The “I’m new here” Advantage

I’m starting to discover how liberating this whole starting-fresh-in-a-new-country-with-no-friends-thing is. There’s a certain sense of freedom in the fact that you can comfortably break a lot of the social norms that typically prevent people from reaching out to random strangers they typically would not be making any effort to meet. With a simple, “I’m new here and don’t know anybody,” you suddenly get to ask anyone and everyone to hang out with you without having your motives questioned or coming across as a desperate freak (not saying you can’t just make friends with strangers in other situations, but in general, it just doesn’t really happen that often…excluding situations like the first year of college). I’ve always wished it were a normal thing to be able to just go up to some random person and be like, “hey, you look cool, wanna hang out?”I just feel like there are so many people in the world that I am yet to meet that I would probably get along great with but am simply lacking in the opportunities and proper circumstances to meet them. Take for instance, the new friend I just made at a café the other day. After having overheard my attempts on the phone to find an apartment, the girl across from me mentioned that she happened to be renting out a room. We continued to talk for a while and I told her how I was new here and wanted to see more of the city and she offered to show me around sometime. Just like that. A random person I only spoke to for like 5 minutes who just seemed cool, and now we have plans to go on fun Joburg adventures together….a situation mainly brought about by my newfound reduced inhibitions towards hanging out with randos caused by my newcomer situation, but which I hope to continue even after I’ve lost the “I don’t know anyone here” status.

It also pushes you to make the effort in the first place. If you want to avoid a boring life of loneliness in a new country, you kind of have to try every avenue possible – attending a religious gathering, contacting a friend of a friend of a friend, having that friend of a friend introduce you to their friends, looking up expat groups, meeting up with people you never met who went to your university, joining some kind of a team, talking to the random person at the table next to you, … just prettymuch anything you can think up. You may not find your new bff, but you are at least bound to meet an interesting mix of people one way or another.

Another bonus of the “I’m new here” status and subsequent freedoms entailed is that you end up in way more situations you never thought you’d be in…whether good, bad, or just plain weird…but either way, always interesting and worth it somehow.  For instance, never did I expect to find myself in the VIP section of the fanciest club I’ve ever been in (while on the continent often associated with charity ads of starving children) accompanied by a group of filthy rich, heads of a mineral-mining business at 22, kind of really racist, crazy partying Indians, while being hit on by a 16-year-old dressed in an expensive suit who looks like he’s25. Or being in a car with them later that night as we are stopped by two cops for essentially no reason (although I’m pretty sure the guy driving was going like 50 above the speed limit so I guess that should have been a reason), who then agree to let us goand even escort us home so we don’t get stopped by other cops after the guy driving slips them $10 and makes some joke about how they better buy him McDonalds later.

But also, on that note, never did I expect to see racism so overtly displayed anywhere in the world. I’ve been reading Nelson Mandela’s A Walk to Freedom and over and over again been shocked by the extent of the measures that were part of government’s apartheid laws really not that long ago. It’s not like I was previously unaware of how horrible apartheid was or anything, but thinking about it in the context of how recent it all was and how absolutely ridiculous and arbitrary all of the laws were (like how they could decide a man’s status and entitlements as a Black or Colored person based simply on some physical trait like the slope of his shoulders), it made me wonder, can everything really have changed that drastically between then and now? I was met with the glaring answer to my question the other day as I heard my companion utter the n-word and the Afrikaans equivalent of it among other things and discovered that the “whitey” club we were in could literally turn away black people to maintain the mostly white atmosphere of the place.

After such experiences though, I couldn’t help but compare it to America and the race issues we undoubtedly still have as well…in reality, is racism that’s more systemically-entrenched and unspoken yet still there really any better than the kind that’s clearly out there for everyone to see? I feel like it’s somewhat easier for people to becoming complacent with the social order when the issues at hand are left unspoken…when they lie in the patterns of wealth inequality, disproportionate education, and career opportunitiesas opposed to words of hatred. [Also, though, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not projecting the overt racist views of some in this country to the country as a whole either]. But in any case, having the opportunity to be in such random situations and meet people with worldviews so different from my own continues to be one of the most important and enlightening aspects of being a new place. It’s a reminder of the drastically different upbringings each and every person has had and that simply judging a person for the views they hold won’t really get you anywhere, but sometimes you just have to take it as an opportunity to reflect on your own mindset and all the things you sometimes forget to question.

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Things Not to Do in Joburg

Well, I survived my first week of work.

