April 26, 2009

Chinese Fascination

The past week has been a strange Chinese filled adventure. I've been given a full sponsorship to go study on a Summer School program in Beijing and I've participated in the Chinese Bridge competition for foreign language students.

I study Mandarin at Stellenbosch University in South Africa just to inform you peeps how/why I do all this. Eastern culture really fascinates me: you can read a detailed account here. When a few us Stellenbosch students went to the University of Western Cape to take part in the Chinese Bridge competition, (Bridge is used figuratively here. As in build a bridge across cultures) I experienced something strange.

One of the judges of the competition was on the bus with us, but I've never seen her in the department before. So she must have been from somewhere else. As we were driving past the Cape Flats and Khayelitsha (a big slum suburb in Cape Town filled with tightly packed shacks), the Chinese women took out her camera and in stereotypical Asian fashion started taking pictures of the shacks.

Perhaps it might just Asian curiosity, or the fact that it might be so strange to them, but I couldn't help but feel ashamed and surprised. Here a Chinese woman was taking pictures of the worst part of Cape Town, happily documenting it to perhaps show her friends or reminisce when she leaves the country.

We often drive past these shacks and find ourselves indifferent towards this blotch on the landscape, but it's usually the first thing foreigners notice when they ride out of Cape Town airport. The Chinese woman made me confused. I kept wondering why she would do it. Whatever the reason, it gave me a new perspective. It reminded me of a poem we did in highs chool, Decomposition by Zulfikar Ghase. It explained the trouble a photographer went through when he was taking photos of a weak homeless man. I quote two stanzas:

Behind him, there is a crowd passingly

bemused by a pavement trickster and quite

indifferent to this very common sight

of an old man asleep on the pavement

and,

His head in the posture of someone weeping

into a pillow chides me now for my

presumption at attempting to compose

art out of his hunger and solitude.


The Chinese woman might not realize it, but she in fact took pictures at a cost. However, just like the photographer in the poem it also made me realize how much we take things for granted. "Ag, bloody hell, not more shacks, what's on the radio? Play some 5fm," might be our usual response when driving past Khayelitsha, but to the Chinese woman it was sight to take back and capture. A different perspective from another totally different culture made me realize South Africa's own poverty stricken culture again. I was blind as I'm not one those affected by AIDS, poverty, health and crime. If South Africa needs to fix itself, it needs more outsiders to show us our flaws, as many South Africa have become indifferent and couldn't care less.

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