Being a black woman in Asia

2019-06-03 10:15
Vuyelwa Mtolo hails from Pietermaritzburg and, after a year interning at The Witness, she is teaching English as a foreign language to pupils in Taiwan.

Vuyelwa Mtolo hails from Pietermaritzburg and, after a year interning at The Witness, she is teaching English as a foreign language to pupils in Taiwan.

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So I’ve been sitting and pondering on how to actually begin writing about my experiences teaching English as a second language in Taiwan so far; so I’ll begin where I begin because beginnings happen everyday.

My friends, who are native English teachers in Asia, had told me so many stories about what it’s like being a black young woman in Asia.

Most of them spoke on the expensive lifestyle one can fall into, the culture shock and hair problems: “There are very limited and expensive places to do your hair”, “You will miss the food at home”, “You may find yourself overspending because there is just so much to see and do.”

Just as I was started to admire the tall buildings, the cleanliness of the streets, the scooter system and the huge number of 7-Eleven stores, I was also feeling small, scared and worried that I had not seen one black face walk by.

I was beginning to feel like I didn’t belong; there were just too many heads turning the minute I walked out of that hotel room. It was worse on the streets!

I remember when my training group (who have now become friends) and I went to get our Taiwanese sim cards —  there was a man who looked like he was taking a photo of us walking down the street. Only when I went past him did I realise that he was actually taking a video, and I happened to be walking in the front.

My friends did warn me. They did say: “People will take photos of/with you on the streets, and want to touch your hair.” I was ready for that, or so I thought.

You know, I can’t really explain the feeling when randoms just take pictures of you and look so fascinated and marvel at how you were created — the feeling of resembling a zoo animal ... thoughts of how my ancestors felt when they were paraded and sold during slavery.

I am not a tourist attraction; I’m a human being too.

The worst day came when we were at a night market. I really didn’t want to go because I knew I was going to turn heads. A part of me said I should enjoy turning heads and being “famous”, but I didn’t like how the fame was bestowed upon me.

I was busy eating a kebab, or meat on a stick, some would say. And just so you know, I still have no idea what animal I ate, but it was very good.

I turned around to find two grown men taking pictures of me and smiling ridiculously. I was really so annoyed at their smirks, but decided to give them a show; I smiled. They said thank you. They left. I wanted to die ... I just acted like a zoo animal; perform for the people ... great show, they loved you.

I’m probably thinking way too much of this, but everybody is entitled to their feelings and opinions. Just imagine walking in the street and having people snap pictures and take videos of you walking, just walking. Now imagine that everyday. You probably would also dread stepping out of your apartment.

What also sucked was going to Hong Kong, the capital fashion of Asia, to have people do the same thing — stare and take pictures. I mean Hong Kong is densely populated by foreigners (white people), at least where I was (city central), but people still made me feel like a zoo animal.

That didn’t stop me though, from exploring, getting lost and asking directions. However, I still preferred my room to walking outside; maybe I’m just an indoors type of person.

Am I being too hard with my judgment of street journalists? (I call them that because they are like paparazzi; very annoying. I still wonder what they do with the pictures and videos they take. Maybe they also blog “my first African encounter”, hahaha.)

Well, what I do know is that I have not seen a black South African take pictures of any Chinese* person walking the streets. It’s true, I haven’t been everywhere in South Africa, but I am from the hood, and even with low literacy levels, we don’t hype up and start snapping away. Maybe our reasoning is due to the low levels of literacy, or the fact that not everyone has a smartphone ... Nah.

I do know that when I was 10 years old, and I saw my first Chinese* human, I asked him if he knew karate.

How ironic, haha.

I guess it’s a similar thing you know, when they ask us about HIV and living with lions, etc. (But I mean it’s only logical that lions are wild animals so we can’t live with them because they would eat us — rolls eyes and sighs.)

But I was only 10. My mother (may her soul rest in peace) and grandmother certainly have better things to do with their lives than take pictures of Chinese* people.

Heck! We see Chinese* people everywhere in town, and Pakistanis — you can always get bargain prices for whatever you’re buying, and that’s why we love them.

Then there’s the bus that I take to and from work. This one bus driver was so excited when he saw me, that he started making conversation, but I had no idea what he was saying, and I honesty just wanted to sit down because I could feel so many eyes on my shoulders.

He was sweet though, just like that other guy who was checking my visa at the airport (I should’ve asked for his number, he was really cute, lol).

But that’s another thing about Taiwan, besides the stares and photographs, everybody is so generous and kind.

Well, maybe they are generous and kind to me, but I would also be super generous and kind to a cool traveller like myself.

The weather! OMW the weather —  that’s a story for another day.

There’s just so much I want to write, but I won’t put it all in one story.

After all my venting is done, I will start writing about my experiences in chronological order, why? So that all my venting can be pieced together, and because I want to.

Note: * I am at this point classifying all Taiwanese and mainland China residents, as Chinese.

• Vuyelwa Mtolo hails from Pietermaritzburg and, after a year interning at The Witness, she is teaching English as a foreign language to pupils in Taiwan.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis
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