Coming to terms with ‘being foreign’: Lente in Beijing (2003) and the re-experience of linguistic citizenship
Zhandi van Zyl
In a 2016 study, ‘The native-speaker debate: the case of the Afrikaans-English teacher’s identity in Thailand’ (van Zyl, 2016) I investigate how bilingual (Afrikaans-English) South African teachers of English, re-orientate themselves within a landscape of alienation in South-East Asia. The question of identity, steeped in their language practices and perceptions, was central to this study, with a specific focus on vocational agency this linguistic identity created space for. Within a globalised, but alienating society, these teachers found themselves in a landscape in which the Native Speaker (NS) of English is idolised and where pro-NS policies are authoritative, a context which reverberates in Francois Loots’s 2003 novel about expat alienation and cultural mal-adaptation, Lente in Beijing.
The findings of this study, however, point to a paradox between policy and practice, where policy dictates the appointment of a native English speaker, but practice promotes the idea of ‘simply being English’ as good enough. Because of their nationality, many Afrikaans home language speakers, with a working proficiency in English, can ‘pass’ as NS in Thailand, thereby accessing vocational opportunities skewed toward NS speakers from countries such as the UK and US. It further points to the paradox of the reverent idea of the native speaker and the perceived identity as ‘other’ of these English teachers. In Lente in Beijing the protagonist Gerhard Vos, a white Afrikaans-Afrikaner male social worker turned self-inflicted refugee, is securely situated within this paradox. Revered for his English heritage – which he lies about; a heritage which is rather saturated in exploitative practices of his forefathers and bind him to this Chinese landscape through the manifestation of his ancestor “Oergrootjie Hendrik blerriewil Gerhardus Vos se vrou” (p. 138) and his identification as part of a family group of “swerwers” (p.8) – he is also never released from his perceived Wiagu or vreemde duiwel identity. It is this haunting memory of exploitation and the perpetual outsider stigma which drives his search for belonging.
The participants in my 2016 study similarly found themselves in a marginalised environment, where linguistic identity was questioned in terms of NS-status, where they were seen as the farang (a somewhat pejorative but commonly used, Bangkok Metropolis, Thai word which describes people with a European appearance, not nationality, that overtly interpolates otherness) but also where they were given ‘face-value’ due to their position. In this context, linguistic purity and monolingualism play a pivotal role in being accepted or employed. In Lente in Beijing, accent becomes one of the markers of acceptance for the protagonist, especially in his orientation to two characters: Eileen (Vos’ co-worker and ‘cultural chaperone’) and Sonny (one of Vos’ students).
When Eileen, for example, states that Vos has a ‘pure accent’ and would thus be liked by his students. Here, accent and skin/appearance combined, and in the value matrix assigned to non-Chinese nationals working in mainland China, equalled a mode of belonging. But the unuttered statement “’n taal het altyd ‘n aksent’” (p.14), may or may not (according to how the reader orientates in sympathy toward the Vos character) signal an awareness of some of the socio-political-cultural-heritage-identity nuances of this ‘new’ environment.
Even given the differences between this situation and the context of my study, I found that Afrikaans/English teachers in Thailand exhibit a “rising awareness of an ethno-cultural sensitivity in the immediate working environment”; that pro-NS policies affected the self-perception and construction of teacher identity; and that, “individual agency, [is] the main motivation for success, in teaching in a globalised context” (van Zyl, 2016:136).
It is this individual agency, founded within linguistic identity and practices, which serves as a backbone for the assumptions of concepts such as Stroud’s linguistic citizenship theory (Stroud, 2015). Stroud’s theory is characterised by the
understanding of the variety of semiotic means through which speakers express agency, voice and participation in an everyday politics of language, and how non-mainstream speakers wrestle control from political institutions of the state by using their language over many modalities and giving new meaning and repurposing to reflect the social and political issues that affect them (Williams & Stroud, 2015:6).
These acts of citizenship with which they mediate their context are usually “articulated in unconventional, non-institutionalized, uses of language and other semiotic practice” (Williams & Stroud, 2015:6).
Several micro-instances of such practices are evident in Lente in Beijing: In both my study and Vos’ context, racial and other discriminatory practices are evident in the context of teaching in Asia. One illustration of this is the scene where Vos and Sonny, share a meal and the latter tells an overtly racist/anti-Black joke. Within the cultural context Vos finds himself, this is acceptable, and he partly recognises that Sonny is trying, erroneously, to ingratiate himself with Vos through the use of racist accent tropes. But with Vos’ Afrikaner background and first-hand knowledge of the destructive potential of such thinking, he exercises selective agency and points out the racism in Sonny’s joke, be it with some hesitation and uncertainty. Regardless of whether we read Loots here as virtue signalling or not, Vos can be read to attempt to engage in a strategic type of linguistic citizenship that navigates his outsider/foreigner status and uses a “cultural and political ‘voice’ and agency rather than just language on its own” (Ramton et al. 2018:70) to help Sonny (whom he also depends on for in-cultural knowledge and cannot afford to alienate or let ‘lose-face’) or perhaps, as is too heavily hinted at in the narrative, to address his own feelings of white guilt.
