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Carefully explaining to Chinese in Shanghai what it meant to grow up in the old South Africa

‘I was brought up on the back of a black woman,’ I said to my dumbfounded audience. I pointed to the picture on the screen in my power point presentation. It showed a black woman with a traditional African kaross on her back, in which was sleeping her baby while she worked in the fields.

I had been invited to give a lecture at the Shanghai University of Engineering and Science and was told I would be addressing the English Department, which included people who held doctorates and master’s degrees in Applied Linguistics, Translation and so forth. “All the big cheeses”, I commented to Marion that night over dinner while I pondered what lecture to give such an erudite audience.

I decided to stick to familiar ground: explaining my experience of South Africa. It proved to be challenging and self-revelatory to explain to a Chinese audience what it was like to grow up as a child in the apartheid era. All that water under the bridge turned out to be a quaint tale for them. It never struck me as peculiar to explain my upbringing, for example sleeping as a baby on a black woman’s back. But of course it most certainly is when you step away from that upbringing to explain it to an utterly foreign audience, many of whom had not been outside China or out of the East. Here goes:

“So the bitter irony of that time is black people could not live in the same areas as white people, but many of us were raised on the backs of black women, a surrogate mother. “She cooked for us and fed us, clothed us, changed our nappies, even scolded and slapped bums when we were naughty. This is while our real mothers were away at work. But in the evenings these black nanny-mothers ‘disappeared’, went back to live in what were called ‘locations’. Inevitably, some white babies and toddlers developed a pre-conscious and intimate relationship with these faceless mamas. I tried to capture that in the following poem I wrote, the first part of a sequence called ‘The Faces’:

I never knew your face in infancy.
From the earliest I was slung, frog-like
Against your back, a warm stoep on which I slurred
In and out of sleep, drowsing in the jostle
Of your hips. You often chattered loudly to others
Who smelled the same:
The soap in linen, heated milk in bottles.
It was a conversation I still
Don’t understand, unlike the language
Of my infant body pressed to yours,
Or your deep, black arms,
Where I was raised in the rhythm
Of being picked up and held and placed down.

One day our family left forever. From the back
Of the car my hand waved, pale and small.
Your raised arm and smile were a blur.
That was the day
You first had a face.
It opened, because,
After the car and goodbyes had disappeared,
You must have wept. I know you did. I wept.

To be continued …