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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