West in the east

Star rapper’s year in China


When Kanye met the Donald

Early last month Donald Trump hosted an unlikely meeting in the Oval Office. Rather unexpectedly, he was on the listening side of of the occasion. In this case it was Kanye West sharing his views in a monologue that was broadcast live to the nation. The rapper-designer warmed to his task, hugging the president at one point and announcing that donning his ‘Make America Great Again’ hat made him “feel like superman”.

In the days following that tete-a-tete, West seems to have had a change of heart. In late October, he went on another of his Twitter rants, seeming to distance himself from President Trump. “My eyes are now wide open and now realise I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative!!!” he added last week.

West’s politics seem unpredictable but his late mother Donda West, who wrote a book about her son, reckoned that it was following his heart that made him special.

“As his mother, I support Kanye without exception. I don’t always agree with his every action or reaction, but I know that even when he makes mistakes, he will learn from them,” she said.

Mentions of this book – titled Raising Kanye – have suddenly started to trend on Chinese social media after the discovery that there is a chapter devoted to the year that mother and son spent in Nanjing in 1987, when the rapper was 10.

“Living in China was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that neither of us will ever forget,” West recalled.

At the time, Donda was given an opportunity to spend a year in Nanjing teaching English as part of an exchange programme between Nanjing University and Chicago State University, where she was an English professor. She brought Kanye with her to the capital city of Jiangsu province.

In the book, she wrote about their efforts to master Mandarin: “I found Chinese to be very difficult, with its four tones and inflections that had to be pronounced just so. Kanye had fun with it. He thought it was amusing that the word ma pronounced one way meant ‘Mama’. But the same word pronounced with a different inflection meant ‘horse’. He played that to the hilt.”

The book offers glimpses of the rapper at a young age. Even as a child, he showed an entrepreneurial spark, charging his schoolmates to watch him breakdance (his mother later wrote that she was initially offended when local kids shouted, “Breakdance, breakdance!” at her son, thinking they were racial stereotyping).

Kanye also took tai chi lessons (and “got quite good at it,” according to his mother). In their free time, the two went to the Great Wall and hiked up the Yellow Mountain.

Donda also recounted West’s battles against racism. On one occasion the two were in a small shop at a Confucian temple when a group of Chinese walked in and began pointing at them. The indignant youth shouted back ganhuiqu which means “get lost”.

One commenter on social media cited in the South China Morning Post reckons that West’s experiences must have been formative ones and that all the attention he received might have helped pave the path to his later success.

“If you can face the pressure of being stared at by thousands of people, day in and day out when you are only 10, you can handle anything without stage fright,” the netizen claimed.

Even at a young age, West was not afraid to give his point of view, his mother’s account makes plain. In a culture where teachers are traditionally obeyed, the future megastar got into a major altercation with his tutor over a pair of mittens. As the winter temperatures dipped below freezing, most students wore fingerless gloves so they could keep warm while still being able to write. West, on the other hand, wore regular gloves, which were not allowed. A teacher tried to take them off and the dispute deteriorated, with West aiming a kick at his teacher. His furious mother made her son apologise, she later wrote.

“Are we even surprised that Kanye West was a problem child when he was younger?” one netizen said of the incident.

“Even a superstar like Kanye West had teachers that called his parents. It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” another laughed.

Despite the occasional contretemps like this, it seems that the rapper has pretty fond memories of his days in Nanjing. When he played a concert at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing in 2008 he told Sohu, a news portal, that he was eager to reconnect with his childhood friends. He even offered to send limos to pick them up to bring them to his concert.

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