And having lived in South Africa for two whole weeks now, I can confidently say I still do not know this place at all. But, I can at least say that I am very familiar with the few blocks around my cousin’s house, the giant mall nearby, the extremely hipster internet café next door, and the view along the bus route from his house to my work. So maybe this whole blogging thing won’t turn out to be full of the most enthralling tales of treks through the wilderness while riding on lions with pictures of gorgeous-African scenery and what not (which, also, would be terribly cliché, probably misleading, and reducing the country to a stereotype) but nonetheless, learning to simply navigate in my first job seems to me a big enough adventure for now.

Although, as far as adventure is concerned, I have learned that if you want to accumulate good stories that could even fall into the category of “adventures”, you basically just have to be a total idiot in new settings. As a result, I have managed to almost get my credit card stolen, get run over by cars, be lost in a neighborhood without a phone, be stranded in a place a long way from my house or the train station with no car or enough money for a taxi, and have countless painfully awkward encounters due to my inability to understand the South African accent. [Which has also made me aware of others’ inability to understand my accent. It’s made me realize how, as an American, I have this weird subconscious assumption that my English is the normal version of English and everything else is an accent. It’s bizarre to take a step back and think about how you are actually the one with the accent and that these people have also spoke English their whole lives….I always appreciate being in situations that make me aware of the subtle biases I didn’t even realize I had.]

The credit card thing, though, has helped knock a little more common sense in me when it comes to basic safety measures. For one, it is probably not a good idea to withdraw $500 in cash and plan to walk a mile home by yourself in this city. Or, to let others hear your accent when drawing money. Or, to have a really confused look on your face when a machine won’t give you your money and proceed to try multiple other machines. But in any case, clearly having drawn attention to myself, some man came up behind me and, pretending to offer his help (which I obviously did not want at an ATM machine…), took the card from my hand and shoved it in the machine. When I pressed cancel and the card wouldn’t come out, the “security guard” by the door told me the machine just ate my card and there was nothing I could do, then yelled something in another language to the man, the man then left the building, and a few moments later, a guy found my card at the ATM next to me. Conclusion: the man pretended to put my card in the machine then left it behind at the other machine and the security guard person was probably not an actual security guard judging by his response to things. Fortunately, I cancelled my card and everything was fine.

Having now gone through a mandatory UN security briefing with a lady who seemed determined to convince me to watch my back at all times and pretty much assume that any person I encounter could potentially be a criminal out to get me, I will say that I am at least exercising a little more caution. For instance, walking home by myself, at night, on a street with no lights, carrying a laptop is probably not the smartest thing to do.  But still, I refuse to live my life in fear, and as such, am holding to my decision to not rent a car here and walk/take public transportation whenever possible.  I’m sure I will come to regret my decisions eventually, but whatever.

And finally, on the subject of work, the place where I will be spending the majority of my days here, the summary of my impression is basically that I love the place, everyone seems great, the work is super interesting, but I still feel mostly incompetent in a workplace environment. I feel like I try so hard to maintain a professional demeanor (which, having just come from a university setting is obviously still pretty unnatural to me), that I end up overcompensating and instead just seem super serious and uncomfortable at all times. I’ve learned that to do well at a job, working hard is really not enough – you have to actually be good at communicating your work to others, showing people that you’re taking initiative, and basically forming actual relationships.  I have been put in the most ideal environment to do this — my bosses are super friendly and have literally left it open to me to contribute some of my own project ideas — it’s just up to me now to actually make something of it and not let myself sink into an intern-role. On another note, it’s also really cool just listening to all the different accents of my coworkers on a daily basis (overhearing outcries of “fok” from the cubicle next to me every so often never ceases to amuse me). Hopefully I will find a way to bond with more of them outside of the break-time sessions that involve exchanging stories about their children though….

But mostly, I really just want to make an actual concrete contribution to this organization that I’m coming to have ever-increasing respect for as I learn about all of its work in food assistance and humanitarian relief.  The task is somewhat daunting when considering how much influence the organization already yields as a giant, well-established multilateral agency as compared to small nonprofits where one’s contributions and new ideas seem to have more of a direct impact. But for now, as I still face the distractions of a seemingly-endless apartment search, finding friends my own age so I don’t become a lonely cat lady by the end of the year, and figuring out how to even have a life outside of work when I go to bed at 8:30 on weekdays, I plan on being patient with myself in all aspects of the adjustment process.

The Left Side of the Road

There’s something to be said for going into a new situation with the expectation that everything will be horrible.

