Xenophobia? Not much
Born in the USA but living in Durban… Anya Klaassen, American to her toes, finds South Africans welcoming – but, oh, so many questions
LIVING IN ANOTHER COUNTRY comes with a ton of benefits and drawbacks.
On one hand, since I moved to Durban from the US when I was 20, I never need to worry about running into old high school boyfriends and nobody will ever see my embarrassing junior high school photos.
On the other hand, I’ve now missed six years of Christmases, birthdays, and family reunions.
Sometimes being an expatriate is a little like being a celebrity. You get treated a bit differently, and often a bit special. But it comes at a price. While I don’t exactly have to deal with paparazzi, there are times when you long for a bit of anonymity to break up the monotony of being quite so special. Honestly, sometimes I’m in the mood for it, and sometimes I’m not.
Don’t get me wrong, most people are great. They’re friendly, curious, and welcoming. In fact, I’ve only had one really negative experience, which was a random guy at Essenwood flea market who seemed to think the war in Iraq was my personal fault.
But even the nice people can be a bit wearying sometimes. Probably because I have exactly the same conversation with every last one of them. I may have cards printed to save the bother. Is this what it’s like to be Paris Hilton? If so I may have some grudging sympathy for the girl.
I’ve come to accept (a bit grumpily) that I’ll most likely have this same exchange with every person I meet for the rest of my life. So I’m hoping that anyone reading this will take this information to heart, so that if we do ever meet, we can skip straight to having a real conversation.
It goes something like this: I say something, and whoever I’ve just met gets a big grin on their face and says “You’re not from around here.” It’s funny how triumphant they sound, like they’re so proud of their own detection skills. You’d think they’d personally uncovered the arms deal or something.
THEN WE MOVE ON TO THE question-andanswer portion of the evening. They want to know where I’m from... exactly where I’m from.
This inevitably leads to disappointment as no one has ever heard of the po-dunk little town in the midwest that I grew up in (Anoka, Minnesota.
See? I told you), so sometimes I usually add that I lived in LA for a few years to make them feel better.
Because, let’s be honest, to most South Africans, America consists of LA on the left, New York on the right, and a big grey blob in between. Not that most Americans’ grasp of African geography is anything to brag about, of course.
So then we move through the questions of how long have you been here (2 093 days, three hours and 11 minutes, but who’s counting?); why did you come (to study abroad at UKZN, then I married a local); do you like it here (would I still be here if I didn’t?); and are you going back (possibly)? AND AS LONG AS I’M HERE, let’s get one thing straight. I speak very differently from the way I used to and my friends and family still do. In fact, I’ve reached the lovely point of having South Africans think I’m American and Americans think I’m South African, so now I get to have this conversation on both sides of the Atlantic. Yay.
It’s possible that part of the irritation in having this conversation over and over is that I’m forced to constantly reappraise my happiness level and life plan, when I’m rather content not to have one at the moment.
I’d much rather just cruise under the radar, without the redundant well wishes. I’m here. I’ve dealt with it, now it’s your turn. The one part of this ritual I do enjoy, though, is just how happy it seems to make people. I think it gives them a boost to know that not everyone is leaving South Africa. Some people actually choose to come live here. And I’m proud to be one of them. So I really don’t mind if you want to say hi, just let’s keep it short, okay?