One of the many awful things the apartheid regime did was to destroy ethnically diverse neighborhoods. The neighborhoods tended to be funky, exciting, and fun. Such dangerous multiculturalism was immoral, of course, and had to be eradicated, so in the 60s the government brought the bulldozers in and evicted the residents to new, ethnically pure neighborhoods, usually far off in the boondocks. The neighborhood thus flattened was redesignated whites-only.
There are museums nowadays, dedicated to the neighborhoods the government destroyed. They're poignant places, with photographs, maps, and stories from former residents. There's a famous museum, in Cape Town, dedicated to District Six, bulldozed in 1966. There are some much less famous ones around the country, including one in Port Elizabeth, called the South End Museum. I spent a long afternoon talking with some of the museum volunteers.
It started out as an innocent question, really. There was a large map on the wall showing where each of the ethnic groups had been moved to after being evicted. I noticed one of the arrows said "Chinese". Out of curiosity, I asked whether there was a Chinese neighborhood there.
Partly, I was wondering if the Chinese here had done what Chinese in the diaspora often do, cluster together and open businesses, like restaurants, so I could do some research. Partly, I wanted to hear what had happened to the Chinese diaspora in this particularly bizarre political environment. I was a little shy about asking a question about "my people"; the experience of apartheid was awful for everyone, and it seemed somewhat selfish to be asking about the trials of a group which I shared only some distant ethnic history with.
As it turned out, the volunteers were quite enthusiastic about doing my research for me. The community was small, but the volunteers, most of whom had been evicted from South End, remembered them well. It was sad listening to them compare notes about which street a particular shop had stood, and what the family had been like. They understood why I might be interested; it was a connection of sorts into local history.
After a while the conversation turned into a discussion of what it was like being non-white in a country run by white people. As with most people outside the U. S., there was a great deal of curiosity about what things are like in America. In particular, though, they wanted to hear what things were like for someone who wasn't white. I said it was mostly okay, but I still did have the experience of being insulted on the streets for my race, even if it wasn't very common. I said it was even less common for me to have trouble being served, but it did happen. "I can't tell if it's this (pointing at my face) or this (pointing at my hair)."
"It's probably a combination of both," said Ismail, a Muslim volunteer, and I said he was probably right. "Sometimes," I went on, "you can just tell by the way someone looks at you that they just don't want you there." Everyone in the conversation nodded in agreement.
I remembered this conversation a couple of weeks later, on the streets of Johannesburg. I was walking through Melville, a neighborhood which reminded me a little of Melrose in LA, with its funky shops, a little of Georgetown, with its watering holes, and a little of Adams-Morgan in DC, in its restaurants and challenging parking. I had just crossed a street when I heard the familiar taunts of people making fun of me for being Chinese.
I glanced back, and saw a BMW full of young white guys. Back home, it almost invariably is young guys, pretty much evenly divided between black and white. (I can count the number of times it's been women on the fingers of one hand.) But the "rich white guys shouting crap" is an old, old story for me. I thought quickly, and decided on a response. I flipped them the bird, over the shoulder, without glancing back. I figured it conveyed the message, "You guys are jerks, but I can't even be bothered to give you a second look."
It was a risk, but my dignity required some response.
There was a second or two before it registered, then they shouted something incoherent. I was heading for a bookstore with an Internet cafe that I'd seen earlier; I figured if they were coming after me I'd hear it. As it turned out, they didn't. I walked into the bookstore, excused myself between the owner and a customer, and browsed quietly, while wondering if they'd given up. I thought it would make an interesting story if they did come after me, white guys hassling a non-white in the new South Africa. And a tourist, at that.
Nothing happened, and I finished reading the last bits of a book on Hong Kong I'd picked up, and walked over to the nice bookstore owner to ask him about Internet access. I thought as I was looking up restaurant reviews for Melville online that it wouldn't have been very nice for the bookstore owner if a fight had broken out in his shop, so it was a good thing nothing happened.
I left the bookshop, and walked back around to the corner where the BMW had been. A young white guy who was having a beer at one of the sidewalk cafes spoke up.
"I saw those wankers shout at you before."
"Yeah," I said, "some drunk rich kids. I saw the BMW."
He agreed that they were drunk and rich, and said he couldn't believe people like that. I said I hadn't come all the way from the States to be insulted in the street, but only thinking, "I could've stayed at home for that." In his own way, I imagine he was trying to say that not all white South Africans were racists, which I already knew, but I appreciated his speaking up.
I remember wondering later whether I should feel angry that there were still, after all their history, white South Africans who thought it was fun to insult someone for their race, or whether I should feel hopeful that another white South African realized it was wrong and decided to speak up.
Then I realized that I had never actually had anyone speak up any of those other times this kind of thing had happened to me, either back in the States or anywhere else, and I decided I felt hopeful.