Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 14 – The Culture Curator (Noxolo BHENGU, Ndawo Afrika)
My conversation with the South African actress, writer, theatre producer, and community organiser Noxolo Bhengu beautifully illustrates how she is promoting visibility of the Afro-diaspora in China.
NB: A kid asked me "Why are you black?" I've never been asked that before.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
This episode is very special to me. In 1999-2001, I worked as an English teacher in rural Japan. I was this 21-year old white boy from North-West London in a town of about 12,000 people somewhere in between Kobe and Hiroshima. And in that town, in that context, I was exotic. And over the course of those 2 years, I got to know a very specific feeling. And I don't know if this feeling even has a name. It was the feeling you get when you're being recruited by someone to be their friend. Now that wasn't racism, that wasn't discrimination. But what is it when you're being made to feel like you're just this colourful new butterfly in someone's collection.
It's only now, over two decades later, that I'm starting to figure this out. I grew up in a multicultural environment in London, where I just had friends who were people of colour, by default. If someone had asked me then whether I had a diverse group of friends, it would be just like that joke about one fish saying "The water's warm today', and the other one replying 'What's water?' It's just there all around you, and you don't question it. But now I find myself in China, and I realise that my friends aren't, by default, as diverse as before. And so what is the solution to this, without becoming one of those well-meaning individuals I learnt to detest in the Japanese countryside, twenty years ago?
I'm so grateful to today's guest, not just for what she is doing to address this type of exposure deficit in China, but for doing it with a humour that is so infectious. You'll hear it right from the start, and our conversation should resonate with you, no matter who you are or where in the world you're listening. Also, my catch-up interview with Yael Farjun from Season 01 Episode 12 at the end of today's show is also very special, so stick around until the end.
OF: Thank you for coming, Noxy.
NB: Absolutely. I am happy I am here, let's do this.
OF: I want to say your name properly, your name is Noxolo, right?
NB: Oh, you're getting there. You've been practising at home, how many times a day?
OF: Oh, let me tell you, it's a 35-minute walk from my home to this studio. And I was saying "Noxolo, Noxolo" all the way.
NB: See, guys, be like Oscar. Do what Oscar does. So it's 'Noxolo'. I do prefer being called 'Noxolo' because that's my name. And it just has such a beautiful meaning, it means 'Mother of Peace'. So I want to get people into the habit of, you know, trying out these complicated names, instead of being scared by these names. Let's rather learn, like how you've been doing, and I appreciate that. But if you can't say 'Noxolo', 'Noxy' is OK.
OF: Well, let's see, because I have to go into kind of like a meditative state to actually say it sometimes.
NB: Align your chakra.
OF: OK, but thank you for giving me the way out by saying 'Noxy'. And, like, people in China would call you 'Noxy', or..?
NB: Yeah, they call me Noxy.
OF: Well, before we get into that, let us talk about the object which represents your life in China. So what did you bring?
NB: I brought… It's a photograph from the first original play that I put on in Shanghai. And the image, for me, symbolises the journey, and why I have to keep going in the journey. And the person who gave me this image as a gift is a friend who I met on that day. It's a snap from a moment in the play. I don't remember exactly which part of the play this was in. But we were just led by the energy of the moment, yeah.
OF: Nice. And so you brought a photo of it, why didn't you bring the actual thing itself?
NB: I couldn't bring it because I have to run around the city today. And I don't want to carry this image the whole time.
OF: I'm happy you actually brought it as a photo because it really does symbolise how you live your life, which is rushing from one thing to the next, right? You are hustling.
NB: That's interesting.
OF: Whenever I've encountered you - in person, or when we're messaging each other on text - you're always like "OK, I've got this on. I can't do this now. I've got this next. Like, you are on the move.
NB: That's true. And I've called myself out recently.
OF: Oh right?
