Written by Yoon Jung Park.

Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home. So sang The Temptations in 1972. It is a song that has been on my mind as I consider the terminology around Chinese communities outside of China.

A few years back I abandoned the use of the terms “overseas Chinese” and “diaspora” in my research and writing. My rationale was linked to my research on the small Chinese South African population, second-, third-, and fourth-generation South Africans who referred to themselves as “South African Chinese”, and considered themselves South African first, Chinese second.[1]

The term “overseas Chinese” can refer to Chinese citizens overseas, but for many, the term also encompasses all ethnic Chinese outside of China. By some counts, this number is well over 30 million.[2]  For me, however, both terms suggest a too-close connection to China, one that can sometimes become problematic when national loyalties are called into question.[3]  The Chinese South Africans at the end of the apartheid era viewed themselves as South Africans of Chinese ethnicity, culture, and heritage. They claimed both their South Africanness and their Chineseness despite South Africa’s continued ambivalence about them as demonstrated in the Chinese Association of South Africa’s affirmative action case.[4] . Similarly, most of us continue to use the term “migrants” as a sort of catch-all for various types of movement. However, a few scholars have suggested alternatives.

Overseas Chinese scholar Wang Ling-chi suggested the term “luodi shenngen” to refer to overseas Chinese who were like seeds that had spouted roots where they landed; the term gave more weight to the adopted country and the relationships established in that new, adopted home.[3] Wang Gungwu suggests the concept “migranthood” to “refer to this life situation of home and nationality located spatially in between nations, locations and cultures”.[5] I have, elsewhere, played with the notion of metaphorical “borderlands” borrowing on the literature of the US-Mexico border to emphasize the “transitional, unstable, and fluid nature” of various Chinese groups in South Africa.[6]

These issues of naming also affect the newer Chinese migrants in South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent. Are they sojourners or settlers? Are they all, in fact, migrants? For example, do we refer to the large numbers of Chinese contract workers in Africa – those currently working on fixed term construction, mining, or other resource extraction or development projects – as “migrants”?

I have recently gotten a bee in my bonnet about the selective use of the term “ex-pat”. Does it make a difference if they are engineers or pushing wheelbarrows? What do we call the professional Chinese who move to Africa, also on fixed-term contracts, to work for Chinese companies such as Xinhua News, CCTV, China Construction Bank, or Sinosteel? Typically, professionals who move for corporate jobs are referred to as “ex-pats”, so why not refer to all Chinese workers – regardless of the type of job – in the same way? And yet, in both journalistic and scholarly writings about these new Chinese in Africa, they are all lumped together as “migrants” regardless of their profession and regardless of their intent. Furthermore, these “migrants” are often seen as agents of the Chinese state, and as such labeled as part of China’s neo-colonial agenda.[7]

I want to argue two points in this brief essay: First, we need a new language to discuss human mobility – one that incorporates discourses of transnationalism, that includes the high-flying astronaut and parachute families as well as “globalization from below”, and that reflects a greater sense of fluidity. Second, we need to separate individual agency from state discourses while retaining the understanding that states impact individual and family decisions about their mobilities; there are multiple dynamics at play that serve to influence and impact one another.

States remain important insofar as they continue to determine boundaries of inclusion/exclusion and influence the socio-political-economic contexts of both sending and receiving countries, but they are not the only or even the most important actors when it comes to migration. I argue that three issues – intentions, conditions in the adopted/new place, and passage of time – are critical to migration decisions; in the remaining space in this essay, I explore the language around human migration and mobility using the case of the Chinese in Africa.

When my parents decided to leave Seoul and move to Los Angeles, they were immigrants. They intended to leave Korea and eventually become American. They wanted to give their children English-language education and opportunities that they perceived to be better than what they would have had if we had stayed in Korea. They were immigrants in the traditional sense: there was both intent as well as a permanent and unidirectional move. Not so with most of the Chinese in Africa.

Over the course of the past dozen years, I’ve interviewed and spoken to dozens of Chinese people in southern Africa. Most of them spoke of returning to China. Based on my wide reading of other research on Chinese people across the African continent, I would venture that this is true across the board: when most Chinese people leave China for their various African destinations, they intend, eventually, to return to China. Africa is meant to be a place of sojourn: a place where they can make some money, gain some experience, and escape the competitiveness and crowds of their Chinese homes.

