When I lived in Montreal, there was a sales clerk at a nearby bakery, called "Yaegel Bagel", who was convinced that I was a famous writer. He served me well, perhaps better than he served others, so I didn”t try very hard to destroy his illusion.
Soon after we arrived in Montreal in 1991, I was interviewed by a local religious reporter and also by Mardi Tyndall on United Church Television. Meanwhile, Neil Bissoondath, a truly famous writer who lived in our neighbourhood, received a literary award and was the talk of the town. One day, I walked into "Yaegel Bagel", and this young man spotted me from behind the counter, and asked if I was in the newspaper. So I said "Yes". There was another person nearby who looked at me and said, "He was on the TV." Then the sales clerk asked if I was a famous writer. I said "No,." But he persisted. "Don”t you write?" Of course, I do. The answer was "Yes." I didn”t tell him that nobody read what I wrote, because he never asked that. A myth was established. It”s been more than ten years. Every time I go to Montreal and buy bagels I can see that he still thinks I am somebody. Still he doesn”t know my name.
This has been my life since I came back to Canada from Switzerland in 1987. Many people thought that I was somebody else. In the beginning, they thought I was David Suzuki. A woman on a bus, a bit tipsy, stared at me in a bus and pointing her finger at me and said, "Aren”t you that Chinese guy on the TV?" Another time I was paying for a weekend Toronto Star at a super market. David Suzuki had a regular column in the Star. The cashier asked me, "Do you have to pay for what you wrote?" There were many other similar incidents. At the "Yuk yuk" on Queen Street, the MC spotted me and pointed at me with a spotlight, then and told other comedians to watch their language and be politically correct. I didn”t think he said that because I was a United Church minister. He thought I was somebody else – David Suzuki perhaps?
From 1988, things got worse. Sang Chul Lee was elected to be the Moderator of the United Church. Often, as I walked in or near the old United Church headquarters at ”85 St. Clair Avenue in Toronto, people stopped me, pumping my hand to congratulated me for being elected. Elected to what? They never mentioned. None of them said that they thought I was Sang Chul Lee, the newly-elected Moderator.
I can assure you that I don”t look like either of them at all. I know them. I took David Suzuki”s course at the UBC when I was
doing a graduate study in 1964. He even came to our church to speak. He was a young professor who was just starting his career. I knew Sang Chul very well; he and I lived in the same house, when I was writing my thesis and he was an Ordained Supply for my congregation. No, I don”t look like them at all. Why didn”t they ask my name? They assumed that I was somebody else. Should I be happy that I did not look like Ho Chi Minh?
I was once astonished to see Tenjiwe Mtintso flying into Lesotho from South Africa to meet with me. She became an MP for the African National Congress in 1994, but at the time, in 1977, was under a Banning Order in `King Williams`Town in Natal. Those who saw the movie "Cry Freedom" should remember a gutsy young black woman reporter working for the "Daily Despatch", edited by Donald Wood. That is Tenjiwe Mtintso. After Steve Biko was murdered, his organizations were banned and all his colleagues were either imprisoned or banned. Tenji was imprisoned, tortured, released and then banned. Among the many restrictions placed on her were that she had to report to the Police once a week, was not allowed to move out of King Williams Town Magistrate District, and was not allowed to see more than one person at a time., etc. etc. I was working at the time out of Geneva, Switzerland, in many projects to support liberation organizations like Biko”s in Southern Africa. Since I had been expelled from South Africa in 1972, I had established a pattern of meeting with South African colleagues in Lesotho. On that particular trip, I was to see Griffith Mxenge from Durban, a lawyer representing many of those Biko”s former colleagues. Next year, Mxengehe was found shot dead in a ditch in Durban. When I was meeting with Griffith, I got a message that I was to meet someone at the airport. Griffith and I could not believe our eyes, when we saw Tenji coming off the plane. She was a known dare devil, but violating the Banning Order and flying off to another country? No!
She said that it was easy, she had borrowed someone else”s passport, bought a ticket, and flown out. There was another woman
sitting in her house pretending to be Tenji. Tenji was going back home. She said, "Those South African police can not tell one black from another. We have no name, you see. We are just ”Bantu”."
That was true. When I was teaching at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, many students borrowed other
people”s passports or those infamous "passbooks" and went to South Africa for shopping. We used to laugh about those border Police who never bothered to look Africans straight into their faces. Because as far as the Apartheid regime was concerned, Black people had no names; they were just "Bantu".
On the other hand, when you get to know a person by name, other superficial attributes disappear. You forget about
difference in their physical features. My daughter came home once from a summer job hunt laughing, "Do you know I am a visible
minority?" She thought it was some kind of a joke. I am grateful that she had not been exposed to any situation where she was forced to be conscious of her minority status in Canada. That apparently never happened until someone told her that she could apply for some jobs as representing a "Visible minority". We live in a better country than many others.
Once I sat next to a Mathematics professor of a South African University in a airplane, on the way to London. We had a wonderful conversation all the way. He was fascinated by my story about one Old Testament Professor, who successfully compared the history and spirituality of South African Black nations with that of the Jewish nation. At one point in our conversation, some thing I said triggered a question from the mathematician. "Is he a black man?" he asked. I was taken a back a bit and had to think for a second. Of course, come to think of it, he is a black man, very much so. But for me he was Desmond Tutu, my neighbour and a colleague.