NB: Recently was two days ago. Taking 30 minutes, just to go and clear your mind and do something nice for yourself is so important. It's so healthy. So you are correct. I am always, like, on the go. I don't like it, I just… Can't I just… Can somebody just make me a housewife?
OF: Oh my word. That's so funny. Well, yes, I agree with the need to walk around. And, you know, I wouldn't have been able to practice ' Noxolo' all morning if I was…
NB: There you go! If you're cooped up in the studio.
OF: Well, you want someone who is hard to compartmentalise. So, how would I introduce you? What is your title? Like, how do you introduce yourself?
NB: It depends where I am and who I'm speaking to. I don't generally introduce myself as anything else but 'Noxolo', right? It's like, you know in China when you meet somebody for the first time - especially if it's like an event, and - the go-to is "Where are you from?" If I've had a conversation for even 15 minutes, and you haven't brought up "Where are you from?", I'm like "This is an amazing conversation".
OF: Oh, that's so funny.
NB: You know? Because there's so many other things to talk about in the room. Maybe there's food in the room, maybe "Oh, this is an interesting book launch". You know, there's a reason why we're in that room for the event. So there's other things to speak about. So I just step into a room, "Hi, I'm Noxolo'" you know, and "Who are you?" And then we speak about other things. And if it's a space where I want to work with somebody, collaborate with somebody, then I would speak on that. I would introduce myself as a writer, if that's what I would like to be known for in that space. Or a dancer, if that's what I would like to be known for in that space, you know. Or a budding entrepreneur, if that's what I want to be known for in that space. So… depends.
OF: Yeah. And you've touched upon a lot of what I wanted to talk to you about. Because, you know, it's about your identity. You know, you are sort of a walking ambassador for your identity. That's the issue, isn't it? Whether you like it or not, people are gonna look at you. And when they hear your name, I mean, that's going to be another thing, like "What is that name? Where do you come from?" Like, it is something which even I approached this conversation with… An element of 'ickiness', because… You know, let me just be honest with you. So in my first season, I had some feedback where it was like "You had 30 episodes, and not one black person? Like, that's bad representation". So when you and I first met, it was through a recommendation from a friend of ours, Clem.
OF: Hello, Clem. And I had to be honest with you, like "Right, I've got a gap in the series, I would like to fill that with someone who represents Africa". And that is 'icky', because it's about representation but at the same time there's an element of tokenism, where I'm searching for someone who can represent Africa.
OF: And that doesn't feel good to me. So you embody that. And I think I can come from that from a European perspective, with all that historical baggage. But I wonder, like, what is that experience from your side here in China?
NB: When you approached me, I appreciated your honesty. And that's the only reason I was so open to you as a person and what you do, because if you're not exposed to people, how do you then know those kinds of people? It's all about association, it's all about relationships. I'm not sure if I am an ambassador, like an African ambassador, you know? Because I look at all these different countries of Africa, and these cultures that I don't know of, places that I'm yet to go to myself, and just really learn what this country is about, who these people are about. I'm like, how can I then represent that, when I don't know anything about that? You know?
OF: And yet, you probably are called upon to do it.
NB: There we go.
OF: It's not about really internally, it's about what the external pressure is putting onto you.
NB: And therefore because of that… And it's actually not a bad pressure. Because it's something that I should be immersing myself in, should be understanding better. Like, even in school in history. I did history. And I love history. European history, I know it. Industrial Revolution, ask me anything, I'll tell you. What? Napoleon Bonaparte, the Cold War, anything, anything. African history, even South African history, was just touched on. It's only when I was older, it was like "No, man. I don't know anything about my own continent".
NB: You know, which was essentially one country. Once upon a time, before Oscar came.
OF: Oh, no, no! Don't blame it on me. But I mean, absolutely, I embody that. And I think part of where I come from is with that European background. And that's why it's fascinating to talk to you in the context of China, which is distant from there. And I mean, I'm the same as you. Like, I never had to question my identity before I came to Asia for the first time, where suddenly I had to represent white people, Europeans. They had no idea the difference between an English person, a Polish person, or you name it. A Jew or a Christian, it's all the same, it's all just 'The West'.
