Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

‘I’m a racist. You’re a racist. Let’s talk.’ Bzzt! Wrong answer (part 2)

The second in a series

The woman with whom I am sharing the lift as we descend to the ground floor of our apartment building is a complete stranger.

I reach across and touch her clothing: gently pull at the blouse on her waist area. She keeps smiling at me, nodding. I smile back, as inquisitive as her. I reach out and touch the sleeve of her shirt, pulling again at it slightly, smiling at her all the time, both of us nodding now and then.

Our apartment is on the 22nd floor. It takes a while for the old elevator to reach the bottom. I stare at her, allowing my eyes to go up and down her shape, looking at her clothing, the loosely tied belt, the calloused sandals. She does the same: her eyes lingering on my chest and legs; this is because, I suppose, Han Chinese rarely have any body hair.

“Have you had breakfast?” I ask in Chinese.

“Yes, I have,” she replies. “And you? Have you eaten?”

“Yes, I have, thanks. Bacon and eggs. I really like that.”

“You speak Chinese very well,” she says, raising her eyebrows to show surprise and praise.

Nale, nale,” I reply (tough one to translate: literally nale means “where”? but we could parse it into meaning “not at all” in English).

She chuckles at my use of the traditional, self-effacing phrase, nale nale used in response to praise. The lift doors hiss open and we go our separate ways. We still don’t even know each other’s names.

That was, to some extent, a classic Chinese way of greeting and dealing with Chinese on first contact. The “touch thing” can be much more lavish outside Shanghai when it comes to foreigners’ bodies, because there is just so much more hair on many Westerners. And Westerners look so different.

I bet 2 000 bucks that many of you readers initially thought I was checking out her body, or at least appraising the “merchandise”, and some of you thought I was reducing her to an object (come on, at least the thought took a brief trot through your minds). Bzzzt! You’re wrong: I win.

I bet the same amount of money that at least some readers felt that, when I touched this woman I did not know at all, I was invading her space, thus othering her and advancing the cause of victimising and disrespecting women. Bzzzt! Wrong again: I win. I could get rich on this blog.

When I first arrived in China, the Chinese used to walk over and pat and stroke my belly. Man, that freaked me. By their standards I am large and fat. What Westerners perceive as a normal build the average Chinese sees as fat. (Oh, I can lose some weight, let me be honest.) I would indignantly slap away their hands and tell them to f-off. They would laugh, maybe try touching me again. Or they’d walk over and examine me from head to toe, constantly staring at the unusual sight of a waiguoren, a foreigner. They just don’t have the same sense of “space” — the word I used above — that South Africans and other Westerners have.

I would be sitting in a taxi and the driver would lean over and sensuously caress my hairy arm. The little finger on his hand had the obligatory, three-inch, tapered finger nail. He was lucky he didn’t go through the window on his side of the car. At that precise moment: hell yeah, I was being a racist, you’re a goddam racist because of the way you’re treating me and if you don’t take your bloody paw off my body I am going to grab the steering wheel and we’re going straight smack-bam into that tree over there, you got me?

But nowadays, nearly four years later? If “they” want to come over and touch and stare and marvel at my resemblance to the Buddha, that’s OK. I will tousle his hair, comment on her lovely dress by stroking it (oh, not in the private areas, of course). Or pull lightly at a sleeve.

So now, today in China, in these situations, what have we got? We’ve got: I’m not a racist (sort of), you’re not a racist (sort of, I think), we can talk, even touch, use the traditional ching-chong respectful greeting of asking if you have had lunch or dinner, depending on the time of the day. Mere hellos and howzits are abstract, meaningless.

The touch thing in the elevator story above took place about a year ago and was something of an experiment. I had become more or less used to being sometimes touched, stroked and patted by passing-by Chinese. I wondered what would happen if I touched this female stranger. She didn’t flinch, didn’t move back, just kept on staring at me and smiling. And nodding. The nod is repeated: not the curt, one-off acknowledgement with the axe-like, chopping chin in South Africa. In China the repeated nod is an ongoing respect for your presence.

Chinese, most particularly the “lower” class, the world of maids, street sweepers, veggie sellers and construction workers, just don’t have much feel for private space. Their identity is their community, not their egos.

They are the brown-skins, as I affectionately call them. Their egos are marginalised. By “ego” I mean the self created from early childhood with which we come to identify as the only perceivable reality, which is an illusion.

From infancy we start to identify ourselves with the contents of our thinking, not realising there is a wealth of other “realities” into which we just don’t tap. As we develop into adulthood we don’t question our cultural baggage and subconscious prejudices. We don’t even see them as prejudices. In my elevator story above, many readers would have been initially somewhat shocked, or at least surprised by my mishandling of an anonymous woman.

I shouldn’t have touched her. I shouldn’t have stared at her. I should have left her alone, alone, alone …

“Don’t stare, dear. Don’t point at him, my boy, that’s rude,” our mothers would “rightly” admonish us. Don’t touch; it’s not yours.

Chinese, particularly in the “lower” class, are not puffed up with self-importance and “me, myself and that’s mine”, which rolls off most Western children’s lips all too often. The brown-skin Chinese are far more ego-less and don’t have the “don’t touch me”, estranging nature of the white South African and other Western egos.

On that’s mine: bawled by Western children. Many times I have seen a Chinese child with her grandfather in the street markets of Shanghai and she will ask for a chocolate drink kids just love here. The drink comes with little chunks of fruit gum inside, so the child has the pleasure of chewing and swallowing at the same time. “Can I have one?” the little mite will ask grandpa, face radiant with expectancy.

‘Too expensive,” says grandpa. The drink costs about R2.

The child completely accepts this, “drops ego” and the two walk off.

Now imagine trying to say: “No, you can’t have a cool drink, go get some water in the rest room,” to most white South African kids, at least in the northern suburbs of Jo’burg. There will be tantrums and floods of tears. “Give me, that’s mine! I WANT it!

And so the ego slowly and sadly develops a diminished sense of self: a set of prejudices, narrow perceptions and self-defeating preoccupations with ownership of which the real person behind the ego, and the ego per se, are not aware.

Most Chinese people have very little in the way of material things. I don’t want to romanticise the picture: they just often strike my wife and me as completely at peace with themselves and the world around them.

Take old Li Hao who runs a little shop outside the gate of our apartment building. The shop is the size of a glorified phone booth. Li Hao is a brown-skin, usually shirtless in the blanket-wet summers, and sits in the middle of the small road with his mates at a rickety table playing cards, cigarettes endlessly dangling from their mouths, bickering and betting. When I stroll past he and I enquire about meals had or not had, how school was today, while he gets up and goes over to his box-sized supermarket to get me Cokes or whatever. He does get grumpy sometimes. He then might hawk up a lump of phlegm, spit on the road like many Shanghaiese, and go back to his card table.

At night he goes to a fandian, a cheap restaurant, across the road to get his dinner and then goes back to watch TV in his box-sized supermarket and tend to customers, mostly pengyou, friends.

Li Hao does not have a care in the world.

Li Hao’s face has wrinkled the right way: upwardly streaming laughter wrinkles, not downwardly furrowed, sallow creeks of gimme, that’s mine, and, don’t tell me I am a racist, you’re one and I am not in denial. Don’t stare. And don’t touch me.