In the 21st Century, decisions about movement do not carry the same weight as they did a hundred years ago, or even forty years ago. With decreasing costs of travel and increasing availability of various modes of communication, someone who decides to leave home today can now do so more lightly. If things do not work out, one can return. And instead of letters that took months to be delivered, one can remain in nearly constant contact with loved ones, even during transit. With the advent of internet, skype, WeChat, and other forms of social media, separation is truly only physical.

As such, migration decisions are very seldom permanent. They can and often do change. These changes are dependent upon the conditions in the adopted place where both the state and the society of the new place matter. Does the state allow them to remain (either legally or extra-legally)? Are their regulations that allow them to do business? Are their businesses profitable? Are they warmly received by the locals? Is it a safe and desirable place to live? Or is it unpleasant, unsafe, and challenging? Many Chinese migrants in South Africa also spoke of the actual climate and living environment: the blue skies, clean air, space, and quality of life. But Johannesburg was also a place of crime, dangerous and violent.

Frequent and ongoing comparisons to life in China effect changes on the tally sheet that helps individual migrants to decide whether they stay, return to China, or move elsewhere. As long as things seem to be better than at home, or look to be improving, they will stay. Many of the Chinese migrants who spoke of a return to China are still in South Africa ten, fifteen years later.

I would also argue that the longer one is away, the harder it becomes to return. First of all, the greater the time, energy, and actual funds invested, the more difficult it becomes to pull up stakes and return home. Many Chinese migrants take on debts in order to move; at a minimum, most cannot return until these debts are repaid and they have saved at least enough for the return passage. While perhaps not as important as it was in earlier times, the notion of “saving face” and only returning once successful, continues to carry weight. Beyond the issues of “saving face” there are issues of “face-time”; social capital and social networks in China, which can only be developed with considerable face-to-face contact, become weakened and a viable, successful return becomes more difficult.

When I asked several long-staying Chinese in Johannesburg about home, many were conflicted. Having been outside China for so long, many of them felt more “at home” in Africa. Children also influence these decisions. My research indicated that those with children in Africa, and especially where young children had grown up in Africa, were more likely to remain in Africa whereas those who had sent children to China to live with grandparents or other relatives were more likely to consider a return.

While none of these findings are surprising, they highlight the tremendous fluidity of human movement between China and Africa. People are on the move – making a living, hustling, working hard. There is a high degree of flexibility and responsiveness to changing circumstances and conditions. Tallies are kept and with constant contact with China, circumstances there are also monitored. We are no longer talking about permanent, unidirectional, one-in-a-lifetime moves, but rather a population of individuals who behave more like rolling stones, making homes wherever they lay their hats.

Yoon Jung Park is the convener/coordinator of the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network, adjunct professor of African Studies at Georgetown University, and non-resident senior research associate in the Sociology Department of Rhodes University. Image Credit: CC by Kaj17/Flickr.


[4] Erasmus, Yvonne and Yoon Jung Park. 2008. “Racial classification, redress, and citizenship: the case of the Chinese South Africans” in Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa No 68, pp 99-109; Park, Yoon Jung. 2012. “‘Chinese South Africans Now Black!’ Race and Belonging in the ‘New’ South Africa” in Politics and Minorities in Africa. Nova Collectanea Africana/2. Rome: ARACNE.

[7] French, Howard. 2014. China’s Second Continent. How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

[6] Park, Yoon Jung. 2010. “Boundaries, Borders and Borderland Constructions: Chinese in Contemporary South Africa and the Region” in African Studies 69 (3): 457-479.

[1] Park, Yoon Jung. 2008. A Matter of Honour. Being Chinese in South Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Media Pty (Ltd)

[2] Wang, Gungwu. 2000. The Chinese Overseas. From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[5] Wang, Gungwu. 2007. “Liuxue and Yimin: From Study to Migranthood” in Beyond Chinatown. New Chinese Migration and the Global Expansion of China (Mette Thunø, ed). Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.

[3] Wang, Ling-chi. 1998. “On Luodi-shenggen” in The Chinese Diaspora. Selected Essays. (Wang Ling-chi & Wang Gungwu, eds). Singapore: Times Academic Press.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *