What you need to know
Returning to Johannesburg after time in Taipei proves a rude awakening.
Take this text for what it is – the highly subjective story of a big switch. I’ll spare you comparisons of public transport infrastructure and grocery store prices, or the romanticized retelling of two cities’ novelties. Let's rather look at how place makes us. Makes us revisit the us we take for granted. Where you are makes up so much of what you are. That's the lesson here, and I’ll get to it.
I lived in Taipei for six years before I traded her in for Johannesburg. In that time, I learned patience. My Taipei cab rides eased me into conversations about race in ways that I did not expect.
Yes, I am very dark.
Nope, not Indian. I’m South African. Yep, Mandela.
My parents are South African, too.
Yes, I’m sure.
What do South Africans look like? Phew. Tough. We’re a little different to Taiwan that way – we’re really diverse, racially.
This would unravel into talk that my Chinese vocabulary couldn’t always keep up with. I’d offer the explanation that darkness didn’t have negative connotations back home – less of a field worker, more of the wealth to vay-cay vibe. Then, chucklesome uproar as the person in the front seat tried to fathom that city-slicking SUV Susan is paying for tanning sessions; while the women of Taipei maintain their lily-white aesthetic with draconian discipline. And from the yellow Taipei taxi, I’d point out the women on scooters – pulling into the shade of street signs and wearing sleeves-sold-separately over their arms, to avoid browning.
There was no hiding that I wasn’t local. When a kid ran up to me in a train station in the southern city of Tainan, rubbed her fingers against my skin and proceeded to sniff them, I laughed. My day was regularly permeated by these curious interactions. People suggesting, helpfully, that I should spend less time in the sun. Promo girls apologetically retreating from my challenging gaze, with their sample sachets of whitening cream. I learned not only to defend being brown but to defend a love of it.
Fast-forward to stepping off the plane into Jozi airport: I stand watching an airport employee sing to herself while flinging fragile luggage into a pile beside the conveyor. The passenger I’m waiting with chucks me the “so what are you?” question that I’d spent the better half of a decade without. In South Africa, my brown is a whole different thing. Brown is balkanized. I stepped back into a role I’d long forgotten. After six years as a “black foreigner”, I was back to being “colored” [the term used to describe those of mixed ethnicity in South Africa]. I actually had to relearn the “South African” identity I’d been espousing, that I thought I had boiled down to an archetypal tale. Back to politely hinting at white privilege in the suburbs. Back to defending the make-it-right demands of the exploited brown kids I’m somehow bound to.
There are a lot of differences between Johannesburg and Taipei, but there are also similarities. Both metropolitan skylines are punctuated by high-rise towers. Taipei 101, erected at the dawn of a new wealth, brags of prosperity from the city’s richest district. By contrast, Johannesburg’s Telkom Tower leans out of Hillbrow – a suburb famed for the kind of hospitality that has Uber drivers turning down pick-ups. So yeah, crime happens in these parts. I awoke, with a jolt, to real poverty. The truths of a place in which the very rich and the very poor coexist, make the stuff of Taiwanese news broadcasts look downright cute. And so, the kind of defending that I’m doing in Johannesburg is very different.
Being hellsa nerdy for the formative years of puberty gifted 20-something me two things: a self-deprecating sense of humor and an acute awareness of the social currency associated with male attention. I hadn’t noticed quite what a major role this libidinal banter played until I found myself without it. When I moved to Taipei, I learned to reassess my sense of self-worth – without a score card of catcalls and lolling up-down eyes. This is an incredible thing for a woman to learn. But it made for a harsh return.
When I first moved to Johannesburg, I noted the dead-eyed, flared nostril expression my female friends would wear when approached by men on the streets.
The arcing hem of short-shorts that allow for just a brim of butt cheek to be visible – these are far less prevalent in Johannesburg than in Taipei, come summer. And there’s a reason for that. The first couple of times I saw a man position his tongue outside of his mouth to lick his lips at me, I thought I must have misunderstood. But no, that’s an actual maneuver that some poor souls consider alluring. When I first moved to Johannesburg, I noted the dead-eyed, flared nostril expression my female friends would wear when approached by men on the street. You know the one. And I thought it was rude. But a couple months down the line I’ve had to wake up to the fact that I’m in a different territory. Far too often men here lean in with an aggression that Italian perfume commercials would have us confuse for passion. The same weekend #MenAreTrash lit up social media, four girlfriends and I found ourselves linking arms, in a safety circle, on a downtown dance floor. And then, even then, some gentlemen we’d each delivered a “no, really no” to, tried spit-shouting their sales pitch between our bobbing heads.
In Jozi I don’t walk, I march. Even when lost, I strut with purpose. And I don’t assume that I can get through everything with a smile and a “healing energy” the way I did in Taipei. Coming home is a lot to deal with. And starting over is more. But there’s something in realizing that there are as many versions of you as there are cities in the world. That transmission, between yourself and your space, will introduce you to the curves of you that you didn’t know were there. I guess that’s the lesson – that switching cities will break and remake you. And for better and worse, you should let it.
TNL Editor: David Green