Food writer and cultural consultant, Ming-Cheau Lin tackles the enduring controversy over stereotypes in race, culture and nationhood
WHEN I meet someone or a group of people for the first time, they want to know where I’m from. I want to say Bloemfontein because that’s where I grew up… but I don’t.
I say Taiwan, because after years of practice I know that’s what they want to hear. And once I say Taiwan, I know what the follow ups will be…
‘But you speak such good English!’
To the majority this might seem like a compliment or even a simple pleasantry, but as an Asian who grew up in South Africa and who only ever attended school in South Africa, I think to myself, I should speak ‘good English’.
In fact, I also speak some Afrikaans in addition to my home languages. And I’m by no means impressive or unique – after all, there are many other multilingual South Africans. So why can’t their first impression of me be as a South African and not a foreigner?
And guess what, you’re not the first person I’ve met who’s made ‘that’ Asian joke.
And no, I don’t have an ‘Asian’ accent because I attended school in South Africa. Besides, what is an Asian accent anyway? Is it the accent of the old Asian man from an 80s or 90s American martial arts film, directed (and sometimes played) by a non-Asian person?
Has it occurred to you that every Asian language has a different accent?
Have you thought that you’ll only hear broken English when speakers of other languages are trying their hardest to communicate with someone who can only speak English? Should one mock them?
Also, I probably don’t know your Asian friend Sally or John, since I’m from Bloemfontein and they live in East London, where you’re from.
I mean, imagine an Asian person asking if you know their high school friends Natalie and Mareé, since they’re also white. They wouldn’t, would they?
And no, you don’t have to ask, ‘where are you really from?’ And while we’re at it, no, ‘ching chong cha’ doesn’t mean ‘rock, paper, scissors’. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything.
Is it any wonder I’ve become so negative over the years? My skin tone classifies me as ‘Asian’ and I call myself an Asian South African.
I was born in Taiwan and my family moved here when I was three. All of my childhood memories are of growing up in a small townhouse in Helicon Heights in Bloemfontein, a city in the Free State.
We settled here in the early 90s, along with 2 000+ Taiwanese immigrants, for better opportunities that were incentivised by the old government to grow and develop the local manufacturing industry.
My parents worked hard to provide us with the opportunity of tertiary education but even with that privilege I struggled to have a ‘normal’ childhood.
I struggled to understand why people treated Asians like we were beneath them, I struggled to blend in because of how I look, and I struggled to understand why it was this way.
I remember at school I played a piano duet with an Afrikaans girl and I quite liked her, she seemed nice. Three years later, this was the same girl who took offence to me calling her out for bullying another Asian. She yelled at me in anger, ‘You ching chongs are weird! Your people pray to a statue, you eat dogs and you have ugly squint eyes’. I tolerated it calmly and asked her if that was the best she come up with.
But you know what? Almost every second-generation Asian in South Africa has had a similar experience.
Recently, my brother filled out a government form where the only tick boxes available were ‘African’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘White’. He was told to tick the ‘Coloured’ box.
In many instances, we are included as a category – ‘other’. That is literal ‘othering’. How inclusive are we meant to feel here?
The term ‘Asian South African’ is largely and locally defined as Indian, but Asia comprises 48 countries (including India, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and many more) and most Asians who grew up in South Africa have been on the receiving end of the same type of discrimination.
Not that my parents didn’t try to fit in.
They were taught English at school in Taiwan but just the basics, so a fluent, deep conversation was a rare occurrence. But being in the manufacturing business my papa learnt more from regular exposure, whereas my mama didn’t get the chance. The sad result is that locals weren’t as patient with her as we have been with their behaviour towards us.
As a child, it’s incredibly hard to see your parent sad and feel powerless.
I remember buying new bedsheets the one time. The woman my mama approached just rudely gestured for her to go back to the section she came from.
When my mama tried to explain otherwise, she rolled her eyes and spoke to my mother like she was an annoying child. I was livid that someone could treat another human that way. But my mama would rather avoid a scene…
Is it fair that we should accept the norms that aren’t ‘normal’ to us?
I’ve had my fair share of arguments that left me uncomfortable, depressed and anxious, shaping this conflicted immigrant I am today.
But the problem with growing up as an immigrant in South Africa is that we were taught to tolerate the discriminative behaviour; to be submissive, understanding and avoid unnecessary confrontation.
The problem is that it has left deep scars that make us an angry and bitter generation.
It’s difficult finding your way between two cultures.
As a child I was told that I shouldn’t talk back, that I was too opinionated and klutzy and that it was not desirable, especially for a lady, to be that way.
It was very unusual (though not unheard of) for women in Taiwanese culture to be this way, but with a childhood in South Africa and the exposure to a more liberal lifestyle, I felt confused.
I didn’t fit in with my parents’ culture and I didn’t fit in where I lived. There was no sense of belonging. But in my conflicted state of mind, I ask myself: if I don’t stand up for myself or for someone being bullied, am I not just an enabler? Is that any better than being a bully?
As an Asian South African, I realise that as a group we have unknowingly formed our own ‘new’ culture.
We’ve shared similar negative experiences in post-apartheid South Africa and as a group, we are rendered invisible in the country we call home.
We have been tolerant and understanding, and have avoided confrontations wherever possible, but it’s tiring and maybe it’s time for change.
That’s why I wrote this, it’s why I blog about Taiwanese and Chinese food, it’s why I share snippets of my Asian South African life on Instagram… so that our norms are out there.
I want to showcase the fun behind our culture and how it’s actually a mesh of two, Asian and South African.
Discrimination against the other is widely accepted and even normalised.
It’s a way of thinking that stems from ignorance affecting not just Asians but all immigrants – in essence any minority. But every time my blood boils, I try to remind myself that being angry doesn’t help.
The only way to move forward is to be part of the movement to change a mindset that shouldn’t have been tolerated in the first place.
Everyone is different and being a minority, whether it’s your race, gender or age that places you there, is not the only thing that defines a person. Just because it’s not your norm it doesn’t mean it isn’t someone else’s norm.
The Asian race is so visibly present in South Africa.
Asians from all cultures play their roles in the local economy and not just as immigrants; many of us are citizens and call THIS is our home.
With South Africa playing host to the largest number of Asians on the African continent shouldn’t we, Asian South Africans, be accepted and normalised in this proverbial rainbow nation?
*This article was originally published by W24. Ming-Cheau Lin’s blog address is www.butterfingers.co.za