NB: Homogenous society. You learn so much.
OF: Yeah. You never have to ask yourself "Well who am I?" when you're actually in that environment, right? I mean, let's talk about that. Let's talk about where you come from. So you said that your name means, what was it?
NB: 'Mother of Peace'.
OF: And what language is that?
NB: It's a Zulu name. But it's also a Xhosa name. But we were one thing before the tribes separated?
OF: Oh, right.
NB: So I'm from South Africa. I grew up in a city called Durban.
OF: And then you would identify as more Zulu, or more Xhosa?
NB: Ah, no you got the click. I'm definitely Zulu. You know, I grew up in a Zulu province and my surname is Zulu, my father's Zulu, yeah.
OF: Right. And so what languages would you have spoken at home?
NB: Zulu, just Zulu.
OF: And English?
NB: Ah, not really. English is for school. But with my mother, we speak Zulu.
OF: And so you said that you had this affinity with European history. Like, what was that? Did you have some kind of affiliation with Europe, or..?
NB: No, it was just what I was been taught. To the point where, when I could travel on my own, I wanted to go to Europe. Now I'm like "No, I want to go and explore Africa. I want to go and eat African food that I've never smelt. That I don't even know how to pronounce. That I don't even know exists". So it was just what I was exposed to, what I was being fed.
OF: And that's a function of the syllabus itself still being like from… I just clicked. Oh my god.
And that's a function of the syllabus still, sort of, having the remnants of European influence?
NB: Yeah. Not even just the syllabus. Our school song was quite colonial, you know. And not knowing what I was singing, I was just like, belting it out.
NB: You know, so the fact that it wasn't apparent to me that it was so problematic, speaking about these, essentially, invaders who came to Africa, and we're praising them for their heroic deeds.
NB: You know, so…
OF: And I wonder, like, is this something which had you stayed in South Africa, you would have been so aware of. Or is it coming to a place like China, where you do have the blank space to think about "Oh, yeah. What was that about?" Rather than just, sort of, existing in it?
NB: Yeah. I think if I'd stayed in South Africa, I'd be the way that I am right now, because of the people that I surround myself with. However, when you are outside of the country… I don't know, my antennas are… What's the word?
OF: Yeah, 'flicking'?
NB: 'Flicking' there we go. You know, I'm so alert. I'm in a constant state of 'otherness'.
NB: So now I'm questioning why. So there's things to unpack, there's things to learn, by just constantly being a foreigner.
OF: Yeah, yeah.
OF: Being in the room.
NB: Just by being, exactly. I had a kid ask me, "Why are you black?" And I was like…
OF: It's a good question.
NB: I've never been asked that before. And I mean, I'm not angry at this kid. I was like "Oh, so such questions exist?" You know? So for me, this was a teaching moment, more than a moment to reprimand this eight-year-old who genuinely doesn't know why there are black people.
NB: I don't know whether he knew why there are white people. But I'm just gonna address what he's asking right now. So I treated that moment with such kindness.
OF: Yeah. But this is what I mean. Like, when you are here, and confronted with such a question… Like, you would never be confronted with that question anywhere else.
OF: And so that's why I think it is an interesting experience to actually have to then think, "Yeah, why am I black?" Like, it actually is a good question.
NB: When you say it's a good question, can you tell me like, what do you mean by that?
OF: Well, because then you say "Well, it's about pigment. It's about my genes. It's about the historical evolution of how people travelled around the world, and how people somehow changed through breeding and through, you know, going through different changes because of their environments. And, boom, you're already thinking about things that in the normal course of your life in South Africa, you would never have to think about that. And that's just a silly example, of course…
NB: No, it's not. It's not a silly example. It's an example that I would not think about. But now I'm like "Hmm, interesting". Because for me, I'm black because I am.
