Tuesday, November 9, 2010

what the hell am i doing here?

So there’s really no excuse for my inability to keep everyone up to date on what I’ve been up to. But I’m going to give my best attempt at trying to recount the recent events and adventures of my field study.

First off, I should say upfront that Cape Town was incredible and it’s definitely on my top five favorite cities list. It’s visually stunning, loaded with history, and has this vibe to it unlike any I’ve ever felt in a city before. Cape Town really gets its claws deep in you. As I’m trying to find the words to describe it, the only phrase that I can come up with is “you just have to be there in person.” I can’t tell you how much I used to hate this phrase because I thought it just a cliché thing we say when we’re too lazy to attempt to recount and explain something. But as I try unsuccessfully to write out a description, I realize that it’s all I’ve got. I’m immensely lucky that I got the chance to go visit Cape Town in the first place. The trip worked out just perfectly with everyone’s schedule that it would have been a crime not to grab the opportunity. It was also the prime time in our field study for a break from all the research and work and what what. We got to play tourist for a few days, which was kind of nice for a change. In East London, we do our best to blend in with the locals and not draw a lot of attention to ourselves. In Cape Town, we just let loose and unashamedly wore our cameras around our necks everywhere we went and took pictures of ourselves in front of everything we saw. We hit up the typical tourist hot spots like Table Mountain, Waterfront, Long Street, District Six, the penguin beach, Cape Point, Cape of Good Hope, and the southernmost tip of Africa. We also did a few very not-so-typical things like having a cup of coffee in the heart of Guguletu, venturing into Manenberg, and…ah yes, riding ostriches. We were pleasantly surprised to find a Mexican restaurant on Obz Street and treated ourselves to its familiarity. But we didn’t hesitate to tackle Cape Town’s famous Gatsbys as well—giant sub sandwiches loaded with hearty meat and chips (which do not come on the side but on the actual sandwich). Ahhh Cape Town…how I love you. My happiness level increases just thinking about it.

We enjoyed ourselves so much in such a short span of time (much too short for my liking) that going back to my daily routine in East London was rough on me. I hit the halfway mark in my field study the week after returning from Cape Town and I entered into a bit of a slump. It got difficult to motivate myself just to get out of bed each morning, let alone to work on my research and coursework. It was during the two weeks after returning from Cape Town that I really started to wear out and woke up most days thinking to myself “what the hell am I doing here?” This is typical for students traveling abroad and people frequently attribute this lull in productivity to culture shock. In field studies however, we prefer to call it cultural fatigue. It’s not so much of a shock when you’ve been in the culture for over a month already—the “shock” of new culture had worn off by this point. But you reach a phase where the experience of the culture starts to wear on you and you really just become tired of it. There’s a lot to deal with emotionally and mentally.  One thing that really frustrated me was my inability to find a place where I fit in to South Africa. Everywhere I go, I stand out and no matter how hard I try to fit in somewhere or with something, I’m never successful. I try to be understanding of the fact that I’m not something people see everyday, but do you seriously think I’d agree to be the girlfriend of a total stranger? And I’m really tired of explaining “…yes I’m from the US…no sorry I don’t know Eddie Murphy…or Barack Obama…no I’m not lost, I know exactly where I’m going on this taxi...” You get the picture. I know you’re probably thinking, “oh Britt, you need to lighten up and just get over it. It’s not that bad.” (I’m thinking that too as I reread this.) But it’s harder to deal with than it seems like it would. I promise. So I was going along in this funk trying to find the place I fit in here when something unexpected actually fixed my problem for me. I was doing my thing at Isaiah 58 one Friday when I was to bring the 10 kids (aged 2-5) that I help take care of out to the courtyard. We were surprised to meet a small group of visitors who had brought donations of toys for the kids to have. The Isaiah staff was called out to receive the donations and get their pictures taken with the visitors and the kids. I was surprised to be introduced as part of the staff and I think we were just about as excited as the kids were at the sight of toys that hadn’t been opened or played with before. Of all the experiences I’ve had with service or humanitarian work in my life, I’ve never been on the receiving end before. It was quite the out-of-body experience and really caught me off guard. I was surprised to feel a huge mixture of emotions too complicated for words but the most prominent and identifiable was the warm feeling of belonging that slowly spread through me as 5-year-old Liyema and I posed for a picture holding a box of Legos. It’s amazing how such small moments like this completely melt my huge amounts of cultural fatigue and frustration.

This was the beginning of my incline out of rock bottom and I’m happy to say that by the end of October, the realization that I only had one month left really shook me awake and I snapped quickly out of my funk without a backwards glance. My research is really starting to pick up and the next few weeks I’ll be scrambling to get it done. Talking with kids can be frustrating sometimes because they get distracted quite easily or will start talking about something and jump on to a whole different topic altogether. Bilingual kids in particular are hard to keep on track. They’ll be talking to me in English one second and midsentence start going off in Afrikaans. It’s a common occurrence to get strange looks from people when they find out I’m a non-Afrikaans speaking white person. I’m lucky that English is the “common ground” language here.

So what’s new…Ahh. Halloween came and went without much notice. Trick or treating is not really a smart thing to do here when 1) chances are slim that you’ll find a house where you can just walk right up to the front door and knock, 2) you should be worried if someone gives you free candy, and 3) walking around in a costume at night is pretty much asking to get mugged. So to celebrate Halloween this year, my roommates and I watched Ghost within the confines of our home and ate candy that we purchased for ourselves at the store. Last Monday, Trevor Noah, a famous South African comedian who has recently been doing lots of cell phone adverts on TV recently came to East London and I got to go to his live stand up show! I was mildly surprised to discover that I could understand and appreciate the South African humor of the show—something that wouldn’t have been possible three months ago. Saturday, we attended a braai at a white family’s house and this was kind of strange to me—I’m so used to being around coloureds and blacks all the time. But the food was delicious and I was so relieved to be served fish instead of the usual Boer worst. (If I have to eat one more sausage here I think I’m going to cry.) The weather is getting warmer by the day but we’ll still have a few random thunderstorms and rain spells for about 24 hours at a time. If you ask anyone who has ever lived in East London what the weather is like here, they’ll tell you that you can have all four seasons in one day. And it’s very true.

Now with only 2 weeks left in South Africa, I’m running at full speed but struggling to keep up with time as it accelerates off ahead of me. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I have to leave but reality hasn’t quite set in yet. If I just don’t let myself think about it, then I won’t have to deal with the sadness quite yet. I’m still secretly hoping my passport gets stolen or the airlines cancel all flights out of South Africa so I don’t have to leave. But I know I’ve got to face the facts sooner or later. I’m just choosing to face it later.

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