A bit of memoir: portrait of a child with different men

by Yule Heibel on April 5, 2004

Comments in my blog entry about the “Hyenas on leashes” (Violent anachronism) made me think about my own racism — latent and overt? — which in turn made me think about my first encounter with an African. An actual encounter, that is, not a mediated one. Since we didn’t have a tv until I was nearly 7, acquired in time to let me watch (unsupervised) coverage of JFK’s assassination, mediation doesn’t enter into my story in the guise of technology, because my first encounter was with a real person. But there was still plenty of mediation, as there always is. Until I was 3-point-something, I lived in D�sseldorf, Germany, with mother, father, and six older sisters. We lived in an apartment in the Altstadt, the downtown core, within walking distance of the K�nigsallee, the shops, the hubbub, the red light district. Actually, we lived in the red light district, or on the edge of it, 1 Bergerall�e. The street was “sanitised” much later, to make way for upscale gentrification. By the time I was 3, my oldest sister was on the point of going to Tokyo to marry her Japanese fianc�. She had met him in D�sseldorf, which had (has?) a large contingent of Japanese business men (and women, now?). Naotoshi worked for Sumitomo, a huge banking & business conglomerate with corporate offices in Germany. To have a close family member marry into Japanese culture was an unusual event for a family of my class and ethnic background at that particular historical time (1959/60), and even though I didn’t understand all the complications, I knew that my sister didn’t particularly like German men (she said they were “crude”) and that Naotoshi was “different.” Nao was educated, a graduate of Todai (Tokyo [Imperial] University); he was well-off. We were uneducated, and rather sternly, threadbarely poor. Nao’s mother was proud of the red tinge in her black hair — not the typical “blue-black” — and she was mortified that her son was marrying this cheese-eating, curd-smelling penniless gaijin. My father had some difficulty [sic] accepting his new soon-to-be son-in-law, too. All this I somehow picked up, on the side, ears wide open. Nostrils, too. Flared outward, everything, a regular little information vampire. I learned: There was danger in difference, obviously. Stepping out of line meant erotic electricity (my sister loved her fianc�), and family anger, and separation (she was moving to Tokyo, and then they were going to be posted to Brussels, which, while closer and practically family grounds — my paternal grandmother was Belgian — was still a l-o-n-g way from the boonies we were on the verge to moving to). But not quite yet at this point in the story, for at this point my family and I were still in Wirtschaftswunder D�sseldorf, not yet in the little hicktown in the sticks which we moved to when I was 3-point-something. My sister was not yet in Tokyo, not yet married, and still around to take me along to “teas” at department stores where she met her man for court and spark purposes. By the time I was nearly 3, my radar was tuned to “difference” because of all the stuff that was different around me. It was different to be taken to tea — Nao was paying, which was different; my family hardly spent money on teas in department store restaurants. It was different to be taken to tea by a sister who was old enough to be my mother, and who looked like my mother, but who was with a man who didn’t look anything like my father, and who, unlike my father, laughed a lot. Other people noticed this, too, I could tell because they stared at us, and perhaps my sister took me along for purposes of normalisation. It occurs to me now that these people must have thought that I looked different because as a group we did. It’s possible that these people didn’t necessarily differentiate between me and we. Or between anything really. And I remember that one time I mortified my sister because, while she focussed on courting and sparking, I took one of the empty teacups and toddled around to all the other tables, panhandling for change. By her reaction I could tell this cut too close to the bone: because we really were poor, begging — intentional or not — was henceforth verboten. I still have difficulty asking for anything. And so, settle on the time around 1960: I’m about 3 years old, and something else is different on this day. My father, not one of my sisters, is taking me to the shops, to the department store. It rarely happened that I went out with my father, but perhaps my sisters were engaged elsewhere, or perhaps he was taking me with him on an errand. We were riding the escalator, a contraption that inspired me with trepidation. I would spend long seconds trembling at the start until I managed to snag a step and actually plant both feet on the same level. Then I’d relax a bit before another anxiety attack hit in anticipation of having to negotiate my way off the escalator. The exit off the dreaded contraption often happened via a socket-wrenching jerk of the arm, a kind of “flung” sensation that landed me on solid ground. Since our apartment was a third- or fourth-floor walk-up, escalators were very different, and they made me anxious. Chugging up the escalator, trying mentally to prepare myself for an at least partially graceful removal of my short person off the monstrous mechanical contraption, I fixed the top of the moving stairwell. And there he was, on the next floor coming into view. A very tall black man, pausing at a display. Nostrils flaring, eyes wide — mine, that is, not his: I must have realised that he didn’t look Japanese at all! Nor did he look in the least like the other gray-white men all around. He saw me staring and staring and staring (my father had by now executed the socket-wrenching arm-jerk maneuver and I was standing close to him), and he laughed out loud. Nao liked to giggle discreetly, but this man laughed, very loudly. I was simultaneously upset (he was laughing at me), and comforted (he was laughing), and prissily offended (why didn’t he giggle discreetly, like Nao?). My father made apologetic remarks — the laughing man was American, and there was no doubt something political in my father’s conciliatory remarks — and we moved on, with me turning my head to keep the black man in sight. He was the only black person I had ever seen, and he looked really different amidst all other differences. But his laugh, while boomingly different, made him seem like a highly normal human being. I kept staring, which seemed like a natural thing to do, even though it was rude. In my head I was triangulating how he was different from Nao, and different, too, from the world of women-sisters I was used to, and how different it was that my father, not one of my sisters, had taken me out. All in all, it was a different day, but somehow the idea that difference has to do with me, not “them,” was rooting in my head. It was after all I who had seen that man and who had singled him out with my greedy eyes. And it was my lucky-different day since it was my child-self that had made him laugh, which was as good an introduction to deeper difference as any. PS: Who is Caterina Valente, in the image above left? My sisters’ heroine. Mediatrix of the time.


