Unraveled – Death of S.A Teacher Highlights Casual Racism in China’s Medical Industry

The recent death of a Black South African ESL teacher in China’s capital of Beijing and the subsequent gut-wrenching attempts by her family to repatriate her remains for proper burial have reignited worries and fears among Black and African residents in China. This is the second such death in as many months, with that of yet another South African ESL teacher based in Shanghai during the city’s extended lockdown earlier this year having caught China’s international community’s attention. Following the country’s CDC Monkeypox directive, a long-standing and ever-increasing hostility toward Black residents in the country, and difficulty in accessing proper standards of medical care, Black and African residents in China wonder how long it will be before they too suffer the same heartbreaking fates suffered by numerous Black and African people in the country. 

We Exist in A Vicious Rumor Mill 

An aspect of living in China as a Queer Black African is that foreigners, especially Black ones, live in a vicious rumor mill. These are channels of half-reliable information we depend upon to get everything from official announcements from our embassies to policy changes by the Chinese government, and the goings-on within various Black and African sub-communities. It was through this very way that we all came to learn of the death that would shake us, leaving us feeling unraveled and struggling to hold on to whatever sanity we had left after a tumultuous year filled with mandatory testing and the mass departure of close friends who broke under the pressure of life in China. 

After arriving at the office, I receive a message from a friend on WeChat. She refers back to a screenshot she had sent to me before I had even left my home. It is an event I am already aware of. An African woman is dead in Beijing, and her family is desperately trying to raise money to repatriate her remains. Just days before I’d seen the exact same story shared by another friend – South African like the deceased – pointing out that the tragedy that befell the woman could have also befallen him. 

In a private WeChat group, those of us who know this friend laugh it off. It is what we have learned to do in these hard times – laugh off tragedy. “He is so dramatic,” one of us says, while the other surmises that all South Africans in China are rather dramatic. But the screenshot by my other friend prompts an avalanche of audio messages that leave me shaken to my core. 

“They found her in her own filth… there were empty alcohol bottles everywhere… she was delirious… refused to protect her modesty… took videos of her without consent… had initially refused to take her to hospital… she stopped breathing and the doctor called her mom to tell her and asked ‘what should I do?’… they wanted to cremate her immediately because they said they had no space…” The horror that befell the woman smiling at me in the screenshot, a part of a Twitter thread, comes in hard and fast, and with each piece of the information, my world shrinks further. 

I rush to Twitter to read the latest. According to the thread, the family was told the total cost of repatriating her remains would be 400,000 rand or $22,650.44. “… But they went ahead and cremated her anyway,” my friend was just saying in the latest audio note sent. The thread however doesn’t make any mention of this. What is clear is the lady in question was plus-size, South African, and working in a training center in Beijing, a job which she had quit a few weeks prior pending her return the day after she tragically passed away. 

Bitter, Quiet Acceptance 

Among tweets of grief, national unity, and consternation, are smatterings of insults and insensitive comments about her weight, and how her family “enjoyed the money” she made in China alone, so they shouldn’t expect any assistance from anyone else. “So resigning in china means canceling everything you have paid for immediately. This is ridiculous. Somebody explain to me if she resigned end of August it means she was already paid for that month and the insurance had already debited her for insurance. I am lost,” posts someone on the thread. I nod my head quietly in confirmation, as though that particular Twitter user will see my gesture. 

This is something that we as foreigners know all too well, that if you leave a job today, then your benefits are immediately slashed. Chinese companies and employers have no compunction about canceling medical coverage and housing benefits along with your visa before you even finish the word “farewell.” It is a strategy used to compel foreigners, who are expensive to bring into the country, complicated to have working legally in-country, and scarce thanks to closed borders, to remain in their positions, especially in education. Resignation rarely means a slight pause and a continuation onto your next venture, but the obliteration of a previous life and the start of a new one both bureaucratically and fiscally. 

