Viewing ‘Difference’ Differently

It is not easy living with difference. It can make life difficult.

I have been living in Asia for nearly 2 years. Even though it leads to a colourful Instagram feed, some days I simply want to return home where I understand the people around me, where life is easier and more predictable.

I am tired of having to work on a computer with a Chinese operating system, not understanding a word at the workplace, being pushed around on my morning commute only to find a small space in a a compartment that fills up with a vicious combination of methane-infused farts and garlicy burps. Hong Kong is one of the most populated cities in the world, and in the summer as the humidity rises so does everyone’s tempers. People become intolerant to each other. A lack of bins and an awful recycling system results in streets with mountains of rubbish around which cockroaches perform ritual dances. The majority of the population, similar to myself, live in shoe-box-sized rooms in which you drown under your possessions. There is constant noise from beeping taxis, children playing Candy Crush on their phones and buzzing air conditioners.

These experiences are not pleasant and I was quick to prescribe them to the difference between me and another culture. This was the first step in what Edward Said called ‘Othering’. I was about to tread on a thin line between reinstating racially-charged stereotypes and celebrating difference. Honestly, I struggle with this. I am proud to be from South Africa, perhaps one of the most multicultural nations a true melting pot of food, art, language and music. It is alive with colour and experiences. However, there are times when things go wrong, the colour fades out of the picture and all I am left with is a very black and white image. These times, I am told that ‘we’ are different from ‘them’ and that we will never be the same. I am very skeptical of this tale and I am determined to re-write it without disregarding difference.

I recently watched a public lecture by Naomi Klein which celebrated the work of Edward Said in which she set worth an eye-opening connection between the climate crisis, human rights violations and ‘othering’. As sea level rises and land disappears, as temperatures rises and some areas become intolerable for humans to live on, as floods and droughts become more prominent an increasing number of people will be displaced and forced to move. She states that soon we will live in “a world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.” This crisis is followed by tighter border control, extremist opinions, violent protests, corruption etc. We need only look at our present headlines to realise that this is our present reality. Trump building a wall between himself and tolerant liberal thinking, the Brexit referendum, a Labour MP stabbed to death, violent protests in my hometown Pretoria and corrupt ANC leaders. I fear that as the melting pot heats up we will become greatly intolerant to each other and blame all that goes wrong on difference, especially racial difference.

For now, all I can suggest to myself is to stick it out. Stay in a multicultural city, ensure I am always exposed to difference and I will continue to find enough similarities between me and everyone else to disregard any strain of intolerance.