Probably the most prominent, and literary-friendly examples of acts of agency-driven citizenship in the novel are the practice of naming of people and places, and Vos’ use of calligraphy.
When Vos arrives in China, he is immediately boxed and labelled as ‘the other’; labelled with the name, Gao Wei and boxed into the Red Leaves Accommodation, the officially sanctioned hotel for foreign employees, complete with a prison guard (the receptionist), chains and curfews. With this physical description of himself, serving the purpose of creating his new identity but failing to integrate him into society, he appropriates this same naming practice. He thus starts naming other characters in his context according to their physical appearance. With this appropriation he attempts to consolidate his own ‘otherness’ with his new environment. There are the characters labelled by Vos as, Ploegkop and Snork, Gryskop, Rottand and Vuurspoeg Lynn, who all become central in this rhetoric of otherness. Vos even appropriates the name the Suidelike Rigting when he refers to South Africa, and thereby forces an emotional distance, in addition to the geographical distance, between himself and his origin.
The practice of appropriating this naming custom is also reflected in the fact that all of Vos’ English students choose their own English names and therewith invent an identity which is grounded within a linguistic perception. This agency to become legitimate users of the language is in sync with the idea of linguistic citizenship where “linguistic citizenship oppose[s] the exclusion of people who don’t have officially-approved linguistic resources in their repertoires” (Ramton et al, 2018:71).
The description of linguistic spaces such as the English Corner and the fact that the word friendship or friend is used to gain access to the resources that an English-speaking foreigner has, can also be seen as an act of agency where people “use language to interact, share space and establish their sense of belonging and their power to initiate” (Stroud, 2015).
Invariably, one begins to wonder about those Afrikaans-Afrikaners – such as the respondents to my 2016 study – who live outside the pages of a novel, and to what extent they, many of who return to South Africa, and to Afrikaans-Afrikaner vocational spaces, have brought these strategic acts of citizenship with them.
If an Afrikaans-Afrikaner subject still heavily relies on the co-imbrication of language, cultural identity, and nationality, what changed when they were working abroad (and were simultaneously ‘foreign’ and ‘foreigner’)? Do they, upon return, experience the once-known linguistic environment (built on an implicit acknowledgement of this co-imbrication) as now in some incomprehensible way hostile? In which media or platforms or speech acts do they find comfort? In the novel, the progression of calligraphy as an aesthetic-linguistic tool that the protagonist uses throughout the novel points to Vos’ own struggle and progression within different hostile environments. Conflict is flagged – and aesthetically marked – through his very self-reflexive learning-to-write a specific word. His use of calligraphy progresses from a form of escapism in his tumultuous meetings in the Southern Direction to a strategic way of belonging when he arrives in China. When he starts writing on the door in his imagined garden, the act becomes a linguistic tool which serves as the breach between reality and fantasy, where fantasy translates into reality in the form of the broken skin on his hands. This starts to pave the way for his own understanding of his situation. His calligraphy also becomes a point of discussion between himself and Lucy, where his feelings and perceptions are made physical in the manner of his strokes. He finally uses calligraphy in the temple when he sends out his desire to fate.
The use of calligraphy thus becomes an act of home-ing – of re-experiencing, a form of strategic temporary belonging (even a form of pseudo-citizenship) in which Vos tries to find a voice that is – to his mind – both relevant and worthy to be heard. A voice that echoes Stroud’s assertion that strategic acts of citizenship should “mediate everyday encounters with increasingly diverse neighbours in ways that enable one to remain the driving agent in one’s life, participating in a democracy within a socially transforming space – in other words, to take ownership of one’s linguistic citizenship” (Stroud, 2015). For a character from a divided and segregated background (linguistically and culturally), surely no better attempt (for it will always only stay an attempt) at integration exists.
a stilet.digital revisit-review, by Zhandi van Zyl, as part of a series on Afrikaans texts of diasporic predicament & belonging. Do read this piece in conjuction with others in the series, by Gert Hanekom and Drew Kiser.
Loots, F. 2003. Lente in Beijing. Kaapstad: Tafelberg.
Rampton, B., Cooke, M. & Holmes, S. Sociolinguistic Citizenship. Journal of Social Science Education, 17(4):68-83.
Stroud, C. 2015. Orraait – own your linguistic citizenship. Mail & Gaurdian, 22 May. https://mg.co.za/article/2015-05-21-orraait-own-your-linguistic-citizenship/ Date of access: 4 Jun. 2019.
Van Zyl, A.J.M. The native-speaker debate: The case of the Afrikaans-English teacher’s identity in Thailand. Vanderbijlpark: NWU. (Dissertation – MA).
Williams, Q.E. & Stroud, C. 2015. Linguistic citizenship: language and politics in postnational modernities. Journal of Language and Politics, 14(3):406-430.