Sunday, January 22, 2012

on being asian in namibia

새해 복 많이 받으세요! Happy Lunar New Year!

When I moved to Africa, I brought with me one pack of 맛있는 ramen (literally, delicious brand) and one pack of Chappaghetti, an instant noodle version of my favourite Korean dish 자장면. I figured that Korean comfort food might not be readily available in Namibia, so my plan was to eat the Chappaghetti as a treat on Christmas and the ramen on my birthday. As it turned out, I was in Cape Town over the holidays so I got to eat real Korean food – kimchi chigae – so I decided to save my Korean instant noodles until I had a bad day, like if I got robbed or something

(and so now the Chappaghetti has been consumed...)

“Per capita, South Koreans consume the greatest amount of instant noodles.”

Being Korean in Namibia is a very unique experience, although not a lot of people realize that my experiences are sometimes different from theirs. I don’t, for example, share my foreigner friends’ concerns about being mistaken for an Afrikaner or a German Namibian. When I walk the streets alone, I get a very different form of street harassment than my girl friends do, although nobody ever knows about it because it only happens when I’m alone. When I first arrived in Namibia, I wrote a little about my impressions of being Asian in Namibia. Now that I’ve been here for a bit longer, I can expand on this a bit further. It seems particularly suitable to do it now that today is the Lunar New Year, one of the biggest holidays to celebrate in many Asian countries.

are you the only Korean in Namibia?
Sometimes I feel like I am. I am being told, however, that I am not. I have been told that there are some North Korean workers here, and one woman named Jin-Seng who sells kimchi. I have been given her number, but I am too shy to call her up, even at the worst of my kimchi cravings.

then how do you get your kimch fix?
There is a small shop in the Hidas centre run by a young Taiwanese couple. The kimchi is at best okay. It’s not made with the proper nappa cabbage and it’s nothing close to what my grandmother makes. But it’s better than nothing...sometimes. Sometimes nothing is actually better.

Who are the other Asians in Namibia?
I read this great book over the holidays called “A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa” written by Yoon Jung Park (who is Korean). It follows the history of Chinese people in South Africa, from the indentured workers and shopowners who arrived centuries ago, to the Chinese communities dealing with apartheid laws only two decades ago. There actually is a significant Chinese population in South Africa that has been here for several generations, and many of these people consider themselves to be Chinese-South African, or sometimes more South African than Chinese.

Namibia does not seem to have a similar Chinese community that has been here for many generations. However, China in general has a large business presence in Africa, so there are actually a lot more Chinese labourers and businessmen in Namibia than you’d expect. Most of them are straight from China, and they seem to generally stick to themselves. This is probably why Namibians assume I am Chinese, and why they are so surprised that I speak English.

My understanding is that there used to be quite a few Malaysian factory workers here, although I don't know if they're still around.

I met two friendly young Asian-Americans working for the American embassy here, named Anna and Steve. They are the only second generation Asians I have met here. They were the ones who told me about the existence of the kimchi-seller in Namibia.

how do Namibian men behave towards young Asian women?
I think straight Namibian men have a secret game that they play that is similar to our game Punchbuggy. In Punchbuggy, every time you see a yellow VW car, you have to punch your friend while yelling “Punchbuggy!” In this game that Namibian men play, every time you see a young Asian woman, you have to yell “CHINA!” at them, possibly punctuated by offensive ape-like sounds that you think imitates the Chinese language.

It’s either a game where you score points, or it’s a bizarre medical condition similar to Tourette’s Syndrome where the sight of a young Asian woman shuts off an otherwise perfectly normal Namibian man’s brain, and produces ticks that involuntarily force to exclaim “China!” and a series of socially inappropriate words.

Sometimes it does seem like an involuntary tick. Once when a security guard did it to me, I turned around and demanded to him, “What did you just call me?” and he had the most surprised look on his face, as though he too was surprised at the words that came out of his mouth. Although he might have just been surprised that I spoke English.

What complicates things is that Afrikaners will sometimes use the word “My China” to mean “my friend”.

This has resulted in me having no motivation to ever do my hair, wear makeup, or wear properly fitting gender-appropriate clothes. If I can have Namibian men yell at me that they want to marry me because I am beautiful, when I am slumping around town in a men’s baseball cap, yesterday’s ponytail, thick glasses and my dad’s swimming drunks, I have no reason to ever try to look decent.

