Six months in South Africa: looking back

On November 23rd of 2015, I stepped off a plane at Cape Town International Airport to begin living what I had been planning for the preceding eighteen months.  Now, six months after taking that flight, I want to take a moment to reflect on the journey so far.

I am living here, not just working here.

People are not merely units of production.  I could not do my job without bringing my humanity to it, and that humanity requires nurturing!  I frankly envy people who can bring their families along on an international adventure because they bring with them a support network.  Because I moved by myself, I needed to forge a support network for myself as a matter of top priority.  I was particularly fortunate for the friendship of Philomène and the Tromp family in those first few weeks; Gerard provided his guest room to acclimatize a bewildered American for two weeks, and he laid out a clear set of steps I needed to get my banking set up, acquire a cell phone, and otherwise get started here.  Philomène immediately acted like we had been best friends for years.  From those beginnings, I was able to build out my friend network at the university, make friends with neighbors and folks who helped me get my home together, and even join a choir.  For me, the ultimate statement of living here has taken place during the last several weeks; I’ve started a relationship with a wonderful woman who was born in Cape Town.  All of these connections have changed me from being an American looking nervously at the South Africans to an American who is at home in Cape Town.

Leaping hurdles creates an illusion of progress.

If you know me personally, you know that I am a “fixer.”  If I see a problem, I set out to fix it with little hesitation.  Moving to a new country surrounds one with innumerable challenges of this sort.  For the first few months, I frequently found myself out of energy because I had burned it all on the latest problem.  In particular, getting my home DSL network services in order was a huge time-sink, but the worst part of that mess was the feeling of bitterness and enmity that it engendered in me.  Life is certainly better when we have the leisure to be at rest.  I reached a place in the first months of this year when I was a bit of a nervous wreck from constantly going to battle.  I might have spared myself that degree of anxiety by remembering that it is unnecessary for everything to be perfect right away.  Stillness is not a skill I have mastered just yet!

Physical distance confers political distance.

I followed United States public policy debates like the paparazzi followed Princess Diana.  Being on the other side of the world, though, has drained some of the passion from that pursuit for me.  Apparently, the United States has been up in arms lately about which public restrooms should be allowable for people who are transgender.  Living in a country where public sewage issues are a matter of real public health concern, I feel somewhat mystified why anyone would try to argue against restroom access for anyone.  As Donald Trump nears nomination from the Republican Party, many friends in South Africa have asked me why Americans would find his candidacy appealing.  If I were still living in the United States, I know that I would already be in a high lather about the November election.  Instead, it all feels very far away, very remote from me.  Though I intend to vote in the general election, I know that I have been changed by the experience of living abroad.  I wonder how it will feel to visit the United States again.  Will I have become a stranger in my own country?

This was no mistake.

My brother was the first person to ask the question.  I had been in South Africa for approximately four months when he asked during a Skype call, “do you think you made a mistake in moving there?”  I had never thought to ask myself that question, so I did not really have an answer ready other than to say that I like it here.  To answer it more completely, I would go through this list:

  • Am I physically healthy here?  Well, I have lost ten pounds (I was at my highest weight ever when I moved to South Africa).  My skin is probably suffering a bit from the abundant sunlight.  I caught some sort of gastrointestinal nastiness that seems to go around South Africa in summer time.  Otherwise, I would say I have been pretty healthy.
  • Am I happy here?  In general, I would say yes.  South Africans have been incredibly welcoming, inviting me to their braais and generally being open toward me.  People who speak Afrikaans more comfortably are willing to switch to English when I am nearby.  I must balance the traffic situation against that, though.  It’s a rare ten minutes on the national roads in Cape Town when nothing has happened to alarm me.  Motorcycles blasting by on the line between lanes, minibus taxis turning left from the rightmost lane, drag racing, driving down the shoulder, you name it!  I saw greater chaos in some cities in India as a passenger.  I’d have to say this is the worst traffic I have ever personally navigated.
  • Do I feel fulfilled in my career here?  Yes, I believe I do.  Every workplace has its limitations, of course, and I’ve come against some obstacles here that truly vex me.  My colleagues, though, have shown themselves to be caring and open to what I have to say.  We do not have the facilities of the leading universities to which I am accustomed, but the minds at work here are exceptional.  I feel that I have skills to offer their projects that they really need and want.

I assembled my plan to move to South Africa with very limited experience of the country in person (just one week in late 2014).  I am relieved that what I expected to find here has mostly come to life.  I cannot feel that coming here was a mistake.  This adventure has made me feel very alive!

Communicating helps us feel our loads are shared by others.

I began this blog in January of 2015.  You might be surprised to learn that this is the 104th post that I have entered on the blog.  Since I average around 1000 words per post, my full blog is approximately the length of a novel!  It has served many purposes for me.  At first, I intended it as a way to explain to my friends why I felt a need for change in my career.  Eventually I thought that other people who were looking at an international move might find the process notes interesting.  Ever since I have arrived in Cape Town, though, I have used the blog as a compact way to let everyone know what was going on with me.  Throughout, I have always tried to write a new post within seven days of the prior one.  I know I have been letting that slip lately.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading this blog so frequently.  There is no greater gift that you can give a writer than your attention as a reader.  More importantly, knowing that people were reading these posts made me feel connected at a time when I did not yet know enough people in Cape Town to be at home here.

Thank you, friends.



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