Andre Mangongo is a priest with the Catholic Church from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been in Taiwan four years.
If you don’t speak Chinese, don’t know anything about the culture or language, it’s a shock, isn’t it? I’m sharing from the experience of 4 years. When you get here in beginning, it can be kind of difficult, but in the community where I was, I was welcomed — in the church. Plus, people there could speak English, so it was only outside of the community I felt feel a bit lost and the language was a barrier.
Recently, I went to Taitung for a youth summer camp with the Aboriginals in Jhrben, with many minorities. I was very welcome; they called me “tongpao,” “one of us,” the same as us. At first, they were very impressed to have someone who looks like them, and who’s a priest.
The kids were coming to compare their skin color with me. They said, “You are too dark, too black,” and I said, “Indeed, I am blacker than you, so you don’t have any excuse to feel bad. This is what you are and there is nothing wrong with that. I made a joke, saying “I am darker than you, so I might be your ancestor.”
I think in the Taiwanese community [Aboriginals] feel different because they look different, and because they’re minorities.
I have shared this experience many times with people through my work here. You have two kinds of people here; one group is straight from Africa, who came here to be students. They often have a shock, because this is the first time they are reminded that they are different.
Then you have a group that has a different experience, as from my perspective, where I’ve been in many countries. The two experiences can be very different.
I was in Europe, Belgium, France and other countries, so when I got here I know: I am different. But for someone coming straight from Malawi or Cameroon, this can be a big shock.
This is cultural. If you take it into context in Taiwan, they don’t really have a history of contact with the black community. It’s a small island, so except for those Taiwanese who’ve been abroad, the first time they meet you, what do they think of? Hunger, drugs, poverty, all these cliches from the media. This is different from Taiwanese who have black friends and coworkers, so all these experiences have to be put into context. For me, it’s different to see whether this is based on racism or ignorance — because they don’t know you and don’t have knowledge, so you just guess; this is normal.
You get more attention; you’re somewhat of a star, especially when you have sunglasses. Or sometimes people run away from you; it depends. It’s kind of a complicated experience. These kids who are learning English or learning to sing rap, they love you because that is the cliche. I think most of it is what they get from TV.
I talk to a lot of black people here who complain. I tell them, “You have to put it in context. Find out how much they know about you, and take it as a chance to educate, to share our history and culture. It’s a chance for blacks who are here to be patient to share, to be positive instead of negative. I don’t say Taiwanese people are racist, but many people don’t know much. And this [black] history is really plural; there are blacks from Latin America, Europe, many places. Some people consider you are from India!
When I meet with black people here, I ask if I can help. What do they say? It seems difficult to make it in Taiwan as a black, for example, employment. People always ask you where you’re from. When you say you’re from Africa you’re stuck there, stuck in a cliche — with the exception of S. Africa, you’re seen as a different African. If you are from America, you’re stuck in a more positive cliche. It’s true — in Taiwan, skin color seems to matter. At first they don’t know you, but when they come to know you and love you they really love you. I find this everywhere in Taiwan: when they trust you and know how capable you are, they fall in love with you. Then they know more and go beyond the cliche, when they can have a discussion with a friend, teacher or co-worker who is black; this is really amazing. So most of the people I advise, this helps them cool down, not be so depressed.
I’m a missionary and work with people on a daily basis, so this experience is from the ground. There are less than 10 Africans in the Church here in Taiwan. They say we learn very quickly, their language and culture, and that we can easily go through their daily life. I think this is because [in Africa] we come from a church which was dominated [by European influence], and don’t have to repeat the same mistakes. We are known to respect their culture and history, to follow them. To make them follow you, you have to be with them. This is different from the perspective of a European missionary. In the history of Africa, we were dominated and our [local] culture was [considered] evil. But we see these people have been here for centuries, and we have to meet God through these people. When Christians went to Africa, everything had to be destroyed of the locals. But God is in every culture, and we have to meet him there.
I would like to stay in Taiwan longer, but it depends on my authorities, and where they need people. I am falling in love with these people and this place. The people are nice. They want to help you to know and love their country, and they work very hard so you feel at home, and know it is very difficult for us to try to make it home.
Life in general is hospitable, but I think the cultural side needs something. For example, if you want to eat African food here in Taiwan, there isn’t any, or places where can you listen to African music here. African countries should have more cultural activities here, to sell Africa to Taiwan in a good way. On the mainland [China], they know more about Africa because there are so many cultural activities, many restaurants, bars, where expats get together. But how about inviting some famous African musicians to Taiwan? And not only music, but documentaries talking positive about Africa, what it can offer to taiwanese, in many aspects — business, cultural exchanges. Because it’s the land of the future, everyone’s going there now.
Interview by Trista di Genova, originally published in The China Post