 I’m not saying this was my mindset going into South Africa in general, but I definitely prepared myself for the what I knew would be a terribly stressful first week of figuring of finding a phone, finding an apartment, figuring out if I absolutely have to rent a car, then figuring out how to rent a car, figuring out how to get around, figuring out how to get furniture/internet in my apartment, then eventually starting work and figuring out how to basically just live in this new place. I realize these are all basic things that most people eventually have to figure out regardless of where they live, but the whole having to figure out how to do all these basic adult things for the first time while being basically on my own in a different country without the ability to get around easily and about to start a new job in a matter of days is kind of just a lot to deal with. 

But you know what, thanks to my expectations of everything being horrible, I can at least say that these first 2 days have not been all that terrible. I still have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE what I am doing and how I am going to find a place to live, much less get around without a car to even look at those places, but I am soo fortunate to have my second cousin here. With most of my dad’s relatives living in Ethiopia and my mom’s side of the family who knows where, I’ve never really experienced what it’s like to actually be close to relatives. It’s still hard for me to get used to someone I barely know going to so many lengths to help me out as much as he can, not to mention him calling up his friends who don’t know me to do favors for me as well. It’s kind of funny how in my initial South Africa experience, I feel like I’ve immersed myself more into Ethiopian culture. With most of my cousin’s friends and wife only speaking amharic, it’s been pretty interesting trying to connect with people I can’t even talk to, who I can tell are really nice but unfortunately can’t do anything but awkwardly mess up the number of cheek kisses in our greetings (which, believe me, can get pretty awkward).

I’ve also had an interesting glimpse into the lives of Ethiopians in South Africa. A lot of them come here because it’s easier to open up their own businesses – anything from little kiosks to sewing and tailoring shops like my cousin owns. It seems like a lot of their business is done through an informal sector where they all make their own schedules (my cousin works from like 6 in the morning to 7 in the evening…) and that, due to the corruption of the cops here, it’s easy for someone to get by for 6 years without an actual driver’s license (said the person who offered to give me driving lessons around the city). Good to know.

My cousin’s friend also informed me that I should “never ask the blacks for directions” after we had gotten lost driving to my office, since they will make up things and lie to you unlike the whites. …this coming from a black person. He later proceeded to tell me some of his other views on another ethnic group that I’m pretty sure could be considered racist. I’d been warned that some of the racism here is more overt than the kind we have in the U.S., but it was just interesting to me how casually he made these statements. He also seemed like a really nice and friendly guy which made it all the more jarring, so I’m really curious now to learn about race relations in general in this city….especially as a city made up of a large number of immigrants and various ethnic groups that came here many years ago.

Anyways, besides my newfound bits of knowledge about the city from the point of view of a few Ethiopians who live here, my first impressions have been scarily close to what I expected they would be. Namely, that Johannesburg is honestly not that different from a city in the U.S.  With it’s mountainous landscape behind clusters of tall buildings and slightly arid looking terrain (probably just because it’s winter now), I’d say it’s a lot like a larger version of El Paso, Texas. I’m sure for a lot of people moving to a new country, they’d be pleased to find a place so similar to what they know, but in a lot of ways, I honestly think this place will be way more challenging to get used to than was Madagascar for me. The challenge lies in the fact that there still are differences, and plenty of them, but they are subtle – which make them all the more disorienting. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, people walk on the left side of the sidewalk, the money’s different, the English is distorted by any number of unidentifiable accents….and, in the end, this is still Africa. I feel like a huge brat for even feeling this way, but a part of me still longs for that feeling of being immersed into a place where nothing is recognizable, where you don’t have to worry about things like money and cars and apartments but can simply throw yourself into a different way of life where your main concerns are getting to know the locals and learning the language. With my fair share of stalking all the other fellows’ photos of their countries, of gorgeous African landscape you would find in a stereotypical guidebook of the continent, I can’t help but feel a little like my experience will not be the same “African” experience they prepared us for in orientation. I’ve been drinking the tap water since the day I’ve arrived and my stomach shows no signs of distress. Mine is simply an experience of a college grad moving to a new city and starting their first job.

And I think my greatest challenge still will come down to this whole driving issue. So far, I’ve come to realize just how isolating it feels in this city without a car, and it is probably a large contributing factor to the way I feel now. The sense of independence I’ve always felt in big cities with well-developed public transportation systems that could get me anywhere is for the most part absent here. And I honestly don’t know if I will be able to overcome my fear of driving (not to mention on the left side of the road in a big city where I could get stopped by a cop who will then realize I’m a foreigner and probably throw me in jail for a day till I give him a bribe or something! …I’ve heard stories) to the point where I’d ever be comfortable enough to really do anything more than drive to work every day. In response to my inquiry as to the feasibility of taking public transportation instead of renting a car, my boss’s reply consisted of “It is not safe to walk alone anywhere…at anytime.” and something about there being a high rate of violent crime and HIV here and that while the chances of it happening to me may be small, the consequences are high.