NB: Full stop.
OF: Er actually, that's the better answer. Yeah, it is. Because actually, if you go down the line that I was going down, you almost have to justify your blackness? Like, no!
NB: Exactly, yeah.
OF: So yeah, I can see why your answer would have been the right one at that time. So tell me about growing up in Durban. That's where you said you were from, right? Was that a big city, were you in one of the suburbs?
NB: I had a beautiful childhood. I'm sure there were things that I didn't like about my childhood, but I can't even remember them. The place that I spent most of my time in growing up, Umlazi, it was very community based. Everybody supported each other. If somebody passed away, you best believe everybody on that street is coming through to help, with taking care of the family, whatever is needed. So even if you didn't have much, you know, if you didn't have enough food, you didn't have to worry about sleeping on an empty stomach. You could just go to the neighbour and they would understand.
NB: So it was just a very supportive community, full of 'Ubuntu'…
OF: What's 'Ubuntu'?
NB: 'Ubuntu' essentially means "I am because you are". So it's knowing that nobody exists exclusively, we need each other to keep going, to grow. It's very simple. If you're walking down the street, you greet that person. And this is something that I've been struggling with in China. People not greeting each other, even in the office space. If you walk into an office, I've been in environments where people even don't say "Good morning". To the point where I said "Did we sleep in the same house?" No, I've said that before. Because it was so alarming. But Africans, regardless of what race you are, people greet. And I'm like "They get it."
NB: If you go to a bus stop, you greet everybody at the bus stop.
NB: And if you don't create an elderly person, that is considered the highest form of disrespect, not greeting an elderly. So 'Ubuntu' for me is something that I'm glad that I carry with me, in all areas of my life.
OF: Yeah. That's beautiful. So with that background, how did you end up in China?
NB: I ended up in China as a way of saving up money to move to New York. So for me, the dream - as an actress, as a writer, as a director - was always New York. And here I am, still in Shanghai.
OF: And so how long have you been in China so far?
NB: I think it's five, six years now. Yeah.
OF: And you're still looking to move on to New York?
NB: New York will happen, but it's no longer like THE destination, yeah.
OF: And I'm looking at your photo. What was your life then?
NB: My life revolved around pushing my Theatre Company, LWuD Theatre, which means 'Love What U Do'. I was putting on plays, I wrote a children's play that was performed in 南京 [Nánjīng]. So I was in that world. My entire focus was how to keep the theatre company moving, how to create. So my days revolved around writing. You know, yeah.
OF: So in that world - which is 2019, we're talking about - you were principally a writer.
OF: And so things in 2020 didn't quite work out the same, did they?
NB: No. 100% not. It was just like survival mode. And it's so funny, because December, I was on Bali, living my best life. It was like "OK, you know, I've got these lucrative contracts that I've gotten myself into, which are going to set me for six months of the year, which is fabulous, that I can just focus on writing". Then life happened.
NB: Then it's like "Oh, you should have saved better". Then I realised that, OK, there has been a big gap in my finances. I know nothing. This is my approach in life, I know nothing about business. I'm still learning how to build a legacy and being financially smart. I don't come from money, because historically people who look like me in my country weren't supposed to have generational wealth. So I need to be part of the group of people who break that.
OF: And even having money, it's not the same as having wealth, right?
NB: Exactly. Exactly. It's not the same. I can't even blame my family for not teaching me how to manage money. Because nobody taught them that. It was all about survival. You know, so 'Ndawo Afrika', which is 'Africa, the place' is what I created, which revolves around curating different experiences from the Afro-diaspora. So we have film, we have cultural events, we have markets. It's so new. That's why sometimes I stop myself from being hard on myself. Like "You just started. Easy tiger. Give it time, you know, give it time. You've been doing all that you can do, just to solidify the foundation. Now you will build."
OF: And this reminds me of what you said earlier about how you want to actually know more about the variety of countries around Africa.
OF: Is this something which you're doing through this process?
