Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Skin Tones

Three days ago I watched “Cairo Time” (2009), a romantic movie about a Juliet, an older white woman, and her experience visiting Egypt for the first time.  The initial half of the movie establishes her character as she wanders the streets of Cairo.  I thought the director, Ruba Nadoa, did an effective job of portraying the organized frenzy of Third World life.  I also liked her depiction of Juliet’s confusion as men on the street touch her or whisper in her ears as they walk by.

Juliet is Canadian and her Egyptian vacation is the first time she’s felt out of place because of her ethnicity.

One of the other Canadian interns has expressed similar feelings to Juliet’s.  She doesn’t like how walking through Hillbrow makes her feel so conscious of skin colour.  She told me, “I’ve never felt so aware of my race before.”

I answered that I haven’t felt like I fit in anywhere racially since I was a teenager and old enough to know what race is.  Even though my family has lived in Canada longer than most of my (white) friend’s, people rarely accept that I’m “Canadian” because of my mixed heritage.

She was surprised.  “But there are so many Asians in Canada,” she protested.  “One of my best friends is Vietnamese.  In fact, most of my university was Asian.”  Then she started complaining about how Asians annoy her because they’re so clique-y.

Yep, those sorts of blanket statements make me feel more integrated into Canadian society!

At the risk of sounding melodramatic – it’s true that the oppressor cannot see the plight of the oppressed.

Even though I’m used to feeling like an outsider, however, the frustrations here are much more overt.  For example, here’s a story to illustrate the frustrating side of being part-Asian (and a woman) in ZA:

Last weekend, my Canadian intern friend and I visited Durban.  We chose a hostel near the beach; unfortunately it was also near the city’s dodgy area.  The last part of our walk from the train station reminded me of walking through Hillbrow.

Saturday evening we decided to buy booze.  I volunteered to go get it since my friend’s shoe was broken.  The hostel receptionist told me the closest liquor store was a 15 minute drive away, but I knew that wasn’t true.  We’d passed a Spar earlier that was only a 15 minute walk away.

Off I went alone, even though it was dusk.  I got three blocks and realized this was a dumb decision.  Dusk becomes night quickly here and I didn’t want to be alone in this area in the dark – especially not for cheap booze.

I decided I’d walk another 5 minutes then turn around.

Luckily there was a liquor store on the next block.

As you can imagine, liquor stores in bad areas are particularly dodgy.  This one had everything barred off: you had to ask the sales person to pass you your selection through the cage.

As I ordered a bottle of vodka, a man beside me tapped my elbow and said, “Hey China.  That’s very naughty of you to drink all that.”

I ignored him.

He tapped me again.  “China, you’re coming home with me tonight, right?”

“China” is Afrikaans for “friend” so I think people think they’re being clever when they call me that.  In the best of circumstances, however, I don’t like being referred to by my race.  I especially don’t like it from a middle-aged white man in liquor store.

I bought my vodka and booked it out of there.  I ran the four blocks back to the hostel, grateful to be fit.

[Side note: every woman should know basic self-defense.  Furthermore, no one should ever be embarrassed by warnings from their intuition.]

You’ll never guess what happened next.  Alas, this story continues.

As I arrived at the hostel entrance, a red truck pulled up and the creepy liquor store man got out of the passenger’s seat.  He said, “Now that we’re staying in the same place, will you talk to me?”

Nope.  Absolutely not.

I hurried past him into the hostel and to my room to tell my friend about the incident.  She thought the whole thing was hilarious.

This same girl who had been telling me how frustrating she finds Hillbrow because it makes her so conscious of her skin colour!

I say it again: the oppressor cannot see the plight of the oppressed.


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