“Are you connected to the wifi?”
Startled, I turned around to see a redheaded white man standing next to me. His eyes were sunken into freckled cheeks.
In between a morning tourist activity and a lunchtime yoga class, I got into a routine of sitting at the window bar seats at a restaurant in City Centre, people watching, and drinking a smoothie. I replied to him, “What? No.” I was connected to the internet but wasn’t sure what he meant by the wifi—the restaurant’s, probably? I was also nervous that there was a stranger talking to me.
He quickly fired, “How do you get around the city? Do you take Uber?” This time I noticed that he had an American accent.
After a back-and-forth that felt like it lasted 10 minutes, I asked, “Wait, why are you asking me this?”
This man, whose name was George and who was visiting Cape Town from Toronto, went on to tell me about how he and his three friends were taking a minibus from town to Stellenbosch, and all of their belongings were stolen by the minibus drivers. He rambled that, without their phones and wallets, they were trying to find a way to get to the Canadian embassy several miles from the city.
I connected the dots. Stellenbosch, a city known for its wine tours, restaurants, and also a university, is about a 40-minute drive from Cape Town, and this group of Canadians took a minibus there. The minibus operators—usually there’s a driver and then someone who collects the fare—stopped the vehicle, told the passengers (the four Canadians) to get off in the middle of the road, probably threatening to hurt them, and drove off with their luggage.
Some of the dots, however, didn’t connect.
South African minibuses are large vans, generally white, that take people to and from different areas around Cape Town. Unlike city buses and other forms of public transportation, minibuses are largely unregulated, and despite signage that reads a preteen maximum passenger limit, from experience, upwards of 20 people will be crammed onto one vehicle to maximize profit.
To my understanding, minibuses pick up and drop off passengers along the road wherever it’s requested, although there are also marked bus stops, and people just kind of know where the different routes will take you. At least, I haven’t seen a map showing where all the minibus routes are, and I’m only familiar with the ones that travel along the Main Road. They’re colloquially referred to as taxis, although what Americans generally recognize as “taxicabs” also operate in the city. In general, minibuses are the means of transportation for the working class. The fare is somewhere around 7 to 20 South African rands, approximately 60 cents to 1.5 dollars in US currency. I’ve seen a few foreign tourists on minibuses, but they are predominantly used by black South Africans.
It’s common knowledge that minibuses are relatively unsafe. Accidents occur more frequently because drivers often weave through traffic to get to their destinations more quickly. Different minibus lines are territorial about their routes, and violence between competing groups can be a problem. Despite and perhaps because of the blaring warning signs of this transit system, the Canadian’s story sounded extreme. How tourists could even believe that taking a minibus alone somewhere 40 minutes away was a safe idea doesn’t really make sense to me.
While I was still trying to process this bizarre interaction, he then asked me for money. “The city bus each way is 49 rand per person, so we need 396 rand. Could you please help us?”
When a homeless person asks me for money, I decline. Attending UC Berkeley and regularly visiting big cities in the US normalized the idea of urban homelessness for me. The reasons that people are homeless are complex, and I’ve come to accept that there are other ways for me to donate to charity. In Cape Town, countless beggars have approached me, and in separate incidents, two men—for context, black South African men—have come to the front door of my accommodation to ask for money. I instinctively replied, “Sorry, no.”
For some reason, though, when I was faced with a white Canadian asking me for money, I hesitated.
The exchange with this man has replayed in my mind countlessly for the past two weeks. Navigating the stark divide between the relatively poor black and relatively wealthy white South African communities has made me reflect about my personal challenges regarding race. As a tourist who is phenotypically Asian and culturally American, I am a visitor in both racial spaces. Apartheid classified Japanese and Chinese people differently, but the echoes of “China! China!” from strangers remind me, someone of Japanese descent, that the apparent difference between Japanese and Chinese is small relative to that of Asian and black or Asian and white.
Solitary episodes of people watching around various neighborhoods of Cape Town have been punctuated with social activity. Morning tea, scuba diving, and braai with Americans, Dutch, and South Africans have enriched my time as a tourist and have helped me unpack many of my experiences here. Dinner conversations inevitably grace a topic where race is center stage.
Race and culture are contextual. Having travelled to places where I can pass as a local, such as Japan, and to those where I can’t, such as Spain, I think I became conscious of this idea relatively young. In the past month, reading Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime and discussing township tourism with my friend Annie who has been in Cape Town for ethnography research have helped me understand how my own race and cultural capital allow me to traverse different racialized areas in a country where Asian Americans are rare.
Cape Town is perhaps the most different place that I have visited. Its geographical uniqueness makes this city a popular holiday destination. Surrounding mountains and surrounded by beaches, Cape Town has thoroughly impressed upon me an image of a warm, nature paradise, and the clouds are breathtaking. Because of the low cost of living, I’ve been able to have a relatively luxurious vacation as well. The US dollar goes far. I can enjoy frequent Uber rides, memberships to a gym and a yoga studio in City Centre, and occasional indulgences like high tea at a fancy hotel and dinner on the V&A Waterfront.
Nevertheless, this Mediterranean image of Cape Town represents only one side of this complex city. I frequently hear the phrase “two economies” to describe developed areas of South Africa. There is an economy based on the upper and middle classes, which is largely racially white and international, and there is a second economy based on the working class, which is largely racially black. As a tourist from the West, it was more comfortable for me to fit into the former, and when I first arrived, the majority of South Africans I met and interacted with were white.
About two weeks into my stay, the sheen of the summery haven that I entered into on the N2 freeway started to fade. I messaged a friend living in the US that I was homesick, and the next day I remember thinking, homesick for what? I certainly craved good Asian food and still do, but that wasn’t specific to “home.” During this liminal phase of traveling between school and work, I don’t even really have a home, or multiple places are home. I was missing feeling comfortable.