Mike Golby April 6, 2004 at 5:41 pm

And I thought you were commenting on the hyenas and baboons… Goes to show, eh :)? Hell, Caterina Valente… my parents used to listen to her; they had a stack of her records. I’m sure she came out to Cape Town at some stage… many German singers did but I’d have to hear their names to recognise them (they were generally called Heinz or something). A great coup for local impresario Pieter Toerien was the appearance of Marlene Dietrich, famed for her legs as much as anything else, but I didn’t notice… being about 3-years old :). She must have been about 60 too; a bit old for me at the time. I started an entry, Yule, on your ‘latent racism’ observation, stating my belief that you were being too hard on yourself but I chucked it because I felt, “Hell, who am I to say?” It’s a very personal thing, as your heart-warming story conveys. My reaction, on the other hand, was perhaps stereotypical in a more mundane way: “Bloody foreigners, don’t they have animals there?”

Joel April 6, 2004 at 7:27 pm

One of my favorite photos shows an American boy and a Masai girl face to face. What are they doing? Each has a hand on one another’s head, feeling their hair. Smiles cross their faces.

Racism or curiosity?

I think we should stare more at each other, hang about each other to see what makes each other tick. It’s this separation and lack of interest that makes for the trouble.

As a photographer I am always staring at faces. It’s the lines and the light that attract me. The poet loves a good face, too. I fall in love with people of all hues all the time.

Yule Heibel April 7, 2004 at 1:26 pm

I can barely remember what Valente sounds like, Mike, but while I long ago shed my German chauvinist assumption that she was “naturally” German by adoption, I didn’t realise just how international and European she really was (is), and I shouldn’t be surprised (but I am) that she made it all the way to South Africa! Italian, with Spanish father, fluent in a dozen languages, famous populariser of South American samba & bossa nova beats, sang with Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Big Band, was popular in the US, too: a veritable phoenix rising from the old culture ashes of war-ravaged Europe to take on the world, armed with …glamour! I do remember that women in this time were hungry for glamour. It was the magic armour that promised conquest over lack of education, lack of money, lack of anything. And it was a kind of game, before it became so completely a product and seriously soul-dead inside. The corporate fashion industry is constantly trying to revive the corpse, bless its multi-billion dollar little heart. 😉

Joel, good question: racism or curiousity? No doubt about it, too much pious political correctness can lead to cessation of curiousity, and that’s not a good thing.

Anonymous April 13, 2004 at 1:57 pm

Beautiful prose. Thanks.

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