Warm Fuzzy Feelings

So, many people have said to me, “Johannesburg is an amazing city. You’ll love it here.” And each time I ask them, “What is it that you like about this place?” Of course, I’ve been discovering this city little by little on my own terms and learning how best to love it through my own point of view, but there is also a lot of value in seeing a place through others’ eyes – through the people who have lived in it 3 months, 1 year, 10 years, or a whole lifetime more than you. Through these conversations, the responses that have struck me the most have been those related to the diversity of people here. Yes, it is a diversity that comes with a fair share of segregation and in some cases even racism, but nonetheless, one that seems to give its own unique vibrancy and color to the city. It has also become probably my single favorite thing here over the past few weeks.

It’s strange because, thinking back to my life in the U.S., I was never really lacking in diversity – from my own multi-cultural family to my friends groups reflecting Indian, Chinese, Korean, Jewish, African-American, Persian, and Hispanic backgrounds to my Baha’i communities with people from all over the world to simply living near a city like Chicago made up of neighborhoods that still reflect the cultural makeup of the immigrant communities that settled there years ago. But somehow, being in South Africa, I constantly find myself in awe at the diversity of people I am surrounded by each day. And, maybe it is the communication studies major in me, but something about hearing the mix of different languages and accents in particular resonates on an even deeper level, hitting me with unexpected feelings happiness. More than simply seeing the evident diversity of the people around me, the sound of the different accents coming together in one place is almost like listening to some kind of harmonious melody containing in it the essence of the beauty of mankind.

As music holds a potency to influence the soul and speak to all people in a way that words alone cannot, I can’t help but compare the intermingling of sounds that reflect the cultural background of each person to something as powerful as music. Accents just seem so beautiful to me in that they carry with them an always-present reminder of people’s cultures or places of origin. While molding one common medium of communication (in this case English) into different forms, they still allow the same message to come through — just seems like a good symbol for the oneness of humanity…how our differences are what add beauty and interest to our interactions and yet don’t prevent us from communicating and relating to each other.

At the same time, I am quite aware that the diversity I get to experience in my workplace – from the French speakers in the office across from me, to the lovely Irish (but sounds more like British) accent and sometimes even a “jolly good ol’ chap” from my one boss and the Italian accent of my half-Egyptian other boss to the always interesting South African accent of my sassy colleague in the cubicle next to me to the Japanese accent of the colleague diagonal from me – is a pretty exaggerated picture of the diversity of the city. Obviously, working in a UN office for an international aid organization comes with its fair share of expats and well-traveled, unique individuals. But still, even reflecting on who I’ve spent my weekends with – from Ethiopian dinner parties and trips to downtown areas where entire streets are full of Ethiopian-owned businesses (and several who gave me discounts just for being Ethiopian…despite my lack of Amharic-speaking skills or the fact that I don’t even look African) to native Joburg people my age (and my one friend who revealed to me that she refuses to speak the South African language she grew up with, Afrikaans, because it is a symbol of colonialism….something I found extremely interesting and a telling example of the power of language as more than simply a means of communication. especially after having read Mandela’s autobiography and all the times he mentioned how his white jailers would only speak Afrikaans and even refer to English as evidence of one’s inferiority) to Persians and Indians another weekend to Zimbabweans and Ghanaians the next. It’s hard not to feel some sense of joy from just simply having the opportunity to meet so many people from so many places in such a short period of time.

And, with all my talk of the oneness of humanity and the beauty of diversity, I realize this post has become rather cliché and cheesy, but sometimes you just have to step back and acknowledge all the warm fuzzy feelings from the good things around you. I could also talk about how it seems like with each new group of people I meet, we all at some point go around and exchange mugging or police corruption stories from our time in Joburg, in a manner always so casual and nonchalant as if a common icebreaker topic. Or about the rather unsettling realizations of how dramatically the racial demographics change depending on the wealth of the neighborhood you’re in. But, every city has its problems, and these still do not overshadow the beauty of the diversity here in my eyes.

All my oneness-of-humanity talk might also be attributed to the upcoming Baha’i youth conference this weekend and the pre-conference meeting I attended this past weekend. For those who don’t know, the Baha’i Faith is a world religion whose central aim is prettymuch to unify mankind and which teaches that all religions come from the same God. (I realize this is an extremely short summary of a religion but in the interest of not making this post a novel, you can also see the basics here: http://www.bahai.org/ or ask me more about it…plus I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in my next post). The upcoming youth conference is nothing short of incredible. One of 114 conferences happening all over the world (literally. all over the world….there was even one in Antananarivo! 😀 ) around this time, the point of the conferences is essentially to mobilize the Baha’i youth and initiate change by having youth (Baha’i or otherwise) plan more ways to serve the communities where they live. As such, all Baha’i youth were asked by the Universal House of Justice (the elected governing body of the Baha’is which is in Haifa, Israel) to only attend the conference where they live…and, seeing as I now will be living in Joburg for another 11 months, I decided not to go to the Chicago conference in August and will instead be going to this one.