They matter because she is the second South African in as many months to die of an alleged lack of care while in China. They matter because Don* is still waiting to get surgery but continues getting denied. They matter because Eric Jackson died of a cardiac arrest after being turned away from three medical facilities for fear that he had COVID. It matters because that Kenyan businesswoman, armed with international medical insurance, left her country a healthy woman and returned in a pine box.

“… I know the person the family contacted and they have the video and everything… sent it to me crying…” I listen to the next audio message as my heart begins to race in my chest. This is the third Black woman I know to have died in my time in China, the second South African, and the proximity due to our shared city is too close for comfort. The first Black woman died at the start of the COVID pandemic and was within my friend circle. I had even met her, only to wake up to the news of her sudden demise. The second happened a few months ago. A South African woman was found dead in her apartment in Shanghai amid the citywide lockdown. She had apparently just undergone surgery and needed follow-up treatment but couldn’t due to the city-wide months-long lockdown, or so the rumors went. 

I filter through Black WeChat groups, both Queer and all-inclusive, of which I am a member. There is no mention of the tragedy. Life goes on as usual, with promoters pushing parties to come with an avalanche of funny memes and stickers. Perhaps this conversation is being held in the South African group? So I ask in one of the groups whether something is being done to assist the family by the Black and African contingent in China. In response, a group member in the said group sends me a screenshot of the call to action along with a QR code to join the group. I am relieved. Something is being done, but “…she had not contacted anyone from like the 25th of August so her family grew concerned…” Nothing had been done before this. 

“I’m sorry for trauma dumping,” my friend said, moments after revealing how this event prompted her to ask friends and family to take her adorable dog. I have a dog too. What would happen to her if something were to happen to me? I recall how I spend protracted periods alone, how it’s rare to get a wellness message from those in my friend circle because there is always an assumption that I am always okay, and how “…the police went round and refused to break the door down and go in… they weren’t willing to take her to hospital…”, and the suspicious looks I get from neighbors that match threatening messages I have found tacked to my door, and now we have to contend with messaging from the country’s chief epidemiologist, a directive to avoid contact with foreigners in a population with a long-abiding fear of said foreigners. 

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Near Breaking Point 

I share the Twitter thread in the little private group where initially we had tried to laugh away the tragedy. “I don’t even think I can look at that, to be honest,” comes one reply from a member with whom I have been discussing the mental strain that we both feel we are currently under. It must be something in the air, or because mercury is in retrograde we had joked only a day before. 

Later in the day, after inquiring about how we who are in Beijing can assist in the fundraising efforts, an official blog post is released dispelling rumors about the South African lady’s death. Lusanda Lindokuhle Sixaxeni, affectionately known as Lindo, had planned to return home the day after her death. She had booked a flight for September 12 and had gone “missing” a few days before her departure. All these facts semi-corroborate all that’s been churned out by the rumor mills and grapevine. What shocks us most is where her death occurred.

Having assumed she had received sub-par care leading to her untimely death at an all-Chinese hospital, the occurrence of which wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to China oldies like most of us, the lack of care had instead occurred at a renowned “foreigner-friendly” hospital with an international wing. That is where, after realizing she wasn’t receiving the kind of care she needed, she pleaded to be released to return home because she feared losing her flight booking, but she also knew the fate that befell Black, dark-skinned, African women in such establishments, and her fears were realized in real-time. 

“What are we to do? What can we do?” another female South African friend who also happens to be Queer asks in an irate voice note. We both share the exhaustion of anxiety at contemplating the horror and injustice surrounding Lindo’s death. She might not have been Queer like us, but she was African like us, dark-skinned like us, lived alone like us, and like us, had to face a complicated, often unfriendly, sometimes lethal healthcare system in this country we have come to call home. I recall a case of a Kenyan woman denied medical attention years before COVID-19 became an excuse to fear foreigners, barring them from accessing medical attention as was done to Eric Jackson a Ghanaian national in Southern China at the start of the pandemic. The Kenyan lady in question was sent home after checking into the hospital and told to return the next morning, only to die in the night. 

