Great essay on Multiculturalism and Shades of Meaning in the New South Africa.
Reminded me of a similar occurence in my own life. Don't you hate it when people say that?
1990-something (early, can't remember), I'm working in Singapore and my company has organised my green card/work visa. There's a whole underclass in Singapore of guys who ride around on scooters with their jackets on their fronts (presumably as windcheeters, but I never found out), and our office had one of these errand-boy types. Except that they're generally in their thirties and forties with large families.
Singapore - then, anyway - was how I imagined England to be in the inter-war era. There was a definite class system (whites -> Eurasians -> Hong Kong Chinese -> mainland Chinese -> Indonesians - > Asians - > Malay... but that's a whole other story), and it was a bit of a shock to me. I remember seeing a job ad in the Straits Times which said:
Beautiful Young Girls with Good Skin
required as Air Hostesses for XXXXXXXXXXX
(Malays need not apply)
I haven't named the well-known pan-asian airline because (a) it was a long time ago, and (b) consequently, I can't remember the exact wording, and would hate to libel them unecessarily.
So it's a different world. I'm filling out my work visa, and it asks me a question I've never come across before: Race. I ponder this, with my post-Holocaust sensibilities, and really don't want to answer it. In the end, I answer: human.
Our errand guy goes and queues for a day or so, and comes back, and says to me: "They didn't like you answer, la. (everyone in Singapore says la at the end of nearly every sentence). So they asked me to describe you, la. And they said you're white, la."
So that's one major mystery cleared up, then. Of course, I never know how to answer the census question, either, and tend to put white-other. Truth is, I just hate even getting into those discussions. What difference does it make?