Let me begin with two separate yet related anecdotes:
1. On Sunday, I went with several friends most of whom are Chinese/Taiwanese (yes a political statement in itself) South African to a Portuguese Tavern in Milnerton. If you are bewildered by the multiple nationalities mentioned, just accept that globalisation is alive and well. The tavern was pretty standard, a smoky bar, a soccer game playing on a big screen, evening karaoke, and of course drunken regulars. Why were we there? Well, it was a friend’s birthday, and there’s a two meals for the price of one (the more expensive one) special at this place, known as Guzzler’s.
We decided to sit outside to avoid some of the smoke and the crowd. The view wasn’t bad, although the large parking lot and multi-storey flats obscured some of the view. However, enough of Devil’s Peak and the sunset were visible to make it almost picturesque. This is going to sound extremely pretentious, but the entire place reeked of mediocrity, with nothing particularly unique or distinguishable, which left you with a sort of bleak numb feeling. However, we decided to stay since we had driven all the way out, and reorganising 10 people can be a mission.
We were sitting and chatting amongst ourselves when one clearly inebriated unkempt older South African man approached our table and proceeded to introduce himself. He also “welcomed us” to the country. How thoughtful of him and his drunken companions cheering him on. Throughout the dinner, various comments kept drifting over.
Oh you are all such a beautiful people. Such beautiful women.
Look, they’re eating potatoes! I thought they only ate rice.
Don’t worry. I told the waitress that if you have problems communicating with her, I’ll interpret.
REALLY? While none of them were blatantly offensive comments, it was more the presumptuousness and frequency of the comments that were offensive. It was as if the concept of Chinese-South Africans had eluded their understanding completely. Is it such a radical notion to think that a person can have ties to more than one place, regardless of what he or she looks like, that there is really no universal monolithic Chinese, South African, American, fill in the blank, experience? There are of course shared cultures, languages and understandings, but these can transcend and cross expected boundaries.
2. Being an eternal optimist, I will end on an encouraging note. I was scanning radio stations in Cape Town, and stumbled across 89.5 FM on a Tuesday evening. I have been sorely missing NPR and its blend of journalism, pop culture, music programming, and general thoughtful inquisitiveness. And what should I find, but a radio program so similar yet also uniquely South African in content and accent?
Several interviews with musicians exploring multicultural musical experiences resonated with my Sunday experience, but this time in a good way. One Nigerian artist who was interviewed described the Billie Holiday project that she was working on, and the challenge that she felt approaching American blues coming from a different blues background. In her mind, she felt that experiences of African Americans that shaped the creation of blues in the US had evolved in a much different manner than the African style blues that she was more familiar with in Nigeria. She felt that of course there are elements that are shared and commonalities that exist, but the two can and should be distinguished. In other words, there are blues and then there are blues, and the two can happily co-exist and mix and cross pollinate yet still maintain their uniqueness.
The second artist interviewed grew up in Nigeria for the first 16 years of his life, and then moved to Germany. Since one parent is Nigerian and the other is German, he grew up with access to both places and cultures, and his music reflects this hybrid experience. He didn’t express feeling pressure to choose his favourite or to be just one or the other, and the resulting music is something soulful and new yet still familiar.
I guess this is a plea asking for an end to boxes. Yes, they might be neat and discrete, and make data collection,form filling and explanations much simpler. But, they ask us to deny parts of ourselves with detrimental effect. This applies to far more than race. None of us is any one thing. We may in fact be a compilation of seeming contradictions and jumbled ideas. We should stop ourselves and others from narrow definitions and prejudiced assumptions for the sake of comfortableness. I am not calling for an end to distinctiveness or a “pan” approach to all things, but rather for an acceptance and appreciation of the multiple and complex layers that make us who we are.