Last week on the day before we took a tour of first and second China Town my mentor, Nechama Brodie, told us that we needed to be aware of ourselves and remember not to be rude.
She asked us to go home and “unpack our prejudices” before we start on this project. I looked around and assumed she must be talking to other people in the class because in my mind I had no prejudices to unpack.
Today I met the treasurer of The Chinese Association Gauteng (TCA) Francis Lai Hong. He works as the Managing Director of a company that works in currency and commodity consultation.
As soon as Francis started speaking to me I thought: “wow his accent is so South African” (prejudice number one). I immediately tried to locate what kind of South African accent it was and thought: “well it’s a cross between coloured and Afrikaans” (prejudice number two).
As a black woman I am so used to being on the receiving end of someone else’s prejudice that I fail to see my own.
If there’s one thing I know I can’t stand being told it’s “oh but you speak so well”. I immediately complete the sentence with “…for a black person”. What I did today with Francis was the exact same thing except that I didn’t voice it and I was the one thinking it.
Francis was born Chen Jin Yuan. In Chinese culture your surname comes first so here he would be called Mr Jin Yuan Chen. When Francis’s family moved to South Africa from Hong Kong he was only two years old. When they arrived at customs they asked for Francis’s name. The man who was officiating their documents told them Jin Yuan was too complicated and they would need to find another name.
Francis’s father asked the port official his name and he said he was Francois but they couldn’t have his name so he wrote down the name Francis. The port official asked them how to say “where do you come” from in Hong Kong. They told him “lai”. He was going to finish the name off with their place of origin but dropped the “Kong” as it was too long. That is how Francis became ‘Francis Lai Hong”.
He told us that he considers himself to be a South African because this is his home and the only home he knows. Francis said even when he goes to the Chinese Embassy he feels as though he is treated like a second class citizen of China because he holds a green ID and not the Chinese passport or ID. As he shared his family history and their stuggles during apartheid I discovered prejudice number three.
Before I started this project I had no idea what the history of the Chinese in South Africa was. I was one of those people who asked why the Chinese were asking for rights to be included in the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) definition of previously disadvantaged individuals of South Africa. I did history in high school and never in my 24 years of life had I heard any South African history that even mentioned the Chinese. I didn’t even bother to research it because I guess I just didn’t see a reason to.
Francis shared that the Chinese were not afforded any privileges during apartheid. They also couldn’t live in the white suburbs and were often grouped with either the coloured or Indian people under the Group Areas Act. Francis said during the time they were fighting to be included as previously disadvantaged some people (he used Greek and Portuguese people as an example) then said if the Chinese could claim that then they could too.
“They missed the point. We didn’t benefit from apartheid in anyway. We also suffered.”
The conversation with Francis was a small portion of my day but it was what impacted me the most because it resulted in self-reflection and introspection. I realise now that I am not above prejudices and neither is anyone else.