NB: Trying to do. So at this point, I'm doing what I can do. For example, with the films, right? The goal is to screen films or documentaries from the Afro-diaspora. But the filmmakers who I've managed to get into contact with are mostly South African. And I'm like "No, but I want somebody from Senegal, I want somebody from Morocco. I want the Afro-diaspora".
OF: You gotta start somewhere, right?
NB: Exactly. But the next film was filmed in Burkina Faso. So like, "Yay".
OF: That's so funny. You're being just as tokenistic as I am. Great.
NB: Exposed. But it's a great film. It's a great film.
OF: Yeah. If you can have the intersection between diversity and quality, which is exactly what I have in this interview, hello.
OF: That's that's obviously what you're looking for.
NB: Yes. Exactly, exactly.
OF: Interesting. And so talk to me about the events element, you've put on some markets and events.
NB: Yes I put on markets. The markets are intended to bring business owners and service providers from the Afro-diaspora. People who are already existing, and people who want to start. And I just don't want only Africans.
OF: Yeah of course.
NB: I mean, the last market. I swear, 90% of the people who were there, I don't know who they were. And I was like "Yes".
OF: And presumably you're reaching out to the Shanghainese here as well, right?
NB: Yes. And they're the most difficult audience to get. I remember one guy who brought his son. And there was a band, a Ghanian and Filipino trio. This boy was dancing the whole time. And the dad said "He's having so much fun. Why don't I know about this?" And he called his wife "Hey, bring the other son, come through. It's lovely here." You know, so it's something that can definitely be enjoyable once they become part of it. So I am really hoping to grow. And I know I will, I know I will. The community will grow in diversity. Yeah.
OF: If I was in London, I would see this more often. You know, you walk down the street and there's a Venezuelan bar, and then there is the Kenyan restaurant, like whatever. The world is there. And Shanghai is definitely getting there. But I don't see as much African stuff. And I don't see as many African people as I would in a street elsewhere.
NB: Neither do I. And it's funny that you say that, because before I got into events, me and my friends would always say "Where do African people hang out, or just black people in general?"
OF: Yeah, right.
NB: Are there these underground spots that you don't know of? Because I want to be there. I want to be in there, sign me up.
OF: And what is the answer?
NB: We don't know. It doesn't… OK, I know that there's a community, but I don't see it. So I still don't have the answer to that.
OF: But then you create these markets, and suddenly they appear. Suddenly…
NB: People come through. Yeah and I mean, there are other people doing, you know, similar things. And they also bring the community together. So it's good that there are people out here who are trying to bring us together. Because every time I'm at my events, I love it. It feels like I'm at my grandmother's house. This laughter, there's a smell of food, there's just like the busyness, the energy that is so familiar to home.
NB: So it's like a piece of home.
OF: Well, thank you so much, Noxy.
NB: Thank you for having me. This is fun.
OF: But we're not done. We're going on to Part 2.
NB: Oh, yes.
OF: OK, Part 2. We'll start with Question 1. What is your favourite China-related fact?
NB: Ice cream was discovered in China…
NB… But perfected by the Italians.
OF: Wow, that's for real?
NB: That's for real, for real. Look it up guys.
OF: I've never heard that, that's incredible.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
NB: I do: 可以 [Kěyǐ]. It means 'I can', right? Yeah, if you're asking somebody if they can make something for you, or deliver something at a particular time, then they say "可以 [kěyǐ]".
OF: It has like, kind of like "Yeah, coming right up!"
NB: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
OF: "I can do it for you."
NB: Yeah, exactly.
OF: It's always got a positive connotation, really.
NB: True, yeah.
OF: I like it. What's your favourite destination within China? She's struggling… Because you've lived in different places, right? Where have you lived actually?
NB: 合肥 [Héféi] and 南京 [Nánjīng]. I'm so embarrassed. I haven't travelled a lot in China.
