South Africa is an anomaly.
To Americans, it’s this foreign land with lions, great white sharks, elephants and harsh segregation between the other beasts – humans – who are put in township shacks or guarded mansions. To Africans, it’s not Africa. It’s the result of years of European oppression, a land stripped of its roots and replaced with branches of a different heritage.
According to locals, the result for international students living in Cape Town is almost always the same. The common denominator for any person who stays longer than a month is culture shock.
Orientation week at the University of Cape Town was an attempt at preparing international students for what was ahead. The first day we saw the beauty that is Cape Town on air-conditioned coach buses with juice and quiche. The second day we were stuffed into a lecture hall – juice-less and quiche-less – and were met face to face with the realities behind the decorated mask of beauty.
The first speech was about culture shock – and was considered the most important to faculty and orientation leaders as we were shushed with threatening looks.
This older man, Quinton Redcliffe, with a plaster permanent smile trailed up to the front of the room holding three numbered apples. After asking how many Americans were in the room and seeing a sea of raised hands, he laughed and said, “See, last year when I asked that same question – everyone told me they were Canadian! I’m glad the new presidency has granted you your citizenship back.”
Then, he dived into “culture shock” and told us there would be three stages – like the three apples.
Taking a bite of the first apple, he got this look of euphoria and made the most impressive “hmmmmmmm” sound I’ve heard to date. He jumped in the air exclaiming that it was the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. This excitement was phase one.
It’s the phone call to mom saying, “I’m sorry, but this is where I want to live. Forever. I’m in the Motherland, and I’m not leaving, and I met a really cute orientation leader. His accent makes my heart beat faster.”
The next apple of phases was more of a bitter bite as the man spit apple all over the front row. “Where’s the other half of the worm?!” he spat. He explained this is the less agreeable stage where we might decide that we miss home. He made a point to emphasize the fact that this will never be “home.” It’s different than home. Comparing them is only useless.
He said this is the phase when we’re so desperate that we’re calling our ex-boyfriend to complain about irritating accents and heart-crushing poverty and then asking to speak to his new girlfriend to continue venting.
The third apple was acceptance. It’s volunteering in the townships; it’s joining a club and it’s realizing home is at home. It’s taking Cape Town as a whole and removing the blindfold of ignorance.
I’ve been for over a month now. By now, I’ve made apple pie. I’ve baked the excitement with the aggravation with the understanding – and it’s sweet. I don’t think “culture shock” is a jolt. I think it’s an electrical current that’s always running through you when you’re in a new place.
What I expected to “shock” me didn’t. I wasn’t in shock when my phone got stolen when I was riding the bus. I wasn’t in shock when someone stole the battery out of my doorbell. I wasn’t in shock when my friend had her laptop stolen out of her barred window at 6 a.m. when she was sleeping in her bed just a few feet away.
I wasn’t in shock when I saw children covered in city soil begging for loose change or when I saw a pregnant woman who told me she hadn’t eaten in days and was living in an alley. I wasn’t in shock when a vendor who I told I’d think about buying something and that I’d come back chased me out on the street when I left the craft market, asking why I chose not to support him.
I saw all of those things coming. I’ve heard about them. I knew not to walk around alone ever, to carry pepper spray with me and to keep my guard up.
What I wasn’t ready for was the strength people have here.
I’ve been teaching journalism in the township of Sophumelela. The school is located in the heart of a waste dump. Mangy dogs whose bellies are as thin as my arm scour school grounds for food. Small children play with wire toys they’ve made themselves while taking care of other children not much younger than they. When it rains, women rid their tin shacks of water with a bucket to keep what little they have dry.
All the while, people wear smiles of hope. They have nothing, but they have everything. My students call our class a family. They call their group of friends a family. Anyone in their life who actively contributes to their life is their brother or sister. It’s more foreign to me than anything else.
The lack of greed, the will to learn for no other reason than acquiring knowledge and the pureness of heart is a cultural current – not a shock – and it’s an energy as delicious as apple pie.
Leigh Greaney is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.