Fish out of water

Pheladi Sethusa taking photos of Rivonia Oriental City building. Photo: Shandukani Mulaudzi

Pheladi Sethusa taking photos of Rivonia Oriental City building. Photo: Shandukani Mulaudzi

Imagine being 24 years old in a foreign country with no idea how to speak the main language. For two months it seems like an adventure because you are exploring the land and what it has to offer. After that you realise you are an outsider with no friends and nothing else to do besides work.

Nathan Cai came to South Africa three years ago and the snip bit of life you just imagined is his. He came here after his friend told him he needed help running his businesses in South Africa. Nathan is Chinese and says his only friends are Chinese and that even those friends are very few because of the cultural differences among Chinese people of different origins who migrate to South Africa.

As I listened to Nathan I realised the struggle of people who move to South Africa from a foreign country whether it be China, Spain or any other country that does not have English as its medium of instruction. There is no option but to stick to your “own people” and learn as much English as necessary to get your work done.

In 2006 I travelled to China for almost two weeks and in that time all I said was “nee-haw” (hello) and “xie-xie” (thank you). What was interesting to me was how as soon as you got the greeting right people would proceed to speak to you in their mother tongue assuming you knew what they were saying.

As I looked for sources today I did the exact same thing. I said hello, the person I was speaking said hello in return and I carried on talking away so I could explain why I was bothering this person with a notebook and pen in hand. When I saw the almost expressionless faces look back at me and shrug I initially thought they either weren’t interested or were listening attentively. I was wrong. They had no idea what I was saying and looked for the person closest who could explain that to me.

I must say I was very disappointed and ended up speaking to fewer people than I had hoped but the few who were able to speak gave me a bit of insight into the lives of the Chinese in Johannesburg who have recently moves here.

The members of the Chinese community that I met today were not cold, they just don’t understand and no one understands them either. Choosing to stay within a close circle of other Chinese people is more a matter of circumstance than preference.

Rose Zheng, one of the young woman I spoke to, said: “I have too many Chinese friends. I wish to have English friends too.” She works at the Oriental City in Rivonia and said she has worked in China Mall as well as the Oriental City in Centurion and the one in Bruma. She likes the variety of store offerings in Rivonia as she says this is what shows they are in South Africa rather than some of the other Chinese nodes which have mostly Chinese people running the shop.

“There are black people who own the coffee shop here and also the hair shop. It’s nice because we are in South Africa.”


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