NB: I've been to 安吉 [Ānjí]. Beautiful. Though, the further you get away from the city, the better.
NB: You know?
OF: And what's 合肥 [Héféi] like? So you first lived there when you first arrived?
NB: It's intimate. It's chilled.
OF: Like, there's no pressure to see the sights, I guess. It's just one of their cities where…
NB: Exactly. You just live. You just live there. There's not too much happening, there's not too many options. So you really get to focus on just building the relationships that you have.
NB: I was going to the same foreign bar, like, all the time. You just walk in there, "Hey!", everybody knows each other. It was so chilled.
OF: Yeah. 'Ubuntu.'
NB: 100%. 100%.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
NB: WeChat Pay, I would miss the most.
OF: Oh yeah.
NB: I love not like carrying money.
NB: There's these conveniences here that I believe are five years, 10 years ahead of other parts in the world. The one thing I will not miss is not being able to see the sky. It never gets old, whenever I get home, I'm like a little kid just lost in wonder. I'm like "Oh my goodness, the sky is so blue. I can actually see stars". And I can taste the air when I land in Durban. You land by the ocean. You can just taste the sea salt. And the air just hits you differently, man. So that's the one thing I will not miss, is walking outside and not seeing the sky.
OF: Mmm. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
NB: How time moves differently here than the rest of the world. We're on a whole other planet. Time moves so quickly here. And I've tested that out, because there was a time I was living at home for a year, and I had so much time. You can go to Thailand, you can go to the Philippines. Yeah it's holiday, sure. But I just feel like I have more time when I'm not here.
OF: Yeah. Things are moving so fast…
NB: So fast.
OF: …You feel like "Oops, you've missed something."
NB: This city's on steroids. This city's on steroids.
OF: Where is your favourite place to go, to eat or drink or just hang out?
NB: I love Lotus. It's an Indian restaurant. I just go and sit on the cushions and it feels so cosy. And Indian food is one of my favourite cuisines. It's just like a taste of home.
OF: Yeah. What is the best or the worst purchase you've made in China?
NB: I don't even know what it is with skirts on Taobao.
NB: You know, in China I'm a '5XL' apparently. I don't even, like, feel bad about it because I'm like "You're not, honey, you're not."
OF: But even saying '5XL' is not what the truth is. The truth is, it's XXXXXL. Just seeing the five…
NB: They make you see the 'X's. Like you follow them. Like these 'X's are not ending. So, the worst purchases are skirts. I have not been able to wear cute skirts in China. Thank you, China.
OF: I love it. Yeah.
NB: Oh man.
OF: What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
NB: The first one is the girl with… That means so many different things. It can mean "I'm being naughty" or like "Hi" in a cute way. It means so many different things. I love her expression.
NB: Number two: that is my life most of the time. I'm like "What do I do? This is just too much".
OF: That's a good one. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
NB: Uh, it's anything, man. Like, whatever feels good in the moment, you know? One that I did recently is 'Ordinary People'.
OF: Oh, which one?
NB: John Legend. Because… mainly because that song is one I think I can handle for now. So that's what I've been singing recently.
OF: It's in your range, it's…
NB: Yes. It's in my range. Exactly. Yes.
OF: Nice. And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
NB: None. But more seriously, I, you know, especially like, you know, when we were being informed what's changing / what's not changing, during lockdown. You know, what's being lifted, what isn't being lifted. I would always confirm with a friend who works in an international school. So whatever sources she would be using seem to be true. So that's what I would do just cross-reference with her.
OF: Yeah. Yeah, that's useful actually. I am the same, because I do dip into certain news sources, and of course I check WeChat. But then when it comes from someone who has a direct link to something official, then you listen.
NB: Yes, yes, yes.
OF: Thank you so much.
NB: Thank you. This is lovely. This is fun.
