South Africa's landscape is much like that of southern California, where I lived for many years, so I had an odd sense of familiarity as we journeyed around this country that I'd never been to.
And maybe that false familiarity with the landscape is what kept throwing me off as I tried to think about the metaphorical South African "landscape" -- language, politics, culture. I kept realizing with chagrin that I really didn't understand all that I thought I did and that all of my reading and studying ahead of time didn't mean that I actually necessarily knew what was going on.
For example, we had a lot of trouble in figuring out our tour guides. The first guide we had proudly told us in his introduction that he was an 11th-generation Afrikaner and had grown up on a farm -- a true Boer, as it were, although he didn't use that term and I think it may now be a politically loaded word. But, see, I don't actually quite know that; I feel like the phrase "11th-generation Afrikaner" probably signals all sorts of things that I didn't fully grasp (the Wikipedia "Boer" article I linked to says a little about this). And, as someone who cares a lot of language and how people use it to say all sorts of things below as well as on the surface, the sense of disorientation I felt at having only a surface understanding of language was both incredibly interesting and incredibly, well, disorienting!
We came to have affection for this tour guide, Tiaan, but he pissed us off mightily more than once. (And when I say "we" and "us" here, I mean the chaperones ... or, as we took to calling ourselves, "the Fac Pack"; I have heard opinions from a few of the students about Tiaan, but not enough so that I could generalize about their attitudes.) He was annoyed that we wanted to shift our plans slightly to include the Apartheid Museum -- I think he thought it was redundant, given our earlier visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum -- and so on our bus trip to the museum he kept talking about the importance of not dwelling on the past but rather looking to the future instead. (Believe me, I've now thought A LOT about the power dynamic of who has hold of the microphone on a tour bus -- not a bad thing to have been frustrated by for a teacher, actually, since of course that's essentially the position I hold in my classroom). In conjunction with the many disparaging comments he made over the week about taxes and government waste and corruption, we developed a certain picture of his politics, and one of the Fac Pack started referring to him as "our Tea Party guide," and certainly if we'd been back in the States, I think that might have been an accurate appelation. But I can't really say, in a South African context, that his opinions make him a "conservative," because I'm not sure what the conservative-liberal spectrum looks like there. Plus, the current ANC government does in fact seem to be plagued with corruption and government waste. Maybe it's incredibly frustrating for a South African tour guide to be talking with one American group after another that wants to focus on apartheid and thinks of the ANC mostly in terms of Nelson Mandela and doesn't really know much about the current government.
We also wondered how much "white guilt" (American term, of course) Afrikaners felt over apartheid and to what extent this might be affecting Tiaan's statements about the past and future. He is probably around 40, so he was just finishing high school when Mandela was released from prison; he actually didn't go through the Apartheid Museum with us, and when one of the Fac Pack asked him about it, he said that going through the exhibits made him so sick that he just couldn't do it anymore. He also spoke respectfully about various African tribes and speaks Zulu and Xhosa (as well as Afrikaans and English and some European languages as well -- quite the linguist). At the same time, he could be very abrupt with clerks and salespeople, to the extent that at least a few of the students thought he was racist, but then again he seemed very respectful of our black driver, and the two of them seemed to speak Zulu quite amicably. (They both spoke English well, so I think they spoke Zulu when they didn't want us to understand them! I noticed the same phenomenon among the safari guides at Kruger National Park; I think they wanted to be able to talk about what animals they'd seen where without raising the expectations of the visitors, and I'm sure they sometimes wanted to bitch about us as well.) And, based on other interactions we had with other folks, some of us wondered if perhaps white South African culture is just more abrupt than we're used to in America. The point is that we couldn't reliably read social interactions in the way that we're used to, and we kept scrambling to understand what was going on underneath the surface and being stymied by our inability to do so.
Another incident from our second tour guide, Clare, whom we had in Cape Town in the last leg of our journey. We quickly came to thoroughly dislike her (as opposed to Tiaan, for whom we came to have real affection despite our frustrations with him), but this incident happened in our first hour of knowing her. She had collected us at the airport after our flight from Johannesburg and was taking us to the V&A Waterfront to wander around a bit, have our first glimpse of Cape Town, and eat lunch. She was describing the various lunch possibilities at the Waterfront and told us that, for better or worse, a McDonald's had just opened up there (much groaning at this). There was also, she said, a Kentucky Fried Chicken there, and then she added, "The Africans just LOVE Kentucky Fried Chicken; they're there all the time."
So, first of all, when she said "Africans," she meant blacks. We never heard anyone else on the trip use "blacks" and "Africans" as equivalent terms, and I found it extremely strange and troubling. It sounded racist to me, although when I got home and was telling D. about it, she wondered if it was the South African version of saying "Native Americans" instead of "Indians." Hmm, I just don't know. (As you've seen, "I just don't know" is what I keep coming back to!) And maybe it just seemed racist to me because the first time I heard her say it was in a remark about black people loving fried chicken. One of my fellow Fac Pack was ready to deck the woman, and again, in an American context, I would have half-expected Clare to follow up the fried chicken comment with one about watermelon, at which point we could have easily labeled her as a racist ... unless she was talking about it in a soul food context, at which point maybe everything changes -- all so complicated! And if it's complicated for us in an American context, how much more so in a South African context where we don't understand subtext? As I said to my colleague over lunch (at neither McDonald's nor KFC, thank you; we took advantage of being on the Cape to have seafood whenever possible), we don't know whether South Africa has a cultural stereotype about blacks and fried chicken; if that stereotype doesn't exist there, is her comment racist? Now, since we eventually learned beyond reasonable doubt that Clare is really anti-gay, and since we came to loathe her, I'm just as happy to think that she's a racist as well, but the point is that we actually couldn't tell that one way or the other from her comment.
What I really, really wish is that we'd had someone in South Africa with whom we could have thrashed some of this out, but neither of our tour guides was up for such analysis -- and particularly not for such self-analysis, which is fair enough -- and we were all stepping gingerly enough in our other social interactions that we avoided such interrogation. But I do know a really smart South African who is very thoughtful about race and about her own and other national contexts; she's finishing up her M.Div. this term, so she's got a lot on her plate, but I may ask her to have coffee with me, perhaps after she graduates, so that I can pick her brain.
Anyway, all of this cultural disorientation was both fascinating and utterly exhausting; D. keeps telling me that one reason I'm so tired is that I'm going through culture shock, which at first I dismissed because, for heaven's sake, I was only there for just over a week, but now I'm realizing that she might be right, that the constant thinking I was doing, always trying to read everything around me and being stymied in that attempt, probably wore me right out. (Not that I don't think on a regular basis here, of course, but you see what I mean.) It does give me some additional understanding of what my AP Comp class probably feels like for my students, though -- I'm always asking them to figure out the subtext of language, and while the U.S. is their own culture, they don't know nearly as much about it or its history as I sometimes assume they do, and so they are often scrambling a bit.
And now I'm going to hit "Publish" and am going to go out and plant forsythia in my back yard. I've basically given up on getting schoolwork done before spring break ends tonight -- which means it's going to be one hell of a week as I play catch-up, but at least the faculty go back one day before the students do -- and instead am trying to do self-nourishing things. And since I went to bed at 8:30 last night and have already been up for a couple of hours this morning (hmm, what did I say the other day about not having any jet lag?), I should be able to get the three plants in the ground before I head off to church this morning. And then there may well be a nap in my future.