Confluences

I came to Malindi because I didn’t realize how it was entirely separate from Watamu, which is just a part of Kilifi County. Interesting to see how things piece together from what you hear, and how all that beta is different from your actual experiences. 

At first sight, the beach was solidly unimpressive. Nothing like the glow and expansiveness of Diani, a beach so utterly captivating there was no one could renege on awe. It seemed almost like the Atlantic– flat, dirty, and weedy. I fell upon a crowd of women, all dressed up in their loudly colourful coast garments, huddled around a couple of fishermen selling their goods. I walked up there, my previous experiences having finally convinced me that in these situations, being approachable is hardly a bad thing. Indeed, I was rewarded.

I ended up going fishing with the crew of this fisherman for the next following days. In some ways, I fell in with the group, although the obvious differences between us were ultimately too great to be overcome with the normal interactions that otherwise would have been enough to meld together something good and lasting, even if it’s just in memory.

If I’m being honest, this whole exchange left me feeling a bit deflated. Like I wish things didn’t have to be this way. I woke up, and in the process of regaining awareness of the world and my body once again, was remembering what it is that I have to deal with today. Because there is always something. It feels like everything (well, a great deal of things) have been taken away from me this year. It teaches you how to deal without what you thought you had to have. I read something once that said, take everything that everyone knows about you, and that’s who you are. What sort of veneers do we mask ourselves with? In my time in different places, navigating varied social environments that are at times extreme and hyper focused on my presence as an outsider, I’ve come to pride myself on an ability to bring down certain walls, gather stories, even make some friends or moments worth going back to along the way. How we sat on the dirty sand beneath those piles of dead trees on the beach, waiting for the replacement boat to come in. Chewing khat leaves, Omar handing me a tablet of Wrigley’s gum to help it along. Peter pulling out a knife to pretend to slash away at the crazy boy, saying, his mind is not so good. And when the boat came, I followed them into the water and onto the boat, even smaller than the previous one, and we were off to haul in the nets cast from that morning. 

The first day I had come totally unprepared. Wore nothing except for Matthew’s old tshirt and some shorts, not prepared for the torrential rain that nearly overtook us. It was the coldest I’ve felt for a long while, the rain streaming into our faces as we crashed through the waves. I thought to myself in that moment, soon I will be dry and safe. These are the experiences that teach you to appreciate what all too easily becomes invisible to us– how delicious fish appears beautifully plated when you order it at a restaurant, how dry clothes and a comfortable couch no longer seem like luxuries, how you can spend 500Ksh like it’s nothing. I asked Peter how much they can expect to make, on a good day. And it’s just around that much, sometimes 50 bob, sometimes nothing. I wanted to ask them if climate change has been affecting their work, but I also saw how they were tossing plastic water bottles out as trash and how their nets dragged up corals and small tropical-looking fish that don’t seem like ones that are valued on the market. I had to close my eyes against the rain, hoping my backpack with my camera in it would end up being okay. The guys I were with– Peter, Kevin, and Omar– they were really nice to me, asking if I was okay, if I was cold. Peter offered me his jacket, which I had to decline– it was my own fault for not being prepared. 

Seeing how they cast the nets (they choose depending on how the waves feel) and haul them in, it’s work that is both monotonous and fun, depending on how things are going. By the end of the second day, I was feeling like I had cracked a bit of the edge or apprehension and the guys were more comfortable around me. They knew that I was a journalist and trying to learn about their work. We chatted about where they had come from– both Peter and Kevin hail from Nanyuki, the Mt. Kenya region, settling here due to their parents. I thought a bit about their build- how they are incredibly lean and muscled from their work. I was thinking about buying some fish from them, eyeing the beautiful barracuda they’d scooped up on Friday morning, and also asked them about mkunga, the fascinating snake fish I’d seen laid out on the beaches. Ni tamu, they said, it’s sweet. I asked them what they liked to eat best– ugali and choma, like true inland Kenyans. 

In the evening of that second day- the familiarity of those times having made our period of spending time together seem that much longer -  Safu told me that guys had been challenging him at the boathouse. Apparently there had been fights about who I would go with. In small towns, people always like to talk. There aren’t many visitors in Malindi and my presence amongst the fishermen had definitely been interesting enough to raise some heads. I’m a journalist, I wanted to say even though they knew. I am just so curious about things unknown to me and I want to learn, see for myself.

The greatest misunderstandings coming from Peter. I had always intended to pay them for letting me spend time with them. But he ended up thinking I wouldn’t, lying to Safu about how we’d agreed on something, and saying to him that he didn’t care about the girl, he just wants the money. I’m not going to lie, this really made me a bit sad. It’s too bad that it had to end this way.



Malindi Fishermen

 In the morning, the Yamaha motor had fallen off the boat and became totally waterlogged- too many confluences of water and technology lately, what horrible luck. We flagged down another fishing boat that tugged us back near the bridge. People here help one another, there is no other way. That afternoon, we had to wait for a replacement boat- we sat on the beach underneath a pile of dead trees, chewing khat to pass the time. I kind of like its mouthfeel- super dry- maybe I’ve had it somewhere before but under a different name, perhaps. Memories can be hard to place. Better to take it with groundnuts or gum, they say; Omar shares a Wrigley’s tablet with me. Finally, the boat comes, most fishermen being done for the day. We get on with it, looking for the flags placed earlier. It takes a while to locate them, they’re tiny on the expansive sea… the light is fading, I look over twice at the sun setting and before I can see it off, it’s slipped away. The equatorial light always leaves so quickly. The fishermen are hauling up the nets and it takes longer than I can remember it every taking- a sheer mountain of seaweed and broken corals pile into the tiny boat, filling it to the brim. Like laboring over a Sisyphean task with a magical net that goes on and on into perpetuity. There’s no barracuda this, but there are crabs, flounders, even the same kind of catfish that had sliced peter’s foot open 9 months ago. Finally, they’re done. we head back to shore in the smooth darkness, less water chopping into the boat now that we’re going with the waves. 