All I can think is, we can call for a soft boycott. An incensed part of me wishes we lived somewhere in the West, somewhere where the unethical practice of doxxing exists. I want the doctor, who allegedly called Lindo’s mother when she stopped breathing instead of resuscitating her to ask what they should do, to be exposed. I want to know where they live, so I can go there myself and ask them why? I want someone to tell me whether Chinese medical personnel reserve their hypocritical oath for those who can pass the paper bag test. And later while on a call with my mother, I posit that even in the most racist of countries, medical care and religious freedom are considered sacrosanct. Even the most racist of doctors, I think, wouldn’t deny a dying patient treatment, or at the very least bar them from leaving if they didn’t feel enough of a burden to provide adequate medical care. 

In a larger WeChat group where Lindo’s excruciating final moments and fundraising details have been shared, a non-Black foreigner asks for confirmation as to whether the story is “legit.” We all hear the dog whistle but I am far too exhausted to respond with anything beyond the Twitter thread that I myself had examined in the day, complete with media clips from a South African news source. “I would like to hear from someone who knew her,” he insists. Who knows her more than her mother, I wonder, and again the implication hits hard – that this is a money grab, an unverified attempt at fleecing generous, misinformed benefactors, as he also points out that the price point quoted for the repatriation of the remains is too high. I exist the group wondering how many remains of South Africans who died in China has he personally repatriated, but that is also in line with a general lack of empathy and mistrust with which Black and African plight is met even among international spaces in China.  

Cold, Hard Truth 

Exhaustion turns into anger again, at the thought that someone might offer some apologist explanation as to why this happened, or why this always seems to happen to people like Lindo. I am bracing myself for the inevitable “that’s just how things are here” and “even other foreigners face challenges” excuses to dispel the uncomfortable reality that extreme racism from those in positions of power, and those who can quite literally make life and death decisions over us, exists. I wait to be told by someone to “leave if you don’t like it” all the while recalling the “Stop Asian Hate” movement that is still ongoing, the purpose of which was to remind others that Asians, and especially Chinese immigrants, students, and those of Chinese descent deserve to be wherever they choose to be in the world. That same courtesy however isn’t extended to us in their land. After extensive vetting, medical tests, isolation, a lack of privacy, a struggle to assimilate, and living as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, I do not want to be forced out of a place I have worked so hard to adjust to, any more than I would like to see the Chinese expelled from mine or any other country. 

It is however becoming increasingly exhausting to constantly ready oneself to go on the offensive in these matters, to remind people who haven’t had the same experiences, and can’t imagine being in my shoes that these things, Lindo’s death; they all matter. They matter because she is the second South African in as many months to die of an alleged lack of care while in China. They matter because Don* is still waiting to get surgery but continues getting denied. They matter because Eric Jackson died of a cardiac arrest after being turned away from three medical facilities for fear that he had COVID. It matters because that Kenyan businesswoman, armed with international medical insurance, left her country a healthy woman and returned in a pine box. It matters because, as an adult living and working abroad when it comes to seeking medical attention, I am infantilized by a system that would sooner treat me better were I to seek help with a local as my representative and my advocate, never mind whether I can speak the language or not. It matters because all of us Black and African people live under the constant threat that these horrible fates that have befallen those who look like us or come from where we do, could also befall us, and we note the incredulity with which such experiences are met, and realize that were we in the same position, our experiences would also be brushed off in the same way. 

For now, I nod as I read a friend’s message. He is devastated and says he would hate to be in a place where he would need urgent medical care in China. As a Gay Nigerian in China, he understands how his own people are treated at the best of times, let alone in times of medical crises. I agree as I look at the contact to a medical insurance brokerage firm. Then I think to myself, it has never been about lack of insurance; it has always been every bit about a collective lack of compassion and humanity. 

Photos: WeChat, Unsplash

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