– Naledi Kekana
My classroom is located on the fifth floor of the main school building. I sit by the window which overlooks the car park. My direct eye view is the glistering red and gold of the Chinese flag, which everyday seems to sway so boldly and proudly. Well perhaps I exaggerate; because any flag, even on a mildly windy day, will proudly wear that bold sway. However, there’s just something about the defiance of that bright red in the wind which somehow arouses in me a pride which is not mine to claim.
After just a few months of living in China I certainly cannot claim to know or understand Chinese culture, history or even the current political climate. But, from the view of an outsider, the most striking observation is that even in the time of globalisation Chinese people remain unapologetically Chinese. Their defiance to conform to European or Western sensibilities makes it stand out as a developing nation which is not preoccupied with being what it is not. It is this view, I believe, that makes foreigners either like or dislike China; because, in my opinion, the Chinese people are certainly not in the business of making foreigners feel at home and as a result discomfort is and will remain a dominant theme in one’s duration in China.
After weeks of enduring the pain of my own discomforts, like reliving my life as a toddler by only being able to point or only use body language to express even the most basic of requests, I began to appreciate and not curse my surroundings. Having had my ego battered, and my sense of self-importance ripped from me, I was humbled to a point which enabled me to really begin my learning without any misconceptions or judgemental attitude.
One weekend, my language partner, a Chinese student from my university, invited me to his home to have dinner with his family. I’ve never been fed so much in my life, and never has my brain worked so hard to keep up with what was being said despite my language partner playing translator. During this intimate exchange I realised that China was at the height of its modern existence due to the big gap (more than I’m used to) I observed in outlook and perspective between parents and children. Through the stories that they told, the history that was recounted, and opinions that were expressed, I was amazed at the deep understanding of where they came from and where they want to go. I also observed the certainty they possess about their values and what they stand for as a people. This sentiment, I have found, extends beyond that small dining room in Beijing, but to my Chinese teachers and the youngsters that I meet in my social circles as well.
The dinner conversation reminded me of a famous and contentious Ted Talk by Eric Li who gives an express “setting the record straight” talk on what China has been able to achieve even though it is constantly berated by the West for not being a democracy. Li takes his audience through China’s development milestones and ends his talk by comparing the high levels of optimism in China’s future by its youth as apposed to the very low optimism levels by the youth in the West.
All these positive sentiments may be labelled by some as the Chinese propaganda machinery at play, and subsequently list a parallel of wrongs that transpired during this period of development. Be it as it may, these things still remain facts and perhaps why I feel enviously proud when I see that flag every morning. I certainly hope that African countries are not only turning to China for their material development but also as an example of what self-determination really means.
With all these observations, I find myself being confronted by a renewed, but forceful, feeling of loss. As a black child growing up in the new South Africa this sense of loss is a common theme amongst many of my peers. Being in a country like China, where people are so genuinely themselves, I have been confronted by my own issues about my identity, or perhaps the lack of it. After more than 300 years of fighting white invasion, supremacy and oppression, one would think that our new found freedom would come with the desire to defend our dignity through the entrenchment of our identity, culture and our determination for a better life. I think, however, for many it became a pursuit for all those things we envied white people for having. And so, in pursuit of Western aspirations, a lot of what should have been defended and strengthened was allowed to deteriorate.
The sense of loss mentioned above comes from the fact that I resent my western or white sensibilities. The fact that I speak English better than my own mother tongue. The fact that, when it comes to cultural practices, I’m more like an anthropologist observing instead of participating. Perhaps, it’s that I also resent my formal education for making me see myself through the eyes of white people and, thus, creating the contradiction of both inferiority and superiority within me. By that I mean the perceived inferiority about my blackness and the superiority of looking down on it, or anything associated with it. Even though I identify very passionately with the struggle for black power and affirmation, I can’t help thinking that in some ways I’m a partial participant or far removed from anything which is genuinely African.
Unlike the red and gold Chinese flag, our flag in South Africa at the moment is flying at half-mast, mourning the death of the romanticism of the New South Africa and finally awakening to the fact that the “Rainbow Nation” was merely a dream which we, in fact, have not yet earned and must work hard to achieve. Almost like an adolescent awakening to the inconvenient truths about itself and the world. The past year has seen a lot of restlessness pertaining to both economic and racial challenges facing the country. Especially with young people increasingly expressing their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of transformation on both fronts.
The issue for me, however, extends further in that it is not only about the continued white dominance, but also the lack of affirmation of the blackness within us. Some would say that self-affirmation is a function of economic freedom, however I would say that it is the most economically enabled of us that struggle with the identity of their blackness. I often ask myself whether revolutionaries can in fact remain revolutionary or true to themselves when usurped by a capitalist system which makes them drift more and more towards Eurocentric views and culture.
Closing its borders for all those years allowed China in some respects to not betray itself; and I think that it was a conscientious effort by its forefathers. As a person who comes from a country and continent which is yet to claim its space in this world, this has been my greatest learning from China. How do we take the struggle for our own determination all the way without betraying ourselves by overindulging in only our first gains and losing direction?
Naledi Kekana (Guest Writer)
is a South African from Johannesburg. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Economics from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from the Gordon Institute of Business Science. She is currently studying Mandarin at Beijing Language and Culture University, and will commence her Masters in Development Finance upon her return to South Africa. Naledi is passionate about the inclusive finance movement and strives to play a pivotal role in shaping a different status quo in personal banking, in a society intent on concentrating wealth amongst a few.