I always wondered about that phrase, “a fish out of water”. To me, it always seemed like a chosen emotion. That is, you can only be a fish out of water if you chose to be one. In my head, any situation can be accommodated by opening yourself up to it, learning about it and experiencing it open-heartedly. And it always works in your favour if you know enough people who are willing to take you into the context and guide you through it. After all, that’s probably the reason why so few people in the South African context fear cross-cultural experiences – because they don’t know anyone well enough, or don’t feel secure enough to ask someone to take them with and embed them in a situation supportively so that they can have the experience for themselves. Am I wrong?
Now we all have preconceived notions that we can’t get away from when it comes to other cultures. Sometimes we fight them, at other times we merely suppress them and sometimes, the most we can hope for is just to be aware of them – conscious that they do in fact exist somewhere within us.
Here’s mine: A personal history of prejudice against Afrikaners. Now at this point I will probably try and defend that statement by saying “I have plenty of Afrikaans-speaking friends, some of them very close to me” etc. etc. And look, I will be completely honest here, I will openly preach my ignorance and say, I do know that there is a difference I am just not always sure what it is. So to clarify in light of all of this then, I have a prejudice against Afrikaners, not Afrikaans people? Yes. Okay.
Disclaimer: It is necessary for me to openly admit this shortcoming because in light of my experience, you should know that I am not Ghandi or Mother Teresa or Lady Di. I am a flawed human being with problems, and I am not blaming my existential crises on anyone but myself.
A casual conversation with colleagues made me aware of the fact that my experience was no different to anyone else’s. South Africa as a country does contain these separatist forums, whether they art festivals, book fairs or museums (and they do deserve a space, I absolutely agree) where you will only find the same, the same. And that, I think, out of everything is why I am so keen on experiencing them and I have. But in my personal experience never before had I encountered this deeply-rooted otherness (well not since school) as when I went to Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom. So much so that it is now three days later and the uneasiness of how different I was in that context is still niggling at my white bones.
And no, people were not mean or openly racist (like they were at said school). Nobody pointed me out and shouted “Look, the only gay (or the only brown person) in the village”. A practical gesture of “othering” me did not occur and was not necessary in order for me to feel exceptionally “othered”.
It rose from me, organically, until some part of my personality was flailing about desperately to make sense of it all by trying to just fit in or often times, walk away, observe, and say nothing at all- “I am the fish, and I am definitely out of water”, I thought.
I missed other people. Other people who were not white and Afrikaans. Who could perhaps talk about the same things in very different ways. I missed understanding something, anything, myself even. And no, I did not miss them in the sense that I wished I was not in Potchefstroom (because I did want to be there) and hoped instead to be somewhere more dynamic – in terms of language and colour and culture, I just wished they were there with me. To challenge the status quo, to take it all in with me, and to know what it felt like. Because after a while, even the friends I knew started to become strangers. Foreign to me. They seemed to have changed from how I knew them outside of the context to the festival and morphed into just one big smudge of the same as everything else. I was acutely aware of how strange their behaviour, actions and conversations felt to me. And then I realised that they were not different to how I knew them at all. I am the different one really, and it became very obvious to me in a very deep place, and I can’t explain what it feels like. Lonely I guess.
I was switched on, all the time. Constantly aware of all of this unfolding or revealing itself. Was I just blind before? Naive? Is it easier to be who you really are when you are unchallenged by say the prerequisites of a more colourful city like Johannesburg and you can exist plainly and simply just as you want to be with people who are exactly like you in a place like Potchefstroom? Or was I just not trying hard enough to be accommodating? (This of course is met with the very harsh fact that it is harder to accommodate multitudes of the same people then it is for them to maybe accommodate you, as the “new” one to the environment?) (Read introductory paragraph on support etc.)
I had a post-mortem conversation with a friend yesterday (one who in fact wittily keeps questioning my incessant need to be surrounded by Afrikaners and their culture and also my choice to go along to Aardklop) and I remember saying to her, in hindsight: “Aardklop is all a bad dream. I felt like I was stuck in a weird carnival parallel universe where everyone was strangely familiar and familiarly strange. The things I thought would be most weird about it, were not weird at all. The whole energy and the entire memory of everything seemed like a dark painting and still very white and out of all the freaks at the circus, I am the biggest of them all. The last act. The draw card. The strange little gnome who went along to the parade to see what it was all about and now feels a bit damaged by it.”
Perhaps I am reading too much into this, perhaps it is every person for themselves and the fact that I felt so awkwardly out of place to the extent that it hurt is just again my prejudice, my lack of growth, that innate feeling I pre-empted in knowing I was probably going to feel like that anyway. The difference is though, that I did try. And it is always going to be important to me as a human being to try. The lesson here, is to not expect anyone else to recognise that – regardless of how well they know you. Although, if they did, if everyone did, we all might want to try again. Isn’t that the point of learning about other cultures to begin with? To want to try again?
To not be met with disdain and deafening silence when I said the experience was overwhelming and a culture shock. (I can see the thoughts steam forth and whisper, “then why did you go?”)
Of course it was. Again, of course it was overwhelming and a culture shock! And I am not sorry if that is disappointing to everyone else who was not out of their comfort zone or never experienced what being out of your comfort zone feels like to this extent.
But that’s not ever going to be a good enough reason not to do something, is it?