“I’ve just lost my wife,” I tell a shop assistant, when he asks how he can help.
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” he says, pretending to be sympathetic. “My condolences, sir.”
“No, no,” I stammer. “You don’t understand. I’ve just lost my wife – a half-hour ago, in this bookshop.”
Just then I spot Suree, browsing through local recipes in the food section.
“It’s okay,” I exclaim. “There she is. I see her now.”
By now the shop assistant is looking seriously alarmed. “Sir,” he says, as if speaking to a very small child, “That is not your wife.”
He is blocking my path, deciding I’m definitely deranged. “There’s nobody there, sir. She’s not there. There’s only a Chinese woman reading a book.”
By now Suree hears the kerfuffle and saunters over. Sheepishly, the shop assistant wanders off.
It’s led to a private joke whenever we visit Exclusive Books, just above the giant Nelson Mandela statue in Johannesburg’s fashionable Sandton precinct. We follow our usual procedure of going our own ways (she to the cookery section and me to African history) and arranging to meet in about an hour in the bookstore’s coffee shop. Then, when I grow bored with browsing, I loudly ask a salesperson:
“Have you seen a Chinese woman in here?” Inevitably, they point to Suree. It used to irritate her at first. Now she finds it rather funny.
Suree left Siem Reap before the Khmer Rouge came to power, to be raised by an aunt in Thailand. I left South Africa, land of my birth where I edited an anti-racist student newspaper, soon after the apartheid regime put me on trial.
At that time I thought I’d never be able to return. These days we live in Australia, but frequently visit each of our former homelands, including frequent trips to Siem Reap.
Post-apartheid, democratic South Africa is a very different country from what it was in the era of racial segregation.
Suree, for instance, still finds it difficult to comprehend that in those days we would not have been allowed to share a hotel room (except at international airports). If we somehow succeeded we’d have faced arrest under the quirkily named Immorality Act.
She finds it strange, too, that Japanese were classified ‘honorary whites’ (because they bought iron ore and needed to base officials in South Africa,) while members of a tiny but long-established local Chinese community were classified as ‘non-whites.’
When Japanese were exempted from apartheid’s indignities, Chinese could see new – though heavily censored – movies at ‘white’ cinemas by claiming to be Japanese.
Box-office staff couldn’t tell the difference, and didn’t want to lose their jobs by offending Japanese customers.
An unintended consequence of official racism is that, even now, serious gaps exist in knowledge of the outside world; a legacy of boycotts and the fact that South African passport-holders weren’t admitted to most countries until apartheid’s demise.
Asian-looking people are still widely assumed, by both black and white, to be Chinese, if they aren’t obviously Indian. Indians are the only Asians with which most South Africans are familiar because the Indian community is one of South Africa’s largest minorities.
Cambodian visitors are rare. By chance, Suree and I meet a Cambodian woman – married to a South African – in the immigration queue at Johannesburg’s airport. She is in transit to the beachside city of Durban where her husband lives and tells Suree she’s never previously met a Cambodian on African soil.
Mind you, Cambodian dancers performed in Rwanda this year. The two countries – one Asian and one African – share recent pasts scarred by mass killings. Suree and I visit a friend at his office in Cape Town. He’s a professor at one of South Africa’s leading universities. We speak about a forthcoming visit to China.
“It must be so easy for you in China,” sighs the professor. “You’re lucky to be travelling with Suree who can speak the language.
When I reveal that Suree doesn’t understand a word of Mandarin – or, for that matter, any other Chinese dialect – the professor is stunned.
“You mean they don’t all speak the same language over there?” he asks. He is taken aback by this weird discovery. I mention that Cambodian is not only different to Chinese, but has its own script. What’s more, nearby Thailand and Myanmar each has its own very dissimilar languages and also distinctive scripts.
The professor looks gobsmacked. “Well, well,” he says. “I’d never have guessed. I knew the Indians speak differently – but not the others.”
The world, he agrees, is – when you think about it – a very large and multilingual place. Mind you, ignorance of the ways of others works both ways.
Small numbers of Cambodian tourists have indeed visited South Africa.
When we meet one of these, she regales us with a tale about her daughter being chased by an angry African hippopotamus.
This potentially fatal encounter could have happened in one of many nations so I ask: “In which country did this happen?”
She rolls her eyes heavenward and says: “You weren’t listening, were you? I’ve just told you – in Africa, of course!”
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Pritchard at [email protected]