OF: And I have one more question. And the question is, out of everyone you know in China, who do you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
NB: Yes, so this is a gentleman from Zimbabwe. I do admire his work. He is a filmmaker, he is a director, and his work is stellar. And for me, anybody who does the job and does it well, is just beautiful. His name is Damian Savant. Yes, watch out for Damian Savant.
OF: Thank you. I look forward to meeting Damian. And thank you once again.
NB: Thank you.
OF: Let me address the biggest controversy from today's show. It is true, an ice-cream-like food was first eaten in China in the 唐 [Táng] dynasty, it was a dish of ice, buffalo milk, flour and camphor. That's what I found on the internet anyway, so I don't want any gelato gangs coming after me.
The second thing to address is the fact that I am experimenting with a Chinese platform, where you can listen to the PREMIUM version of the show in China for the first time. The app is called 爱发点 [Àifādiǎn], it costs just 13RMB per month - which is the equivalent to the US$2 per month it costs on Patreon, internationally - and that gives you access to an extra 10-15 minutes per episode. Here are some clips from this week's show…
NB: When you come to one of my plays, I know how to do 'depressing and serious' very well.
NB: And my skin was glowing. I was so beautiful during lockdown.
NB: We had 'pap' which is like, a maize meal. So 'pap' can go with vegetable or meat dishes.
NB: We have a very violent history and we're unhealed people.
NB: I'm so basic. And I can't change it. It's just, it is what it is.
[End of Audio Clips]
I'll keep today's outro short, because I already talked way too much in the intro. You can follow all the images from today's show on Instagram, WeChat, Facebook, or mosaicofchina.com, where you'll see Noxolo's object, her favourite WeChat stickers, and a bunch of extra images and photos from some of the events we mentioned.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. The catch-up chat with Yael Farjun from last season is coming right up, and we'll be back next week with Episode 15, which will be the halfway point of Season 02.
OF: Thank you so much, Yael.
Yael Farjun: Really amazing to be back.
OF: You've just come out of quarantine, correct?
YF: Yes, about a week ago, something like that.
OF: OK. Welcome back to Shanghai.
YF: Thank you.
OF: You have an interesting story because you actually stayed in China quite a long time. And then, at a random time, you decided to leave?
YF: Yes. It was horrible timing, I would say. But yes, I left about five or six days before China decided to close the skies. And then I was stuck outside.
OF: But you knew you'd be stuck.
OF: Like, we had the conversation.
OF: And you had a lot of things going on. It was a very difficult situation.
YF: Very emotional too, I have to say.
YF: I think my emotions overcame the rational part, in that sense.
OF: So what was the calculus?
YF: Well, I was here when everything happened. And because of COVID, I had to close my business anyways, because tourism wasn't going to happen.
OF: Right. Because I should mention… So in our episode, you talked about your research project with Jewish refugees.
OF: But your identity actually is in tourism.
YF: That was my business, I owned a travel agency, and an online travel agency. So technically two businesses, or two operations. But both in inbound tourism, meaning people coming from abroad.
YF: And of course, when the pandemic started, all of that was gone. So for the first two months, it was all about survival, I would say.
YF: And, kind of like, realisation of the new situation, trying to figure out what to do next, and how. And then a few things came into the equation. First of all, it was almost a holiday in Israel. Passover. Which I originally anyways planned to go to. And I say that coupling with the fact that I took care of a dog of a good friend. They went out travelling for the Chinese New Year, and then they couldn't come back. So I had the dog with me. And they decided to continue to Israel after that. So I had their dog with me, and I had to get it out of China and bring it back to them. Then there was just this very small window, you know, that I could actually take it out before every other country started closing their skies, so…
OF: Right. So you had to make a decision quickly, right?
YF: Yes, yes.
OF: Yeah. That was crazy.
YF: It was. And I do have to admit, taking the dog with me on the flight was much more stressful than I thought it would be.
OF: Oh no.
YF: I was really very, very concerned about it. And its health and well-being, let's say, so…
OF: And that was really the main point of you doing this.
OF: It was to reunite the dog with it owners.
