Thursday, September 22, 2011

black and white and YELLOW

A few thoughts on race issues, and being an Asian woman in Windhoek.

After apartheid, officially sanctioned racial segregation was no longer imposed, but you still see quite a divide drawn along racial lines. The townships of small modest sometimes rundown houses are still full of black and coloured people, whereas the affluent neighbourhoods with barbed wire fences, electric gates, guard houses, and palatial structures are mostly white people. What I find very interesting, and sometimes annoying, is the way that I am considered to be “white” here, because of my relative position of privilege. As a foreigner, I’m perceived to be a tourist here, and therefore rich. My closest friends that I’ve made here are white, and I live in one of those affluent white neighbourhoods. At nice restaurants, the service staff treat us extra politely and the chef sends us complimentary dishes from the kitchen, I guess because people assume we are important (HA HA HA). People have even offhandedly referred to me as being white, and I can’t deny the feeling of not being “one of us” from the men who catcall me in the streets.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not white. Back in Canada, nobody ever treats me like I’m white – in fact I am constantly reminded of my Asian identity back home. I eat Korean food at home with my Korean parents every night. My grandmothers speak to me in Korean. I still hold on to some Korean etiquette even in Canadian settings – feeling uncomfortable and horrified, for example, when French Canadians try to greet me with a kiss (why can’t we just bow respectfully from a safe distance?), or when my friend’s mother asks me to call her by her first name.

More importantly, I am still sometimes discriminated against because of the fact that I am not white, but a woman of Korean ethnicity. Canadian men who sexually harass me on the streets, for example, say very specific things to me that they do not say to white women. As much as I embrace Western culture and values, and have many friends of many ethnic origins, I do not identify as being white, nor do I have any particular desire to be identified as such. So to be classified as white here in Namibia is a bit of a jolt to me and my identity at times. I mean, I understand it – clearly I’m a person of privilege and I’m not black – but my feelings towards this alternates between amusement and annoyance.

The status of being Asian in Namibia is pretty interesting on its own. The other Asian worker I met here told me that she has travelled all over the country, and from what she’s seen, it is quite probable that I am the only Korean person in this whole country. Which means I probably won’t find someone else to make me kimchi chigae, sadly. When I asked a Chinese girl who had visited Namibia how ordinary folks viewed Asians, she told me perhaps jokingly that folks here believe that all Asians know kung fu, so they’ll leave you alone. There are other Asian people here, mostly Chinese businessmen, which probably only contributes to Namibian’s perceptions of me being rich. Trust me, though, I am not a Chinese businessman.

My personal experience has been that some of the locals view me to be an unusual creature. I guess it is still quite rare to see young Asian women in some parts here, so a few men can’t resist but try to talk to me, or at least yell “China” at me (an exclamation that I don’t quite understand). As I was told by another female intern, most of this street attention is not terribly derogatory, and it's almost never hostile, unlike in Canada, where sadly some men yell at me shocking things that i am sure they would never say in front of their mothers (sidenote: this is a great website about street harrassment in ottawa). Here in Windhoek, it's mostly along the lines of “Sister I must tell you: you are beautiful”. I feel like these folks mean no harm and are just curious, which is much better than whatever is motivating those jerks back at home. Either way, I suppose it could be worse. There are worse stereotypes than assuming that I am beautiful, exotic, rich, and know kung fu.