“You can’t just go to someone and ask ‘do you have a disease?’ That’s just rude and insulting.”

Leni Li (23) is a recent University of Cape Town graduate, with a degree in BAS (bachelor of architectural studies). She hopes to still be able to travel to the United States in August to pursue a master in architecture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

In 2005, she and her family relocated from China to South Africa and has since called Johannesburg home.

The infamous “do you eat a dog?” question is one that has never ceased to invade her conversations, particularly with a stranger. Moreover, people have always had questions about her ethnicity, and others have threatened her sense of belonging.

While some of the questions she receives are purely out of curiosity, others prove to be discriminatory and exclusionary.

Having been under lockdown for seven weeks now because of the pandemic, Li talks about her experience of being a Chinese immigrant living in South Africa under covid-19, and how she and her family have bore the brunt of ill-treatment and discrimination thus far.

As told to Palesa Mofokeng

People have always had questions about me being Chinese, of course. In my early childhood, I was made fun of a lot. I was once asked how it “felt like” being a Chinese person. I was asked a lot of ignorant questions like; why do my eyes look a certain way, where do I come from and why do I look the way that I do. But we were all children at the time from age seven to 13.

This line of questioning, however, subsided as I progressed to high school. My classmates were more mature, more open-minded and accepting. The questions were more respectful and I was treated normal like everyone else, and not as a foreigner all the time. University was better because my ethnicity and race were not questioned.

In February, before the virus hit South Africa, I was randomly stopped on the road while driving, by a police-woman. I opened the window and she saw me. She recognised that I was Asian and she assumed that I was Chinese, and continued to asked if I had the disease or not. I was not particularly affected by the question, however, I found it to be insensitive and inconsiderate of course. You cannot just go up to someone and ask “do you have a disease?”, that’s just rude and insulting.

After having lived in South Africa for 15 years, I receive impolite comments like that every once in a while, when some random rude stranger intentionally wants to point it out to me that I’m Chinese.

My mother also told me that she was receiving a few [unpleasant] looks when she was out grocery shopping. This was frequent when the virus was still in China and South Africans knew that it was only in China.

Another incident occurred when my father and few of his other colleagues, who are also Chinese, were not allowed to enter a building where they were scheduled to attend a meeting at, because the boss was worried that they might possibly be infected with the virus.

During these corona times, I am not always watching out for people’s stares and looks when I’m out in social spaces. I’ve basically lived here my whole life, so when I’m out in the public and people look at me because I’m a foreigner, I really don’t pay much attention. I continue doing whatever it is that I’m doing.

Amid the pandemic, life is not so harsh for the Asian community because we are not getting those unwanted looks anymore. At this rate, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, anyone in South Africa can be carrying the virus.

Nonetheless, I would say that my worst experience with living here is feeling like I don’t have a place that I can call my home. I left China when I was eight years old and the country feels a bit distant and foreign to me now. At the same time however, I don’t feel like South Africa is my real home either. Wherever I go, I’d still be a foreigner.

FEATURED IMAGE: Leni Li is currently living in Johannesburg with her family. They have been living in South Africa for 15 years. Photo: Provided