Living Abroad in South Africa

Study Abroad South Africa

By Ben Paviour
03/04/2015
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From the deepest, darkest depths of your imagination, summon Africa.  Think of lions and elephants, venereal disease and dictators, Simba and Robert Mugabe, of Toto, machetes and corruption.  As a study abroad student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, my Facebook wall is littered with pleas to not get shot or get AIDS, but return with a fistful of Ivory and Blood Diamonds. And believe me, the moment I see Leonardo hustling rocks at a street corner, I will make the proper enquiries.

Here’s what actually happened when I arrived in Cape Town: I left a hot, humid, early-July Virginia, traveled for some twenty five hours, and arrived in a windy, rainy, and cold Africa.  The airport was new and very clean, the TV in my hotel room was playing Forest Gump, and a mall a few blocks from where I was staying had Gucci, Prada, and Subway outlets. On Long Street, child beggars, petty drug dealers, police, and drunks of all stripes kept sentry over bars packed full of white people sloppily howling along to a Green Day cover band.

Part of the difficulty of living in Cape Town as in American is how deceptively familiar the place feels. I challenge any city resident to go a week without hearing Kate Perry, passing by a KFC, or hearing about the American election. “Damn straight,” you might be thinking, “I love fried chicken, kissing girls, and Barack.” But know, too, that beneath this veneer of Little America there are billions of subtleties that can undermine everything familiar.  I commend the person that finds a water fountain, cheap internet, soap in a bathroom, or a form of transport that sticks to its schedule. Just up the road from my dorm, entire families carry their belongings in trashcans and sleep outside one of maybe ten cell phone faceplate stores in the area. At Washington University in St. Louis, my neighbors are millionaires.

Americans occupy ambiguous space in what tourism brochures and politicians identify as the “Rainbow Nation.” Last Friday night, I was out with a group of white Americans when we walked by a couple of black students who were standing outside of a house party.  They said something to one of the Americans, whom I will call Mark.

“Fuck you,” Mark replied.  He later told me had no idea what they had said to him.

“Hey man,” one of the guys said, following the pack of seven or eight Americans, “Fuck you!”

“Fuck you,” his friend reiterated, arms outstretched, still walking towards us.  Mark and a couple of girls rounded the corner.  The rest of us were standing in the middle of an unlit street.

“Sorry, man,” said another American.  “He’s really drunk.”

“Don’t listen to him, man,” I said.  “We’re not all like that.”

“Ahh, it’s cool, man, it’s cool,” one of the guys said, suddenly laughing and giving me a sloppy eight step handshake. “He tells me, ‘Fuck you,’ you know, I must say something,” he chuckled.  We talked for about five minutes about the cross-cultural affinity for alcohol, bid a jovial goodbye, and rounded the corner.  Mark was sitting on curb, playing with his cell phone.  

American arrogance can take more subtle forms; Cape Town is a veritable playground for Americans flush with Rand, South Africa’s Monopoly Money. On one level, it’s hard to avoid the impulse to take advantage of Cape Town’s bounty: stunning beaches, surfing, hiking, paragliding, nightlife, food, wineries, and bungee jumps are all affordable and within striking distance. On top of the relative wealth of Americans, locals sometimes come off as shy or unapproachable. Americans are not a novelty to people who grew up watching The Simpsons and who don’t want to deal with the piercing American decibel level. Speak softly and honestly, however, and they will likely give you a chance — or, if you are really lucky, blood diamonds. 

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