Monday, November 18, 2013

South Africa ... the leaving and the staying.

Bear with me ... this is a long one today. But i've been sitting with these words for too long and they're needing to be put down. So here i go ...

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store on Saturday morning. The mood was busy. People rushing around and almost colliding with their carts. Better things to be doing, better places to be, everyone in a hurry. The woman in the line behind me looked stressed, balancing two large Christmas wreaths on one arm while she checked her watch on the other. She sighed and paced a little. The checkout lady was grumpy, and slow. I offered her my place, she with her two wreaths and in a hurry - i had a full basket and plenty of time. She smiled her gratitude and told me that she was taking the wreaths to the cemetery. They had a bit of time that morning and wanted to do it ahead of the busyness of this festive time of year.

And it hit me a little. How simple an act of love and remembrance that was. Placing a wreath on a gravestone in this time of year when we show love and we celebrate with our families and friends. Such a simple thoughtful act but one i cannot perform. The cemeteries where my loved ones lie buried are thousands of miles away from where i stood that Saturday morning in a grocery store line. A simple act of love I would not be able to carry out. 

The little things we miss when we leave home to live away. Abroad. Overseas. The big things we know about. We plan for those. The weddings. Christmas. Birthdays. We take deep breaths and steel ourselves for those. But the little ones ... they are the ones that steal out of nowhere and take our breaths away. A knife in the gut. The flash of homesickness that stops us in our tracks.

Lately it's been on my mind almost all of the time. Maybe having my mom here and for the first time since we came to the States, she came to visit us in our own home. The finality of that was hard for me, thinking of us in all the years ahead - being here and not there. Saying goodbye for almost a year again at the airport and the heaviness of hearts on both sides as she turned to walk towards the security gates. 
I read a play by Athol Fugard - it's been sitting beside my bed for a long time and then i was ready to read it ... just a short simple play about a man returning home to South Africa from England to die, a glimpse into his life before he left, and how it was to be gone for all that time. 
And then I read the Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffmann. I had avoided it for so long, terrified of the depths it would go to, dealing as it does with Masada. I wasn't sure i was brave enough to read it but when i finally did, i could not put it down. And there's the theme of exile running through it too - being displaced, not at home, being forced to leave and how one lives with that longing for a place one cannot return to. (If you haven't read it, it's a beautiful book. Hard to read at times, but beautiful.)
We tried out a new church in Katonah one Sunday a little while ago. Who would have thought the sermon would begin with a story about visiting a church in Kenya. I don't often meet people here who have actually been to Africa and I definitely wasn't expecting one of them to be the pastor. And then her sermon was about the old Testament and the Jewish people in exile - forced away from home, having to trust in a plan for their future but being afraid and full of anger and grief. She spoke about being a stranger in a strange land, and how it can apply to so many situations, the sense of being in exile, not just the obvious one of being away from one's homeland - a family who's home has burnt down and who are displaced for many months, people moving across the country for work ... but of course for me it hit home so strongly about South Africa and although i'm not exiled - I can go home at any time - it's not as simple as that and the grief had been building up more than i realized. It was just a few days after my mom had left to fly back and i couldn't hold back the tears. I had to run out of the Church before i started sobbing out loud.

And then i read this blog post after seeing a link to it in Facebook (and I'm glad i did, i have been looking for South African blogs to read)  ... and then as things often go in the online world, one article led to another and there were so many differing comments to read, other articles, so many people weighing in on the subject. Another Facebook conversation recently about the idea of leaving or staying, how one decides. It's all been echoing for me - over and over.

It's a hot topic for any South African. Those living happily in South Africa and those there but wishing they were not. The ones who left and don't look back and the ones who left and wish they were still there. The ones who left but think they might go back. Or wish they could, but can't. The list is endless. As is the list of variables. But one thing we have in common. We know this story. We have sat at braais and barbeques. Dinner parties. Watching our kids at soccer and football games. Soccer in the US and at home, which would make it football in the UK. Or football in the US but that would not be soccer. But the conversations are the same. We have read articles and taken part in online forums. We have emailed and talked into the small hours. Wondering. We have watched friends saying they have had enough and it's time to go. We have watched them packing their bags and waved them goodbye as they flew off into the blue yonder. We have pined and missed and wondered what we are missing. We have been the ones to leave. We have been the ones to come home.

