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Why I miss South Africa

As I watch the electoral process unfold in SA from China I feel proud of my country. My heart jolted as I wrote the words, “my country”. The elections are being done peacefully, democratically. My heart was warmed by the sight in the Mail & Guardian of a picture of an IEC official helping a blind, elderly woman vote as that polling station had no Braille ballots.

Since leaving SA nearly five years ago to explore the world, live elsewhere – a dream of mine since childhood – I have never really missed the country much as I was too busy absorbing one or another culture. Sure, I had travelled overseas several times before leaving, SA (perhaps for good, perhaps not) but I had never worked in another country. Believe you me a quick two week or two month tour of a country does not get it into your being. Not at all. It was too difficult to miss SA as I was too occupied with experiencing (not always enjoying) other countries, England, France, New Zealand and, omigod, especially trying to crack China as my regulars well know. The latter was the serious culture shock, France was simply enchante.

Today, at school between lessons, as I watch through the window the spring leaves slowly flare out of the street side plane trees, I miss the old girl: SA I mean. What almost comes first to mind and heart is the purple drama of Gauteng (Gauteng! You make my heart sing…) thunderstorms: that electric hush and thrill to the air as I cycled in the Magaliesberg, then the rain pounding down and the sudden klap of lightning loosening the bowels. The smell of wet veldt and the bluegum and fir trees’ leaves darkly boiling sideways into the storm. Ten minutes of clobbering rain: then that spiky silence again as the Magaliesberg emerges from the storm again, shrugging herself off, refreshed and slowly starting to smoulder again in the long, dusty summers…

Braais come next (barbeques for non South Africans), and I suppose it is a question of upbringing, but there is nothing like a SA braai. I haven’t had one in fricken three years, and the last one was in New Zealand where I had to grudgingly (I emphasise grudgingly) admit the beef and lamb was better than South Africa’s, my bru. The Chinese have no clue; just about everything is cooked and drowned in oil. The first thing the Chook wants when we get to New Zealand next year is: 1) Her daughter Michelle to have a large packet of biltong with her when she collects us at the airport. 2) A braai with pap (sudsa) and tomato bredie and mielies simmering on the grate.

What still features in my nightly dreams like a spiritual yearning for transcendence are the forests in the Eastern and Western Cape, particularly the Tsitsikamma forest and hiking the Otter Trail. I was always way ahead of the group I was with and it was great to sit for a bit on a completely desolate strip of beach butt naked with a glass of whiskey and water, sweating from the day’s hike and look at the whales’ spume arcing in the distance, Plettenberg Bay starting to twinkle as the night breathed in. The forests: sitting under tall masts of pine as they sang and whispered, sailing me off into a deeper peace, only occasionally broken by a falling pine cone chuckling to the ground. I will never forget the smell of wept pine gum on my hands: my eyes moisten at that miracle of remembered scent even now.

My first alma mater is Rhodes University and today for the first time in many, many years, about two decades in fact, I looked at some pics of Rhodes on the internet and my heart ached to see all those white buildings and the hill leading up to the 1820 Settlers National Monument.

But I do not really miss the people. I have often thought about that and can only relate it to my ambivalent feelings for the Chinese. So here goes.

Things I dislike and find amusing about mainland Chinese is that they hawk and spit on the streets periodically right in front of you, they do not queue a lot of the time, and will happily jump in front of you in queues (Beijing had special training days for months before the Olympics to get people in bus and subway queues to behave like civilised people). On the street they point out foreigners and seem to ridicule us with their laughs and grins, talking about us openly. For the most part, even in the school I teach at (and I get on with the staff and kids very well) I am still just known as lawei, the foreigner. Wherever I go I am just referred to as lawei and of late it has been freaking me out.

I can’t go to the park on People’s Square and just smell the flowers and relax in silence under the pine trees, because every second Chinese has to walk up to me and try out their swak English on me. Now their friendly efforts might sound very sweet, dear reader, but when all you want to do is time out and just enjoy the beauty of the flowers in peace, but can’t, because nearly every time there are endless people quite happy to single you out as the only lawei in the park and disturb you. (My trick when I see someone about to start talking to me is to pretend I am asleep.)

The Chinese are daft, nutty, half-baked. (Anal-retentive, “politically correct” readers have accused me of being distasteful when I describe the Chinese; I don’t care a fig. ) For example, right now workers are refurbishing our apartment building, as part of Shanghai’s general facelift for World Expo 2010. We are on the twenty-second floor and live in a green cocoon of scaffolding and netting. This is the view from our kitchen window, somewhere on this blog. img_1493.JPG

The first thing the workers did was paint the corridors white, just one or two coats, and no protective enamel paint, which is typical. Then, oh sweet heaven and all the saints and angels, only then did they start repairing windows, the elevator, the paving and wiring. The paintwork, only a few weeks old, is already spoilt with indelible grime, scuff marks and spatters of cement mix. What an utter waste of money and labour. Repairs to the building first surely, then the cosmetic bit where you paint all the walls. But honestly, these okes just don’t think, dammit think! And this is one of endless episodes I can tell you. It’s hilarious living in “The Middle Kingdom”!

But I love the Chinese. They are unbelievably friendly, viscerally so. And generous. I have got friends for life and two wonderful god-daughters. Once in the rain a distinguished looking Chinese rolled down his electronic car window and tossed me an umbrella, singling me out from the dozen or so Chinese also standing in the downpour. Positive discrimination. We gave our ayi (maid) Salina a Christmas present of chocolates once and she got us socks, scarves and legwarmers. We weren’t expecting anything. We were embarrassed and moved by her loving kindness and knew she really just wanted to be part of our little family.

I will be talking and writing about the daft, wonderful Chinese for years to come and will definitely miss them, but South Africans? Not really. (Though I am thrilled I recently made contact with an old school mate of mine, a friendship that goes back to standard seven in Boksburg High in 1978 and with whom I stowed away on a ship in Cape Town in 1982 headed for France because we took great exception to compulsory military service.)

Why? I don’t know. But I can make some guesses, such as maybe, just maybe too many are too busy being “politically correct” or playing one race card or another. Maybe I will try and answer the question in a future blog, depending on the response, if any, of that glorious, hilarious, multi-faceted and feisty character, the ta-daah…Thought Leadership Commentary!