OF: Well, tell me then. So you mentioned at the beginning that you had to say goodbye to your company.
OF: So what was that process? And what are you doing these days?
YF: OK. So, it was a necessity. I mean, I understood that this is what I need to do. I tried to do it the best way I could. So I reached out to all of our followers on the different platforms. And I made a public announcement. Pretty clear, just to let them know that we are stopping.
OF: Which was after how many years?
YF: Ten years.
YF: Yeah. The one thing that I couldn't let go of was the online company. So I left the website there, online. And I didn't touch it. And just this last Saturday, actually, I had to make a decision whether or not I keep it online, because we keep spending money on it, and it's not working technically. So I was like "OK, it's time to close it off completely". And I went sitting in Wagas, I opened my computer, I logged into the website, I took a look at it. I started taking screenshots of all the pages, saying goodbye, and I didn't think it's going to be so hard. But I found myself sitting there and crying. Actually crying.
YF: Yeah, but it's, you know, it's 10 years of work. And it's not easy to say goodbye. But it's necessary. And that's just what it is.
OF: Oh, you're making me cry too.
YF: I didn't think it will be so hard. But I actually realised I'm grieving, in a way.
YF: Closing it down was kind of like an end of an era, right?
OF: Oh, totally.
YF: And it's been a lot of who I am, and was, and everything that I built in China.
YF: And suddenly, it was kind of like, a very distinctive ending. You know, it's gone. If you go online now, you won't see it.
OF: Oh, well, thank you for sharing that. So now you are in a process of working out the next step.
YF: Yes, sort of. So from an entrepreneur, I moved into being an 'intrapreneur', meaning sort of an entrepreneur within an existing organisation.
YF: So I'm working now with a company based in China and operating here for 20 years now. And I'm building for them a new project. So a new kind of arm, you can say, that the company wanted to try. And they hired me to do it. So I get to still keep my entrepreneurial spirit and way of working…
YF: …But within an existing organisation and company. So I have a lot of support with the existing teams, which is incredible. A lot of new doors just opened.
OF: Well, that's it. I think, in the future, you'll look back on this as a chapter, you know, and you will say that it happened for the right reasons.
YF: Oh, for sure, for sure.
YF: And I've learned so much from it. So many lessons that I've learned from China. So many new interests that I found living here, It doesn't have to be just one vertical in your life, it could be so many.
OF: Well, there is that. There is that sense of also feeling a bit liberated from something which was so all-defining.
OF: You know, and that's kind of what happened in my life, when I did the same thing and stepped away from my company. With all of that grief, with that sorrow, with elements of joy, but elements of regret. I know the whole spectrum of emotions.
YF: Oh yes.
OF: And now that I've had two years' distance, that's when I can look back and remember exactly the time that you're in. And know that no-one could tell you what you should feel. But at the same time, knowing that that was a necessary stepping stone.
OF: Well, speaking of stepping stones, how did it feel, then, when you had that step back into China after having been away, which presumably was the longest you've been away from China all these years?
YF: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I don't think I've been out of China more than, let's say, three weeks. That was the longest trip that I had. So yes, it felt great. First of all, I could speak Chinese again. And I was like "Oh, my God, I did not forget how to do that. It's amazing". So… But yes, landing in Pudong in Shanghai, you know, recognising the airport, seeing the city… Yes, I'm back home.
OF: Well, in terms of your place in the Mosaic, I'm so happy that you could be part of this. The person you recommended for the next season actually had a similar situation to you, I think. Like many people, things changed, and many people had to drop out of the next season. So sadly, your referral is now not going to be a connection. But I was able to find a nice replacement.
OF: So I hope that you enjoy who we are have got instead.
YF: So many things changed.
YF: So I'm really happy to know that you found someone else to do that.
OF: Yes. And in the meantime, please stay in touch. I hope that you will continue to be an active part of the Mosaic.
YF: Oh, definitely.