On the monkey bars of our enormous, modern duplex of a playground in the fifth grade, I can distinctly remember swinging and falling down for hours a day, sandbark in my knees, grass in my hair – as usual there’s only my best friend Bec and I. Perfectly self-sufficient in our competitiveness, we impressed each other easily. We climbed, came back bruised, and had a complete monopoly over the structure. Bec had a white-blond undercut; I was impressively chubby and we both had motorbikes. For some reason this innocent memory came to me one morning last week while I was sitting at the back of a stinky classroom watching a seminar on motivating stinky teenagers.
But in the periphery of the sweet little lunchtime scene lingers a pretty embarrassing and sinister memory. The complete memory includes a circle of five girls standing impertinently in the background of our harmonious playground. An uncomfortable circle with their heads down or cocked, and dramatic looks of concern in their mournful eyes. They were waiting for me to perform a task they’d assigned and I was going to cave to their demands because I wanted to be their friend.
In the past week I have once again, although for the first time in my adult life, had to repeat the conversation I had with one of the girls who stood unknowingly in the circle in the playground. She’d been singled out by the tallest and dumbest girl in the group as destructive to their cohesion and I’d been arbitrarily delegated to let her know the decision. I called her away from the group, broke the news and felt the bottom of my stomach lining drop as her face crumpled like crepe paper. I returned to the group, expecting a knowing smirk or maybe a nod.
“Steph, why the hell did you say that, it’s not even true…”
I stood and felt my own face crumple.
This time, the repeat of the conversation was with a pretty damn charming fully grown Russian man. Unsurprisingly, I’d arrived at the realization of the importance of this life-ejection completely independently of sadistic junior school bullies. I met him in a bar in Guangzhou and we became pretty fast friends after sharing a few gin and soda buckets, and listening to Shaggy and Sean Kingston for three hours. Unfortunately, in this initial bonding I didn’t quite pick up on why he seemed completely disgusted by Shaggy, reggae, Jean Seburg and the African-expat suburb of Xiao Bei. I assumed he was a crap, self-conscious dancer, wasn’t into “Paint Your Wagon” and had a dislike of road-side street food (which is probably wise in a city famous for “gutter oil”). Then again, I guess I also don’t usually occupy my spare thought-space on the lookout for white supremacists in local Chinese bars.
Even in a country where racism is absolutely integrated into social psyche, meeting someone who openly flashes a Russian National Socialist Party membership card is pretty weird. It’s one of those organizations like the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church who have such a comical and peripheral presence on the international political forum that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were mostly media hype. The only thing I knew about the Russian National Socialist Party however wasn’t so comical, and I felt that same sense of a shift in reality that I felt watching the Sixth Sense for the first time when I was 10. That knowledge that things couldn’t be the same and something wasn’t right, once because Haley Joel Osment a) was a boy with a girls name and b) could see dead people, and now because I’d actually met someone I’d considered sane and yet simply couldn’t be. He must have witnessed the media obliterate the RNSP in 2007 when they claimed responsibility for a video titled “Execution of a Tajik and a Dagestani” which showed a 23 year old Russian man beheading a man from Russia's mainly Muslim Dagestan region, and 20 year old Tajikistani. He would have been roughly my age (18) when it happened. The thought that this could have contributed at least vaguely to the formation of his ideological structure as it was on mine left me pretty much stupefied.
A few months ago, I hunted down a gallery in the Original Element creative industries design centre in Liwan district to attend an exhibition on the African community of Xiao Bei. Since China opened its doors in the late 1990’s, the community has grown to above 10, 000 and is quite literally like entering an entirely new country. There are Ethiopian Airlines offices along the main road, halal butchers with freshly decapitated mutton heads sitting on the stoop, cafes selling plantains, grilled fish and beans and eyebrow threading salons everywhere. Even the shapes of the mannequin’s bottom halves triple in size. On the side of the dirt paths weaving through the marketplace, Nigerian and Namibian women sit together wiping up chicken pieces with flatbread from steel plates with babies crawling across their backs and laps. Not a chopstick in sight. It’s one of my absolute favourite places to be in Guangzhou.
The gallery hosting the exhibition was a tiny red-brick room dotted with light boxes displaying clear and striking images of kids playing around the high school on Xiao Bei Lu. If you didn’t see the Chinese characters on the pink tiled buildings behind their posed bodies, you might never know this was China. The point of the exhibition hit me instantly: they barely did live in China. The next suburb east is populated mostly with Turkish and Middle Eastern import-export tradesmen, but that, as a recently de-gentrified area, is frequented by many Cantonese locals and Han residents for its western restaurants and bars. Before I moved here, I read a random article that claimed China was in the top 5 of the most racist countries in the world for African travellers; a claim supported by the fact the Xiao Bei border is a complete no-go zone. It’s as if it is exists completely independently of the outside world of dumplings, chickens feet, red lanterns and C-Stores. .
In so many ways, the deregulation, unpredictable and interpretable legal status of so many aspects of China and the spontaneous creativity that this so often results in, supports my values completely. So this is how it happened that I had to confront the flip-side of something’s ability to be freely interpreted, and potentially to also face my stubborn inability to accept the multitude of these interpretations. It’s two o’clock in the morning, the night after I discover the membership card. I’m home chatting vacantly on WeChat (popular Chinese social media platform) and I get a message: “You should learn to respect peoples’ beliefs. Respect my Nazism”. Firstly, I’m impressed by the level of his English. Secondly, I’m equally facetious and curious, and got sucked right into the trap. A pointless argument ensued, but his next claims were almost as confounding as the situation itself. In response to a claim that I come from an intelligent race of anti-interbreeding white folk, I asked him why he lives in China if white racial purity is desirable to him. “China supports my values” he replied.
I guess that makes two of us.
Image source: StarDestroyer.NetBBS