“Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.” –Lyndon B. Johnson
I continue living life in Johannesburg in my own private psych experiment. I guess I am the experiment—and everyday I learn more about South African culture, fit into it a little bit more…and am a little more heartbroken by how deeply-rooted some of its biggest flaws are.
What were you doing sixteen years ago?
I was four, and so, I was living in my same bedroom, in my parents’ house on Morning Star—the same bedroom I go home to everything Thanksgiving and Christmas. I would have been in preschool at the same church that I still attend, and spent most days tormenting my brother, refusing to put on my socks, and always reading with my parents before bedtime.
Now I skype my parents before I go to bed, they went without me to church yesterday, and I torment my brother less frequently. But here’s my point—sure, I’ve grown up, obviously. But not all that much has really changed for Edmond, or Morning Star…or even for my parents.
Most of the women in my baking class would have been about my age sixteen years ago. Only they wouldn’t have been allowed to be educated past the second grade. No matter what dreams they had, as blacks they wouldn’t have been allowed to run business or professional practices in “white South Africa” without a permit. They were instead forced to move to the black “homelands”. Blacks were denied South African passports, and if they were spotted out past nine p.m., they were simply taken off to jail. Transport and civil facilities, buses, trains, hospitals, and ambulances were segregated. So were public swimming pools, pedestrian bridges, parking spaces, graveyards, parks, public toilets, churches…and cinemas.
So Miky and I went to the cinema on Friday. I booked a hotel in Rosebank (an area of Johannesburg which is not primarily noted for its high rates of crime, drug use, HIV, and unemployment, unlike home-sweet-home) mainly to take a shower, since it had been a week. I invited Miky along for company, because she had never stayed in a hotel before and hadn’t been to the movies in over a year. We bond over the movies, because it’s one of the few things we have a shared past of—American movies have played on her television as long as she’s had one, since…well, no one really makes and distributes movies in South Africa. That was the reason for venturing down the street to the cinema mall—alone, I would have just stayed home…but I thought that Miky would love it. She was unbelievably excited—on Tuesday, Uncle told me that she had come by the orphanage absolutely gushing about the Friday that we were planning together. “Someone is too much excited, Rachel,” he kept saying to me. So around two in the afternoon, we made our way to the little B and B just twenty minutes away from our apartment via taxi, and then the sweet owner drove us to the theatre.
As we were sitting in the seats, Miky stretched out in the dark theatre and said “It’s nice to be free here. I heard there is a theatre in Hillbrow, but that it is not safe to go there. It’s nice to be free.”
“It’s hard to be free in Hillbrow, period, isn’t it? I mean, unless we’re with the kids at the orphanage.”
“Yes…you know, Rachel…I was scared, too, when I moved to Hillbrow. I know you are also scared sometimes.”
I wasn’t particularly in the mood to dwell on unpleasantries…I had come here to be taken away, after all. I wanted to be thrown into Crazy Stupid Love and not back among my harder moments in South Africa, so I made a sort of non-committal grunt.
“It must be hard for everyone to stare at you all the time, when you walk down the street.”
“Because I’m white? Or American…?”
“Yes, because you’re white. It’s hard to be free when everyone staring reminds you that you are different.”
…And then the previews started.
Let me preface this next bit by saying that while we were in a nicer area…we weren’t in a white area. The mall’s population was probably something like 60% black South Africans, and 40% white South Africans. But when the lights came up in the theatre and we began to wander out towards any smells of food that I could follow, I think the 40% (40% more than she had ever been around—except for me, of course) started to close in on Miky.
I tried to be very gentle with Miky being outside of her comfort zone and picked a very unassuming restaurant for dinner. It was seafood-type restaurant specializing in combos of fish-and-chips that served whole assorted platters of their specialties for about $9. When we sat down I touched her hand and said, with my gentlest smile and a squeeze that she needed to get whatever she wanted, my treat, because I had no idea how I would ever begin to thank her for dropping her normal life to move in with me…and how I wanted tonight to be a fun girls’ night to celebrate that we had met, and become such good friends.
She looked at the menu, then up at the people in the restaurant (still sticking to the 60/40 ratio), back down, and her eyes were starting to swim with big, thick tears that her eyelashes’ blink-black attempts were hardly a match for.
“Sweetheart…are you okay? Do you want to go? What’s wrong?”
“No, I am okay…”
“Sweetie, Miky…tell me, what is it? Did I do something? Would you rather go somewhere else?”
(She had told me earlier in the week that first the first time last month she had tasted prawns, shrimp to me, for the first time and they were her new favorite food…which is why we were here…)
“No, I’m just…” She was full-out crying now, and definitely not in a thankful or happy or excited way. Tears were streaming down her cheeks in an I’m-so-unfortable-right-now-this-is-the-only-response-my-body-has-got, Oh-my-God-I-want-to-go-home, get-me-out-of-here kind of way.
