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.

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2 comments on “Things Not to Do in Joburg

  1. RunKateRun says:

    Can’t find much personal detail about you, but welcome to Jo’burg!! I promise that it’s one of the greatest cities around and maybe you just need a little time to to orientate yourself and get into the flow of things.

    The driving thing is tough, but I have an idea of where you’re staying by what you’ve said and it’s quite a nice area (Illovo/Sandton?). Don’t stress yourself worrying about the ‘what ifs’, Jo’burg is a big, urban city and incidents happen, but if you keep your wits about you, common sense will serve you well.

    Chat to me on Twitter (@Kate_Els) if you want some suggestions on neighbourhoods, places to hang out etc.

  2. srobele says:

    Thanks! the city does seem pretty cool…I just haven’t seen a whole lot of it yet. and yeah, right now I’m in Illovo by Rosebank but am soon moving to Sunninghill. and I would love any and all suggestions! 🙂

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