And I cannot even express how excited I am. There is nothing I love more than being surrounded by a bunch of people my age with a similar life purpose and vision of the world. Not as in people of the same religion or people who think the same way, but just people who care about the world, love everyone, and want to make a difference. It is that common goal and purpose in life that leads to instant bonds between strangers and ties of friendship that go far deeper than liking the same kind of music. It was the same thing I felt at the 3-day orientation with the other fellows from my program – that instant connection with so many people I’d just met due to a common love for learning about other cultures and wanting to do something good in the world. This conference will be all the more special because I not only will get to meet hundreds of Baha’i youth from all over South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, but will also have in the back of my mind the whole time the knowledge that the same meetings are happening in every part of the globe, with thousands of other youth coming together with one common vision of serving mankind. It is the embodiment of unity in every sense — one that truly extends across the whole world.

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Next Step

After finally getting my own internet (which has honestly felt like the most liberating, life changing experience and has basically made me feel complete again….yeah, I know, it was a sad realization but I’ve accepted who I am. Also, bare in mind, there are some places where lack of Internet matters more than others just due to logistic needs and what not. This is one of those places.), I’ve had some time to actually thoroughly read some of the other fellows’ blogs. And, I must admit, I am slightly jealous – of the landscapes, of the fun-sounding adventures, of the fact that many of them actually get to be in the same city with other fellows, of the whole being in cities where everything is something worth telling because everything is new and different. I’m sure this feeling is mostly brought on by the fact that I just moved into my new furniture-less, barren-walled, echo-y little apartment today, where I will be living on my own for the next 11 months, and it made me realize, this is the first time in my life I am ever truly living by myself. The last few weeks I’ve been living with my cousin at his modest-sized apartment always packed full of his Ethiopian friends. Before that, I lived in a closet [but like, literally] in a frat-like house with nine of my friends my senior year of college. The summer before that, I was in a house full of crazies (4 guys and a girl) who I found through Craigslist and quite enjoyed living with despite the 4 am piano-playing sessions.  Prior to that, four different homestay families in Paris and Madagascar over the course of a year and before that: dorms. Can’t really get more 24-7 social interaction than that.

And now, with an apartment completely to myself for the first time ever, it is an interesting feeling. Not bad necessarily, but just, exceptionally silent. My first instinct is probably to run around in the nude for no other reason than I can (isn’t that what people do when they have their own place?) …but I can’t even partake in that experience since I still haven’t purchased curtains.

But I kind of feel like my life in this moment is actually reflected by the current state of my room: a square beige space with blank walls, its only piece of furniture a bed in the center with a neutral grey bedspread, and two Malagasy lambas (big patterned scarves) hanging from the window as a makeshift curtain. It’s not uncomfortable or unpleasant in any way, and in fact evokes a certain sense of humble pride in its simplicity yet functionality, but most of all, it reflects potential. Looking around me, all I can think of is the elaborate photo mural I plan on constructing on the wall before me, the world map I’ll post on the wall behind me next to my pictures of Paris, Madagascar, and Morocco, the essential Christmas lights I’ll soon string along every surface, and the perfect decorative pillow that will pop against the blandness of the grey comforter. Maybe it’s the lingering remnants of my 6th-grade interior decorator career dreams (that lasted probably a month), but the prospects of transforming this small plain space into livable art in fact fills me with a sense of excitement.

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The door (and iron bars) of my new home

In case the metaphor isn’t evident enough, I feel like I’ve reached the stage in my South African life where things have become relatively comfortable — at least to the point where I can begin to understand people’s accents, not be dumb enough to get stranded places due to a lack of knowledge that buses don’t run on weekends, and most importantly, begin to make friends. But at the same time, it is not the kind of comfort that makes you complacent with the current state of things, but the kind that seems to prep you for more to come. As in, you’ve crossed the necessary hurdle of “settling in”, whatever that really means (and, of course, lacking a fridge/furniture/access to a bank account probably still implies I’m not quite settled in yet), and in doing so, begin to feel your mind wander elsewhere. Without having all your thoughts dominated by how to manage the basics of daily life and just navigate your way around, you reach a point that is both intimidating and exciting: a blank slate. I’ve moved into my new apartment, I’ve spent a few weeks at my job, I’ve met a few people…now what?

As I’ve made fairly clear with all my comparisons to the other fellows, Johannesburg is not the kind of place where I’m bombarded by adventure the moment I walk out my door. And I’m someone that likes being bombarded by adventure. But Johannesburg is also clearly a place with much to explore and a lot to learn from, as I’ve gleaned from my new local friends and some Americans who’ve been here a few months. Exciting and intimidating. Exciting for the obvious reasons and intimidating because of the effort required to make something of it and not waste any time (and, along with that, learning to overcome my dirt cheap instincts to not spend money on taxis every weekend if I actually want to do any exploring…since in the end, it’s still cheaper than renting a car and I have to get around somehow now that I’ve made my choice). It’s scary how fast these last few weeks have gone and it’s made me realize that weekends are also basically the only time I really have free to do anything…and the number of weekends in a year are limited. So now that I have a new home, my own Internet, and several people’s numbers in my phonebook who I barely know, I’ve got the basics down and am ready to put the decorative pillow on my grey bedspread. (p.s. that last bit was still a metaphor. just in case you missed it)