Identity: In-depth day 3-4

“Writing about identity always reveals one’s own pursuit of self-identity at the moment of writing”

– Anonymous.

In the article the above quote introduces, the writer describes the strange encounters and difficulty of settling on one specific identity when you are one of over a billion persons breathing that same air.

In particular, he looks at the phenomenon of a identification cards in China, which flourished in the mid-1990s prompted by government legislation desirous of a stream-lined and properly accounted for population.

I chanced on the book on a Friday evening, exactly two days after the Wednesday morning when we sat on 10th floor of University Corner in the Journalism department’s computer lab, our newsroom, and listened as the topic for in-depth projects was unveiled.

On that Friday evening, a long time before 6pm, I had slithered off a taxi on Thornton Street in Westdene, crossed to the other side of the pavement away from deep-fryer fumes and into Afrikan Freedom Station.

It isn’t easy to describe what is to be found beyond the thick glass, wood bordered door, where pavement turns to polished stoep underfoot. Perhaps it is that red floor that brings it all together, all those fragments, voices, objects to found peering from the walls in a painting of Bantu Stephen Biko or snatch of conversation for a two-person huddle at a table near the bar area.

Something like:

Lady 1: “You say this when you’re talking in the past tense. Do you remember?”

Lady 2: “oh okay. You mean like sizohamba?

I find the owner of the joint, “Bra Steve”, in the back of the place where a muralled alleyway leads to small parking bay, with what looks to be a fellow painter- he is dreadlocked wearing paint-stained overalls.

The two seem to be in a casual yet technical conversation, about a painting lying between them at their feet. The conversation sounds interesting and personal, unrushed in shared thoughtfulness, and I am loathe to interrupt. However, pushed by throat-searing thirst and preoccupations about the meaning of “Chinese in Joburg”, I offer terse greetings and manage to coax a beer out Bra Steve.

I head back inside in search of the solace of quiet spot to enjoy my cold beverage and mull over the finer details project. On a bench outside, back to on the pavement, with a book for company, I stare into the “tea leaves”.

I’m in the gods’ good graces, because as I finger through the book, I find an account of the anonymity of being a Chinese man.

A man who, amongst millions who share the same name as his, similar addresses, and facial characteristics insufficient to distinguish him from his fellow Chinese, on an identity card invented expressly for this purpose, remains anonymous.

I did not get to finish the article in the book, nor did I record its author or the title of the volume. That quote, by luck, remained with me. And as I go further into the complications of telling a story of “Chinese in Joburg”, of how they bury their dead and confront, resist, even refashion themselves and their beliefs against the inevitability of death, the louder those words ring.

“Writing about identity always reveals one’s own pursuit of self-identity at the moment of writing”.

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