Author: Shuangqing Li 李双倾
Typesetting: Boyana 何杨博雅
Stepping out of Johannesburg Airport, Lizhi Huang saw a new journey unfold.
It was back in 2018 when Lizhi started to study Zulu Language and History at the University of the Witwatersrand. She was financed by a program of the Chinese Scholarship Council that supports young and talented scholars in Area Studies. “It is internationally acknowledged that learning the local language is a must for Area Studies,” Lizhi said in the interview. Therefore, when the opportunity showed up, she seized it without hesitation.
Door Unlatched: A Rush of Romanticism
After finishing the PhD in International Studies at Peking University in 2015, Lizhi started her career as an assistant professor in the School of Asian and African Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “To many, coming to South Africa means giving up career advancement, salary, and many other worldly things. However, I treasure this opportunity from the bottom of my heart.” In Lizhi’s point of view, this program gives her the chance to stay in Africa for a long time, develop a real connection with local people, and look deeper into society and culture. Moreover, learning Zulu allows her to break through the limitations of English literature and dive into Zulu people’s thoughts in their original form.
“I am not a person who likes to follow the routine. I feel that life should be an ongoing process of growth.” Lizhi told us in a cheerful voice.
Before coming to Johannesburg, Lizhi paid attention to all the information about South Africa, but what she found was mainly negative. “There is this chaotic image constructed by the media that keeps people from knowing a real South Africa.” Knowing that the media coverage was biased, Lizhi admitted that it still worried her and made her skip all the skirts and dresses and only pack trousers and long-sleeved tops. “But despite all, I felt that I should be brave enough to come and see it by myself.”
“I was driven by this rush of romanticism that urged me to dig out the story of a real Africa and to tell people that it is not like what they think.”
Windows Open: A Peek into the Real Africa
Curious and eager to start a new journey, Lizhi was welcomed with open arms from the first day she arrived: how local people helped her to settle in a foreign city with kindness and hospitality chased the feeling of uncertainty away. As a newcomer, Lizhi observed everything through rose-coloured spectacles: she saw the rather neglected corners filled with graffiti as the free expression of art-loving kids in the city; and took the university buildings’ old architectural style as a symbol of their richness in history.
Similarly, it did not take long for Lizhi to verify her thoughts with her own eyes. “There is this stereotypical image of Africans as lazy and lack of work ethic, but it is completely not true.” Lizhi paused a bit and shared two personal experiences about how she witnessed a teaching building filled with diligent local students at two in the morning and a 24-7 self-study room that was forever packed out even at midnight. “These are the moments when you actually see the hard work of this African generation.”
Lizhi continued by using her classmates’ schedules as an illustration. “Take me as an example, I can get up at five-thirty for a morning run, and this is already my limit. However, for many of my classmates who live far away from the University, it is not uncommon to leave at four and get home late in the night.” Moreover, this is not unique to this generation. In fact, Africans’ diligence and tolerance to hardship is way beyond imagination. Lizhi described what she saw in a photo exhibition about people commuting during the apartheid: “Queues were lining up at the bus stops at four in the morning. Inside the bus, people were dozing off—many of them needed to travel for hours to get to their workplace.” She paused with a sigh. “You could see and feel the harshness that the apartheid brought to the African people.”
“Yet that was their daily life.”
Walls to Push Over: Cultural Insensibility and Filtered Perception
“Chinese people have insufficient knowledge about African culture.” Lizhi further explained that, on the one hand, most people go to Africa with a specific aim, like studying or running a business, and are too occupied to spare the time to learn the local language and culture. On the other hand, the African culture is often shaded by the more dominant Western culture, thus not attracting enough attention. “As outcomers in a foreign country, we should have the cultural sensibility. However, many overseas Chinese still need to work on their cross-cultural communication awareness.” Lizhi pointed out. “Therefore, we need support on a national level to provide training on cross-cultural communication.”
When it comes to how Africa sees China, it is somewhat similar. According to Lizhi, Africa also holds a distanced perception of China, which has been mainly caused by the delicate entanglement between the Western and the African society and the dominant discourse constructed by the West. In South Africa, religion, media, and the knowledge system are like filters that twist their perspective of China towards westernised values. Lizhi told us how some of her Christian friends still believed that the Christians were mistreated in China, no matter how many times she talked them through the beautiful Christian churches in Beijing and the pomp and circumstance when the Christians celebrate New Year together in Guangzhou. “Faith sometimes comes ahead of rational analysis. As Socrates once said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’—such self-awareness is also essential to our daily lives.”
The same happens in universities, where most theoretical frameworks are built on the Western system, despite the intensive campaign on decolonisation. In one class, the lecturer described Genghis Khan as a gangster. In another class with more than 300 freshmen undergraduate students, the professor openly claimed China as “Africa’s today’s biggest neocolonialist”. “I was pissed off.” said Lizhi, “As a professor, he did not even know how to pronounce Qing Dynasty.”
Lizhi further explained that the notion of neocolonialism was coined by Kwame Nkrumah, the ex-president of Ghana, to reflect on how the Western colonists extend their control after leaving Africa. In other words, how they continue to enforce governance over Africa not politically but through other indirect economic measures like transnational corporations. “In turn, the Western media now use the term to describe China. This could only demonstrate the power of their discourse.” She said with a shrug.
That was when Lizhi decided to “do something”, to “at least let them know that the Chinese people around them are nothing like that”. Talking about the mutual misunderstanding between the two cultures, Lizhi said: “We need to think about how to jump out of these filters and have real conversations.”
Bridge under Construction: The Everyday Cultural Exchange
When we asked Lizhi what her proudest achievement was, we thought she might tell us how she proactively initiated the Chinese Students and Scholars Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. And we assumed that for good reasons.
Since its establishment, the Society has hosted a myriad of cultural events, like Spring Festival Gala, Movie Night, and panel discussion on women’s development on International Women’s Day. By organising Chinese courses with the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute, it has cultivated 130 Chinese lovers in one year, three of which even won prizes in Chinese-speaking competitions. Moreover, the Society has recently initiated “Share Your Dream”, a project where one hundred Chinese and South African youths are encouraged to voice their growth and expectations about the future of themselves and their country. In June, it grew into the Chinese Students and Scholars Society in South Africa, for which Lizhi has been assigned as the president.
Nevertheless, instead of talking us through the time and effort she put into the Society, Lizhi gave us a totally different answer: she considered her most significant achievement as having shown people around her the actual image of the Chinese youth through daily interactions. “I always do my best to assist my friends or teachers when they are in need; vice versa, they also help me in a positive way in understanding the culture and in daily life. And when they tell me ‘Lizhi, you are a true friend’, it might be only a word to them, but it means a lot to me.”
At the height of COVID-19, Lizhi got in touch with Mr NG Siuhong, a South African Chinese leader who agreed to give out 200,000 face masks to the University of the Witwatersrand. Lizhi described this as the turning point for both sides to open up: At first, the University did not fully understand her intention to found the Society and were quite difficult to communicate with, but the donation of the masks showed the South African teachers and students the genuine care and love from the Chinese community, as well as the connection between the two cultures. “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (I am because we are).” Lizhi said in a smiley voice. “A person is truly a person through other people. The South African Chinese community has won their heart with sincerity. And I believe this goodwill will continue to feature our future interactions.”
“How people perceive our country depends on how we behave. We might have organised different projects in our Society to promote the China-South Africa cultural exchange and communication, but the real change happens in our daily life.” Knowing the challenges ahead, Lizhi concluded with a hint of hope.