How do the other Namibians behave?
Creepy male strangers on the street aside, I have found most of the Namibians I’ve met and hung out with to be enlightened, polite, and respectful to me. When they ask where I am from, I say “Canada”, and they accept that as an answer, rather than pester me to reveal where I’m really, really from like the way some white Canadians do to me back at home. They don’t generally address my race unless I bring it up first, which is how I like it. This may be because the Namibians that I meet are the ones who are used to making friends with tourists and foreigners. It may also be because I have awesome Namibian friends.

Some Namibian women have asked me to give them my hair when I leave Namibia, because they really like my hair and would like to turn them into extensions. I find this to be quite flattering.

where can you buy asian groceries?
I mainly get my Asian ingredients from the Taiwanese store. There is a “Chinatown” in the Northern Industrial District, but it’s rather far and out of the way, and I haven’t had a chance to go yet.

I have also found out how to buy tofu in Namibia. Basically I go through the Taiwanese couple, placing an order beforehand. The tofu orders come once a week, on Mondays, and I have to rush there after work in order to get my pre-ordered week's supply of tofu before the store closes. It's kind of hardcore. I've started ordering tofu for my friends too, because it's such a pain-in-the-butt process, and have become somewhat of a tofu dealer in Windhoek.

where can you eat asian food?
There are two Chinese restaurants that I know of in Windhoek. One is the Yang Tze Village in Klein Windhoek. My Namibian friends tell me that the Chinese gang members meet in the private rooms here on Sunday evenings. My white friends don’t like the food here, but this may be because they are ordering from the menu, which I never do. I find that if you have a simple craving for Chinese take-out, this place can hit the spot. One of the owners is a Chinese-Canadian from Vancouver, and I have somehow gotten on a first name basis with their daughter, who likes to talk about how much she wants to go back to Vancouver, and how she can’t believe that I’d voluntarily move to Namibia out of my own free will. She lets me order off the menu.

The other Chinese restaurant is a fancier looking one called Chez Wou at the country club. I know. When you think “Chinese restaurant”, you don’t usually think “country club” or anything starting with “Chez”. But it makes sense here. With all the Chinese businessmen investing in building projects around the country, I guess they want a nice place to have meetings and entertain their guests, and what better place than a Chinese restaurant at a country club? This may also explain why there is a casino here as well. I like this place a lot too, and would probably eat here more often if it wasn't so far away at the country club and so dangerously close to a casino.

There are rumours of an Indian restaurant somewhere in Windhoek. Nobody knows where it is. I suspect it has been shut down.

do you feel more Asian in Namibia?
Yes. Partly because of how strangers perceive me, but also the acute lack of my parents’ Korean food every night. Also, although many Namibians seem to view me as being white, I often experience feeling like I have a different identity from my white friends in terms of certain attitudes (and, dare I joke, dance moves?). This is somewhat unusual because in Ottawa, I don’t have a terribly strong sense of being Korean. Moving here, however, has amplified it quite a bit. Post-apartheid Namibia is one big identity crisis for all of us.

I did, however, have one interesting race-related experience with a taxi driver.

cab driver: "I want to meet a nice coloured girl. What tribe are you from?"

me: "er...tribe of Canada?"

cab driver, miraculously still not clueing in that I'm not part black: "Oh, I see. I've been looking to marry a coloured girl, you see. Are you married?"

me: "Yes, I am married." (Awkward pause) "Why do you want to marry a coloured girl? Do you find them to be pretty?"

cab driver: "Well, you see, I drive this taxi all day so I have back problems. So I'm can't really please a woman."

me: "I understand." (I didn't actually understand) "Well, I think this is my stop, I'm going to go now." Gloria steps into traffic.

This was the first time, but oddly enough not the only time, that I was mistaken for a coloured girl (part black, part white) in Namibia. It felt almost refreshing to be noticed for once as a coloured girl, rather than as a China.

Got more questions on the topic? Ask me! Maybe I'll answer. Or maybe I won't. Chances are I might not, since my laptop was stolen. But ask away anyway!