So yeah, like I said in my last post, everything will be an adventure. Part of adventures are challenges…and at this point in my life, a big city full of highways and malls with surface similarities to the U.S. and differences that gradually make themselves known to me will probably be a much more challenging adjustment than a rural village with almost no similarities to the U.S. But maybe that’s why I’m here. The greatest challenges make for the greatest opportunities to grow, right?

It will be an adventure.

Are you excited?

The question of the week to which I still struggle to articulate a proper response. In theory, I’d say I’m excited. I am about to depart for an entire year to Africa to pursue what can probably be described as my dream job (or, at least, the closest version I have of what my dream career could be with my very limited knowledge of my interests at the moment and what I will actually be doing at this job). But, at least at this point in my life, the idealized image I’ve gradually developed in my mind as the most appealing job I could imagine has consisted of:

1. Something in another country.

2. Working for a large NGO or government agency that does significant work to develop the capacity of impoverished populations

3. Something that deals with international relations or has collaboration across different organizations and/or countries

4. Doing something that has to do with writing/communications/creative stuff

5. Working in both an office environment and in the field

And, somehow, thanks to Princeton in Africa, I now have the opportunity to spend a year working for the world’s largest humanitarian agency while on the African continent doing exactly what I want to do. It even relates to communication studies!…who ever thought my random college major that  essentially was about nothing and everything all at the same time would actually come in handy… (side note: for now, as hard as it is for me, I will try to avoid stating the name of the agency in my blog due to warnings from our program of past fellows’ blogs coming up in google searches about their organizations and getting into some trouble for random comments they made).  But the point is, this is probably the greatest opportunity that has ever happened to me. And my mind is still slightly blown that it has.

After meeting the 45 other incredible fellows that will be working at different partner organizations all across Africa at orientation, my only thought was, how the heck am I here?…followed by extreme admiration for the passion and uniqueness of each person. There is something so amazing about being surrounded by 45 other like-minded people with the same curiosity about the world, open-mindedness toward other cultures, and sincere desire to contribute something meaningful to making the world a better place. I didn’t realize the extent to which these people affected me in those 3 short days until returning back to my final weeks of college with a completely refreshed outlook on everything. I think it is safe to say that senior year broke me down to the point where I felt completely incapable of anything and the mere thought of graduation made me shudder in fear. Something about meeting all of the fellows and thinking about our upcoming journeys revived the single most important thing that the stressfulness of senior year had slowly drained out of me: passion.

I still have absolutely no clue how I managed to get into this program and am convinced that I somehow deceived them of my abilities in my application, but my thoughts have gradually shifted away from my inabilities and more towards a general feeling of excitement for the mere fact that I at the very least get to attempt to pursue my passion. The simple thought that, no matter how good or bad I do at the job, the fact that I have the opportunity to live abroad while doing work aimed at both feeding and empowering people has given me a sense of fulfillment and joy I can barely even describe.

So overall, you could say I am excited. But, at the moment, a few days before I leave for Johannesburg, my actually feelings of excitement seem slightly muted by the thick air of mystery clouding my thoughts. By mystery, I mean I literally have no clue what to expect once I get there  — no apartment, no phone, no car, no friends, no specific visuals I can even really conjure up of what the city will be like as a whole, not to mention no real clue of what I will actually end up doing as a fellow at my organization or how much they will expect of me as a fellow. There’s also the endless list of fears I have about what could happen when I get there…like that my supervisors will quickly realize they picked a fellow that, despite having a strong interest in international development and world affairs, has never really followed the news and could not even point out most of the countries on a map.
….or, my ultimate fear: that I will have to rent a car and learn to drive stick.

With all this in mind, my response to the “Are you excited?” question has generally been, “Yes, but I have no clue what I’m doing.” To which the common response has been,

“Well, it’ll be an adventure.”

…It’s kind of funny how the word adventure could be used to describe climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or going on a safari across Africa just as easily as it might be applied to simply having no idea what it is you’re doing.  But I guess it’s true. And I’ve decided I kind of like that definition of adventure: being lost and confused but just continuing to do things anyways.  Perhaps my goal for this year will simply be to remember to look at everything as one big adventure. So for now, I look forward to all the confusion, bad decisions, and failures I will inevitably have as I embark on this journey just as much as I look forward to the work I’ll be doing, the amazing people I’ll meet, and the places I will go. It will no doubt be an adventure.