Thursday, 23 July 2009

Discovering difference

“I sometimes envy Jean-Pierre's complete satisfaction with his environment, his utter lack of curiosity about the rest of the world, his unshakable certainty that he knows everything that is worth knowing about everything around him. Jean-Pierre knows where he belongs. In this village, in this bar, on this chair. He'll never know what it's like to be an étranger” Marita van der Vyver, Where the Heart Is
One of the glorious things about van der Vyver's writing in this book is that she captures particularly evocatively the experience of being an outsider, while simultaneously making the reader (especially the reader far from South African roots) feel like part of an exclusive club – as if we are all outsiders looking in on another way of being, and because we share this, our own identity as South Africans is strengthened. She also works, instinctively I assume, from the premise of multiple identities. At no point does she see her identity as an Afrikaaner and a South African as contrary to her identity as a wife or the mother of a French child. Nor should she. Everyone has multiple identities. We are a species of multiple, complex and to a large extent (even if only officially since the end of Apartheid in our case) self-selected identities. I don't think it ever really occurred to me before that it could be any other way. I never took seriously that people, other than those trying to hold onto power (and probably not being sincere), thought like that. Being here is starting to make me wonder if I have completely misjudged the situation.

A little while back, an American colleague asked if I minded the staring. I had noticed that people were aware of me and often looked at me, but they generally smile when I make eye-contact and smile, so I didn't really think anything of it. It bothers him, but that's partly an American thing – they seem to have a huge issue with staring as the rudest possible action. I don't have that problem – thank heavens. I said to him, after thinking about it for a moment, that I suppose it's partly because I'm used to being different. It makes sense. I'm part of a minority in SA and, particularly when I'm in areas which are predominantly black or coloured or Indian, where I am the odd one out. And people often stare and smile and children point and say things like 'Mhlungu'. It's never bothered me before. I didn't tell him all this, but I've thought it since. He raised an eyebrow and warned me that the smiles I might see were probably embarrassed and not friendly.

Since then, I've been a lot more aware of people staring. Not because I'm scared of them, just, I think, because I'm curious to know if he is right. Sometimes he is most definitely wrong. There can be a moment when strangers' eyes meet and smiles are exchanged and there is genuine human warmth. It always makes my heart sore when a total stranger smiles at me and it's one of those genuine, friendly smiles. But I have to admit that that isn't always the case. I've noticed some people glaring at me. Even after I smile at them. And some of them laugh – not a sweet, friendly laugh (like the echoing laughter of African children remembered from long-ago trips to rural townships) but a slightly stern laugh of embarrassment. I'm not sure what to do with that.

Thinking about it, and surreptitiously watching the other people I walk past (NOT staring), it strikes me just how very different our experiences of otherness must be. People who do not look the same as you, who have different social and historical and cultural backgrounds, people who are not identical in almost every way that shapes experience and understanding, seem to be incredibly rare here. There are roughly 15000 foreigners (including from other Asian countries) in this city of 2.4 million people. And everyone else is (basically) the same. I'm sure that part of the real process of settling in (beyond the initial honeymoon of excited newness) will involve some sort of disaggregation of people. But even then, the differences (as far as I can gather) are likely to be socio-economic and perhaps, maybe, religious. Everyone still looks pretty much the same. I don't mean in the sense of 'all black people look the same', which is obviously not true. There are different facial features and different hair styles, and different smiles and eyes and hand gestures. But, for example, everyone has the same colour hair. Everyone. Except if they've died it. And that is the seemingly rare exception. All hair is black. As if the colour of hair is intrinsically, automatically, 'naturally' black.

And (unlike Africa) everyone has the same colour skin. My mind boggles a little as I type this. I'm almost tempted to travel a little to see what different Koreans look like in different parts of the country. But from everything I've heard (and seen – there are people here from other places) it's actually true. And the same culture and the same history. Not a top-down single identity desperately imposed to try and unite a diverse country, with several alternative cultural narratives bubbling just below the surface (as in, for example, the USA) but an actual single culture and history. The Korean peninsula has been unified (barring that niggling 38th parallel problem) since 668AD. Apart from minor details like different tastes in music (and even this seems somewhat limited in range), these people are all the same, and have been for longer than anyone can remember.

I have always been different. But I've always been different in a world of different-ness - where everyone has multiple, sometimes conflicting group identities, where every second person is from somewhere else (in or out of the country) and race is only the beginning of differences that stretch into first language, second and third language, area of birth, cultural affiliation(s) and many, many other aspects of identity. I've grown up surrounded by difference. Being different is normal. Even during the Apartheid years, when we all theoretically lived in enclaves of people similar to ourselves, the very fact of the system entrenched and highlighted difference, and things within those enclaves were far from homogeneous in terms of other factors like language. When I walk down a street in South Africa, I am aware that I'm different to a good number of the people I see. But they're also different to each other. Indian and Asian, Zulu and Xhosa, Sotho and English and Afrikaans, liberal and conservative and opposition vs ANC. I'm starting to learn that there is a huge gap between that and being different in a world of sameness. Here, I am the only one – the only one (or one of a very few) who is different from a homogeneous and uncritically uniform people. It is the most bizarre realisation. And to be honest, I think I'm still quite a long way away from truly being able to get my head around it. I caught a glimpse of just how ingrained these perceptions are while watching a schools debate where it was suggested that children of 'mixed marriages' (the definition of which is doesn't even seem to require particularly different skin-colours here) have strange accents because they grown up with parents who are bilingual. In SA bilingual is the basic, normal minimum and multi-lingual workplaces, classrooms and groups of childhood friends predominate. It's a concept that would never have occured to me.

One of the hardest parts of coming to terms with this all – as I will no doubt have to do in the next weeks and months – is the fact that the difference might be considered bad. Not simply that stereotypes and assigning characteristics based on their group membership is bad, or that there might be challenges associated with living with difference, but that the fact that there are people who are different might be bad in and of itself. Perhaps just because I'm a child of transition and the new South Africa, I quite like difference. I enjoy the fact that everyone has a different language and I'm comfortable with a diversity of cultures. In fact, I find diversity comforting – it's a clear sign that we are all individuals. And sharing those differences and learning about each other makes our own individual worlds richer and our own identities stronger. It never occurred to me (and it makes me feel a little uncomfortable) that the hardest thing about travelling abroad might be that other people would experience difference so differently. I'm not really sure how to deal with the fact that we as a nation (or at least that part of it I'm familiar with) have an awareness and a – sometimes grudging – appreciation for difference that is so fundamental that there might be an actual paradigmatic conflict with those who are different from me. I recognise the inherent contradiction in this statement but there has to be some basic common assumption for understanding to happen. Right now, the difference in the basic, fundamental understanding of different-ness seems almost to huge to contemplate

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