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Twice a day they go out into the water. At daybreak and then again in early afternoon typically, to haul up the nets and cast new ones. The first time I went on the boat was early, just before sunrise. It had rained throughout the night and we ended up getting caught in a morning storm. unusual for the region this time of year, just my luck. Mohammed tried to call us back but to no avail. Peter offered me his jacket but I couldn’t, it was my fault for not being prepared. As we weathered out the storm, the rain stinging our faces, we saw a diver hunting for octopus. Already fully immersed in the water, he was safe from the rain.

(Malindi, Kenya, 2020)


How Leaving Home Made Me More Chinese

A significant ritual that comes with growing up is venturing out in the world and relinquishing the familiarity that has ensconced you your whole life. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts within internet groups such as Subtle Asian traits where people speak to personal experiences growing up in communities of low diversity– how they were keenly aware of feeling out of place due to their race and culture. I did as well, having grown up in rural New Hampshire in a largely white and homogenous setting. However, I do not remember attributing those feelings of displacement to my ethnicity. I’m not sure why I thought so little about race — perhaps it was in part due to my parents and how they intentionally did not want to point out obvious racial biases or prejudices. They have lived all across the US for nearly four decades, having emigrated as graduate students from Taiwan in the early ’80s and successfully assimilated with many aspects of American culture, from the food to small town living. They wanted my brother and I to grow up without that chip on our shoulders. But sooner or later, every one of us figures out what race means to us on our own terms, how it influences situations and why it matters.


Some people speak to how their parents discussed racial differences with them from an early age. Awareness, when timed and delivered well can be enlightening but reality can also be painful. I’ve had conflicted feelings about the weight and prevalence of my heritage for as long as I can remember. When we watched the summer Olympics as a family in 2008 and 2012 I distinctly remember rooting for the Chinese national team. I’d wake up each morning to check the medal count on the Internet, cheering internally as China maintained her lead. I’d never been to the mainland, and in all other aspects of my life I’ve never thought twice about my “Chinese-ness.“ But in the context of a competitive space, my own allegiance became clear. Despite not growing up around a defined Asian community, the abeyant allegiance was there all along.


The handful of times when I visited relatives in Taiwan I felt a rush of connection to familial ties extending far beyond myself — a feeling distinct from the stolid American individualism that I had subconsciously come to embody. In Taiwan, the most normal of activities such as spending time with my relatives and family friends, speaking my mother tongue, and learning how to cook jiang you ji (soy sauce chicken) from my step-grandmother contextualized many of the ideals that my parents tried to convey to me over the years. I realized how my actions were seen as extensions of my parents and upbringing; that my relatives cared about what I did, that my decisions mattered to them under a greater sense of family.


It took leaving home and being pushed to seek community on my own terms for me to realize how important my heritage is to my identity. When I moved to Nairobi in 2018 to work as a photojournalist, it was the first time I’d ever lived in a metropolis. There was not only the urban aspect of life that I needed to acclimate, but also the immense cultural adjustments that touched upon everything from quotidian interactions, to the attention I received every time I stepped out in public. There were many culturally charged moments that eluded me altogether. Now that I’m living in Kenya for the second time, I have a more thorough understanding of the transactional nature of society, the Nairobian hustler mentality, and most importantly, how not to take anything personally. My hope is that discernment and acceptance of cultural differences here will not only continue helping me navigate my current surroundings, but also help me understand more of my own Chinese-American upbringing.


Initially, I was upset by the rather unceremonious way that Asians and Caucasians are grouped monolithically as mzungus (white people) in East Africa. To many Kenyans, there is no difference between those with silky, non-kinky hair and light skin. I practically wanted to protest, I’m not white! I’m Asian. Where I come from, I’m also a minority. I’ve long since moved beyond this desire, since there’s no sense in struggling against structures so much greater than myself.


Nevertheless, I felt a gravitation towards the Chinese community in Nairobi. In my previous experiences abroad, I had felt something similar– that there was a tiny hole inside of me that grew deeper the longer I was away. I subconsciously yearned for my mother tongue. Speaking in Mandarin brings a sense of familiarity and home that English does not, even though I am so much more limited in the former language.


This surprised me. I didn’t realize how important my heritage is to me. In many ways — from career to dating — I wouldn’t classify myself as conventionally “Chinese-American” at all. I didn’t go the corporate route and am not pursuing an orthodox or lucrative career as others often expect of people like me; hardworking and ambitious with a world class education. But as I am living in Nairobi, it is becoming an unexpected opportunity to reconsider my heritage roots in ways I have never done before.


There’s a Chinese Malaysian missionary family here who took me under their wing when I first moved to Kenya. In pre-COVID-19 times, they hosted home group dinners in their home, welcoming in both Kenyans and expats for Bible study sessions. I surprised myself by becoming a regular. I had no choice but to go to church multiple times a week growing up, but since college I do not go out of my own volition. Being able to communicate in Mandarin and having a shared cultural identity brought me a sort of comfort I didn’t know I needed. They included me in all types of activities, not just religious ones. I liked the feeling that they cared more about how I was doing as a person than saving my soul. “Consider us your family in Nairobi,” they said to me. I did.

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