is not ‘black-black’. I’ve been asked by strangers to dance because that’s what Africans do. Sometimes when local people meet me, they're genuinely curious about my physical aesthetics, strangers touch my hair, hug me, feel my skin, take photos OR they’re so terrified of my “differentness” that they take a brisk walk as far away from me as possible.
Culture Shock Opportunity
Of course this was culture shock on steroids when I first arrived. Two years in, I’m realising that it’s an opportunity to adequately educate people about where I’m from and how Africa (and the world at large) is so much more than whatever has been feeding the limited perceptions that have lead to this level of “not knowing”.
Hangzhou, China with my former co-workers (pardon the image quality)
The process of re-educating one of the most populated nations on earth is what one might accurately term “impossible”, however, I think re-education does not have to be mass produced per se. It happens every time you interact with an individual because for that individual you may be the first, and in many instances the only African they come into contact with. That encounter, no matter how long or brief is where the re-education happens.
Start where you are
At my current place of work there are two Africans on staff, through us that small world gets to experience ‘Africa’ in a light they would otherwise not have had the chance to. Through our work ethic, how we treat others and each other, that’s where the re-education happens. It doesn’t stop at work it’s constantly happening whether we’re twerking at a local club, producing events or making new friends, this is where the seeds are being planted. Can it be done on a larger scale? Of course but that’s another conversation altogether.
Play your part well
The point is we are the vessels of re-education. So wherever you are, I’d encourage you to strive to be the best possible version of yourself, because you’re teaching others that humans don’t come in one flavor. There are different flavors of African, American, Mongolian even Chinese!Be conscious of the fact that you’re helping shift and shape perceptions.
Image from AfroAsian Fashion Reflections event organized by me