Many aspects of Cape Town are, frankly, unpleasant. Most buildings don’t have air conditioning, and because of the noise outdoors, reading a book on a shaded cafe balcony or napping with open windows makes for less than tranquil afternoons. The staccato horn honking of minibuses (the primary way they get the attention of potential passengers), children playing football in the street, and workers having loud conversations on the sidewalk are constant in this city’s soundscape.
University students and young professionals congregate in trendy neighborhoods, and staying in one of these areas, I intimately realized that gentrification really just means construction. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my favorite spots in the States are products of gentrification, where bars are carved into the walls of industrial warehouses and parks are paved over old train tracks. But I’ve never really stayed in an area where, just next door, this kind of urban transformation was happening in real time.
As I mentioned, homeless people have knocked on my door asking for money. There were also times in the middle of the night that I’ve heard rustling in the trash bins on the porch, and one day when I was walking to the store, I came across a bucket full of human feces on the sidewalk.
I began to realize that what was happening was that I felt guilty. In a way, to spend time in majority white spaces—the gym, the yoga studio, most of the restaurants I go to—was to escape the noisy and sometimes smelly reality of Cape Town. I initially went to these places because they felt safe. In general, to worry about my physical safety walking around in black areas caused me anxiety, but even when I learned how to carry myself and felt less like an easy target for pickpockets, I kept going to white spaces because they were what felt familiar. My inability to delve into all of Cape Town, then, started to cause me anxiety.
Based on what I’ve read, the white population of Cape Town is somewhere around 30%. Including all the people who reside in townships (a demographic that, to my understanding, is difficult to track), this number is probably less than that. By interacting with people in spaces that I initially deemed “safe,” I was limiting myself only to a fraction of Cape Town. I wanted to see the Cape Town that the majority of locals experienced.
I started taking minibuses instead of Ubers to get to town. I felt clumsy my first trip, having to ask another passenger how much the fare was when I couldn’t understand the worker, but I figured it out. In his book, Trevor Noah describes that minibus drivers like to have music to attract passengers, and yes, my best trips were with electronic music booming out open windows. Every day, I walked around areas where black South Africans set up shops along the street.
For a weekend, I visited Khayelitsha, the largest township of Cape Town, home to maybe one to two million black South Africans. With virtually no white South Africans there, the township was the other side of this city that I was eager to see. I stayed with Annie at a bed and breakfast in an area called Graceland run by an incredibly hospitable woman named Maria. Annie, who is also Japanese American, has been spending the majority of the past six months staying at different bed and breakfasts to conduct fieldwork for her dissertation on township tourism, and I had the chance to learn a little bit of how township residents lived.
I had never been as conscious of my race as I was in Khayelitsha. Whenever Annie and I ventured outside, we were always accompanied by Maria or other black locals that Annie had befriended during her stay. Four of her friends formed a box around us during an evening jog to Lookout Hill, which felt like having our own Secret Service. Maria took us to a township pub called a shebeen (upon my request), and along the way, a throng of children attending a birthday party followed us motioning karate moves, which I was lucky to capture on video.
I’m not going to say that visiting a poor black community helped me feel less guilty about understanding Cape Town because, if anything, it made me feel guiltier—on Sunday evening, I was returning to a life of cafes, video streaming, and showering twice a day. But I’m grateful to have been welcomed into the Graceland community. My weekend there helped me think about my privilege as an Asian person living in the West. South Africa is an academically interesting case study in terms of institutionalized racism, but the issues that motivated and were created by apartheid are global. I became aware of the cultural capital I possessed as an American coming here, and I reflect on what I can do with the cultural capital that I have gained in Cape Town for the past month.
Minibuses chirping down the Main Road and children playing in the neighborhood streets have become integral parts of Cape Town that I will remember after I leave, but unexpected reminders that I’m in an African city are nonetheless daily. I’m still unsure how to react when someone on the street asks if I’m related to Bruce Lee. Currently reading Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, I realize that, despite trying to immerse myself into this country, I still don’t know much about its history, and connecting what I’ve learned here and listening to podcasts about race in the US, I ask myself, “Am I woke?”
I often go to the restaurant in City Centre where the Canadian man approached me, and I think about why I didn’t refuse to give him money. During the encounter, he asked for my email address so that he could ask his father to pay me back via PayPal whenever he reached the Canadian embassy. “My dad will deposit 50 USD to your account by 6 pm today,” George said.
That day, with my smoothie in one hand, I walked to the nearest ABSA ATM and withdrew 500 rand, and I gave George the whole amount. He thanked me, reassuring that I would have the money back by the end of the day. “You’re welcome,” I said.
As soon as I walked away, I accepted that I would never see that money again. When I looked up the location for the Canadian embassy a couple days later, it appeared to be a lot closer than a 49-rand bus ride away. His story about visiting from Toronto and his reference to PayPal made the situation more convincing to my Western frame of reference. I’ve been to Toronto on a couple of occasions, and every Canadian person who I’ve spent time with has been extraordinarily nice. Since we were in a mutually foreign country, our shared experience of being from North America made me feel more sympathetic toward him than I would probably feel for a local. I think about whether I would have reacted the same way if it were an Asian person from Asia asking me for money.
During travel, people watching is one of my favorite pastimes. I learn a lot about the places I visit. Many times I try to emulate how other people interact with each other so that I can find a way to fit in better. Among a multitude of things, my time in Cape Town taught me that the lens is sometimes reversed, and being Asian American in a country like South Africa intensifies the magnification. I’m also being people watched.