Who? Trevor Noah?
That was my reaction when Jon Stewart tapped Noah to replace him as host of The Daily Show in 2015. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were practically my only sources of news during the George W. Bush era. The regular news shows were so depressing: I couldn’t imagine an administration that could do more harm than the wrong-headed policies of Bush and Cheney.
When I first saw Trevor Noah, my reaction was, “How can I dive into those luscious dimples?” Wow, so cute! And that South African accent!!
It wasn’t until I read Noah’s 2016 memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood that I found out just how unlikely it is that he’s starring in an American TV show. Even if it’s just basic cable, as Jon Stewart often humble-bragged.
The obstacles in Noah’s path had to do with South Africa’s racial system which the government called apartheid. Races, judged by looks, were strictly segregated: white, colored (usually, the result of the union of two mixed-race persons as it was a crime for persons of perceived different races to be together), Indian and black.
From his appearance, Trevor Noah was colored. It was illegal for him to be seen with his white father or his black mother, grandparents and cousins. He was kept hidden indoors, with clandestine visits to his father and park outings with a colored neighbor while his black mom walked a few paces behind. Even when apartheid ended when Noah was about ten, customs died hard.
He attributes a large part of his success in life to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. I would add that Noah’s amalgam of qualities — mental quickness, inborn optimism and generous soul — also contributed greatly to his rise.
One way that Noah found community was to become a “chameleon,” as he called himself. He picked up the languages of different tribes, such as Xhosa, his mother’s tribe; Tsonga; Zulu; as well as English. People accepted him, despite how he looked, because he sounded like them. Noah quotes Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (italics mine.)
Despite the surreal circumstances of his upbringing, Patricia Noah insisted that Trevor get a good education, go to church and behave. When he misbehaved, which was often, she gave him a beating. She wanted to raise him strictly, despite his impish disposition, because she didn’t want him to end up, as Noah puts it, “paying the black tax, that I would get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence that came before me.” She insisted that Trevor would escape.
My mom was a lot like Trevor Noah’s. Not in any of the particulars. My mom was a generation older, lived 8,000 miles away in China and was from a wealthy family. But I see similarities in their steely determination to see that their children get a better shot at life. I see in both a resolute, almost cheerful, orientation toward the future with no regrets. And they share a devotion to religion.
More than what our mothers wanted us to learn, both Trevor and I learned from our mothers’ examples. Patricia Noah got a secretarial job, a rare thing for a black woman.
My mom, against her mother’s wishes, went to medical school. She married Dad on graduation, also against her mother’s wishes. Patricia had to evade the police when she lived in a white area of Johannesburg. My mom and I lived in Hong Kong as illegals after escaping Communist China. Mom and Dad were separated for seven years. Patricia was a battered wife. Both our moms had no bitterness about the hard times. They always looked forward.
Mom grew up the younger daughter in a well-to-do Chinese family in Shanghai. Her mother treated her almost as a servant. One of her stories had to do with sugar cane, a favorite snack. Mom had to chisel the tough peels off the stalks and then cut them into bite-sized pieces. She was only allowed to eat the stringy, fibrous joint pieces. The boys got the sweet, juicy pulp.
Despite my grandmother’s conventional view that daughters were less valuable than sons, my mom raised me to be equal with boys. She encouraged me to play sports, excel in studies and to speak my mind. She never hit me, but she kept me in line with her eyes. My cousin calls it “The Look,” a searing sidewise glare. Not until I had my own kid did I realize what a “paper tiger” The Look was. When my son ignored my attempt at discipline with The Look, I had no clue what Plan B should be.
Born a Crime is full of Trevor and Patricia’s adventures at different churches. Patricia insisted on going to three churches on Sundays: a mixed church, a white church and a black church. Trevor would try to talk her out of taking him but it never worked.
Mom always took us to Mass on Sundays and on Holy Days of Obligations. As she became demented, she would repeatedly ask, “Is it time to go to Mass?” The rituals and songs of Mass were like muscle memory for Mom. She still knew the responses and when to kneel, stand and sit. One day, when it was time to stand and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” she gave a full throated rendition. She sang a couple of octaves below everyone else. She also sang a couple of bars behind everyone else. At first, I was embarrassed. But when I saw her face, happy in her faith, I was humbled.
Trevor Noah dedicates this book to his mom, his “first fan.” Patricia did good.