Miky and I were close, and I had never seen her like this. Usually no topics were off the table with us, so I didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t speak to me, just kept blinking furiously and looking all around. And then, in a desperate attempt to do something socially acceptable with herself, she forced out—“so, I am looking at scholarships for graduate school.”
Um, okay? I guess I can pretend that everything’s cool and, um, “Oh, yeah? Where have you been looking so far?”
Eventually her tears subsided and I thought we were going to roll over this when the waiter came to take our order (I think he, wisely, had given us some extra time to decide). Then Miky said to me, quietly, “Is it okay…I will just eat at K.F.C.” She had the saddest, most uncomfortable look in eyes. But it was the same way that I might say to my roommates—“no, no, it’s fine…you guys go ahead and go to dinner if you had plans, and I’ll just stay here because I need to study anyway…”, before they say—“No, Rach, get up. You’re coming.” And I don’t fight them, because of course they’re much better company than my chemistry books.
Finally I understood that Miky needed more reassurance. Looking back, I’m not sure that she had ever eaten in a sit-down restaurant that wasn’t strictly fast-food. I naively thought I had covered this with my initially sappy, thanks-for-being-my-friend comments and then tried to let it alone so not to embarrass her, but…now I understood.
I offered to ditch the place altogether and get take-out. Or order food from the safety of our hotel room…or skip dinner in favor of her favorite coconut biscuit cookies and tea. But because I’ve learned that it’s a little better to…well, finish, awkward situations, in the end I convinced her that we should share a seafood platter and salads. I told her that I was craving prawns.
By the end of dinner she was back to normal. And she whispered to me, “You know how, before, you asked if I was okay?”
Hmm, let me think was this that time last week when we you seemed down…? Oh. You mean the giant elephant in the room all through this dinner.
“You know how you feel when everyone stares at you in Hilbrow? That…that is how I felt tonight.”
No one was staring at Miky—I know, because I had been noting and actually enjoying the rare ability to blend that night. But I know that feeling, trust me, I know that feeling…and could finally relate to Miky’s panic attack. I squeezed her hand again and tried to my best to relate to her my empathy—and then, move on with the night.
After dinner, we went back to hotel where Miky picked out several mini-bar drinks and snacks quickly, saying “I want this,” as she picked them up and I obligingly dropped the money into the basket. She grabbed the remote control, flipped immediately to the South African soap opera which I’m subjected to each and every night, and turned up the volume past a courteous level. And didn’t make conversation.
A little stunned at the one-eighty, I quietly walked away to brush my teeth, and then skyped with my friend Natalie as Miky fell asleep. In the morning, Miky slept much later than usual and took nearly two hours in the bathroom so that we almost missed breakfast (something I worried about at the nine-room B and B, knowing that the kind owner had prepared ours especially). But after she emerged, she didn’t touch her breakfast—just cautiously read the labels on each of the unfamiliar jams and butters served with toast. And then, as she gathered her things and I prepared to move into the only room available for the next night, a single, she declared suddenly that she had had the best time of her life. She was smiling grandly as I put her into a taxi and waved as she drove away…dumbfounded.
It shocks me that, in this day and age, black and white twenty-year-old girls can’t have a dinner out together without need of a therapy session. The socio-economic and racial divide between Miky and I had always been evident to me…I just thought that, after more than three weeks together, we had started to shut it out from our shared sanctuary. I thought, in our time alone in our bedroom, we were moving so much deeper in our friendship that that stuff was not as important. But I think that last Friday, Miky realized for the first time just how different our skin and economic status had made our pasts—how it was likely to affect our futures—and suddenly she found herself wondering what the hell she was doing with me in the present.
I wouldn’t have known how to react, either. Let’s face it—I don’t. I’m praying about it, though.
To be continued…
P.S. If you’re looking for matter-of-fact updates on the baking program, I hope you’ve figured out that I’m easily distracted, fascinated, introspective, and not good at getting to the point—and well, given up reading, because I’m not likely to change. But here are some highlights from the week:
-I spent lots of good time with Shamima and Divine especially this week. Shamima is opening up more and more I found myself so relived to hear that she’s going off to boarding school in December rather than staying here with her aunt.
-I made pizza with the kids, which they claimed was one of their favorite foods prior to class. But they kept peppering me with, “Is it a strawberry pizza?!” and so I wasn’t shocked to find out from Uncle that, with its expensive ingredients, this favorite is shared maybe only once every year or two. We made four pizzas from scratch and they were absolutely delicious! The kids ate, and loved, every bite.
-About five more women have joined my baking class. They’ve been quiet, but welcome, additions.
-It’s now traditional for the women and I to gather around to the oven while the bread bakes, warming our hand over a full-powered stove-top burning and discussing everything from Beyonce’s pregnancy to Maria’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer, to baby Miranda’s Portuguese father, to how amazingly soft my hair continues to be. We are officially girlfriends.