My generation of white South Africans (because that is what i am, there is no escaping the fact) is one who grew up feeling the threat of change in the air as we grew up in the 80's. And it was a threat to so many around me, not always feeling like a promise. There was fear and uncertainty. What would happen. How would life go on 'after.' After the whites lost control. Because we knew it would happen. How could it not. And while some of us were rooting for a vision of a new world it was still uncertain and frightening because we couldn't fully imagine how this world would look, or if we would ever get there. It was a landscape hard to imagine for most. We feared the violence and uprisings, the anger so visible around us. We questioned everything we had taken for granted about our world. Nothing was what it seemed anymore. I am grateful for writers like Andre Brink - my mother quietly handed me the first of his novels i was ever to read when i was fourteen. It opened my eyes and they could never close again. I am grateful for open minded teachers - my English teacher for allowing me to read only books written by black South African writers for the whole of my matric year. For the plays we read and went to in drama, for my Afrikaans teacher who used her classroom as a political platform for her liberal views, reading us banned poetry and encouraging us to think and to ask the difficult questions. 

We grew up in the midst of a country shedding it's history and fighting for a new future but that fight - it took years and years and so many lives. Fighting and tribal warfare and not knowing the truth, and terrorist attacks and the media hyping the fear. Secret police and hidden agendas and most of us carrying on oblivious to the torture and hidden world behind closed doors. Just before Mandela was released I was told at university to become a card carrying member of the ANC as that would be the best chance of survival when the revolution started and they came to search our houses in the night. The whites. Who would die and who would live. The rumours. The fears. Change was coming and not everyone welcomed it. The referendum and finally feeling that the tide had changed. A new wind blowing and the feeling of hope for the first time in years. 

And then the first democratic election and the rainbow nation euphoria which followed. It was heady beyond belief, that time. It was the first election i voted in, and I was so proud. So so proud of the country i belonged to. Days before the election, months even, friends around me were frantically booking tickets to destinations overseas, updating their foreign passports and making alternate plans. 'In case it all goes pear shaped.' 'In case things go wrong.' 'In case things don't work out.' Stores sold out of candles and batteries as people - some, a small few, but enough - stockpiled in preparation for the chaos that the election would bring. For it could not go peacefully, that just wasn't possible. How could it. There was too much that was unstable, unpredictable. The history of our country was short but brutal, and there was just no indication that this could be peaceful. There was so much at stake. We held our collective breaths. In my house no candles were bought and there were no tickets in the safe. We were South Africans and there was no other option but to go ahead with hopefulness. No foreign passport, nowere to run. We were in it for the long haul, this was our home and we were holding our breaths along with everyone else.

I will never forget being part of that time - that first democratic election day, standing in line to cast my vote. The sheer joy around me. You could taste it in the air. It was as if a thousand multi coloured balloons had been set free into the skies above us. We were all stunned that it had finally come to this - this wonderful day of a new chapter dawning. And peacefully. I felt the collective relief (and disbelief) for months after as we celebrated and worked on building our new national pride. We worshipped at the altar of Mandela (and still do) and everything was new and wonderful.

I didn't leave before the elections. I came of age at the turning point in our history and I'm so grateful for that. But i was restless, and i wanted to go. There was a whole world to explore and for the first time South Africans were granted the right to 2 year visas in England ... we were allowed to apply for the right to nanny and do pub work in exchange for the chance to backpack and experience a new country. The days of illegal squatting were over now that we had an offical democracy at the helm, and we embraced the chance. A whole lot of us went. It became the thing to do. Finish university and go overseas for a year or two. Find yourself and get some experience of the world outside of our borders. Go to London and Paris and take a train to Edinburgh. And for me, scared of settling down too soon, not ready for a career or a car or a lifelong commitment to anything, it was something i had dreamt of for years. It took a few years of hard work and saving, working two jobs (neither of which payed well) but then my chance came, I had finally saved enough for my ticket and enough to last a few weeks if I was careful. I was told not to go. Over and over. Waitresses at the restaurant where i worked said i would back. (As if returning meant failing and not 'making it' overseas). They said it was tough over there and everyone wanted to go but not everyone could, and even less lasted. They issued me a personal challenge, and i've never been good at saying no to a dare. There was a job offer to lecture locally with the promise of a few weeks off a year to travel, but i turned it down and booked my flight before I lost my nerve. I hugged all the nay-sayers at the restaurant goodbye, hoping I would prove them wrong and not sad at the idea of not seeing any of them again. I hoped i would not be back to beg for a job waitressing again in a few months time. I had been dreaming of America but England was easier to go to in terms of visas and having two friends there, and so i went. Scared. Yes. Lonely and wondering if i was doing the right thing ? Definitely.

London was overwhelming. Huge. Beautiful. Old. There were so many South Africans trying to find their feet in the same way i was. My first home was a double futon shared with a good friend from varsity, on the kitchen floor of a one bedroom flat. Everyone was doing the same - sharing beds, floor space, ten people in a one bedroom flat was not uncommon. We worked in pubs and bars and did temping work to get by. We lived on the tiniest budgets and earned a pittance but we were LIVING OVERSEAS and experiencing life in a completely new way. I was finally going to the places I had only read about in books, and because of being in London my mom was finally able to take her first trip overseas to come and visit. It was a huge celebratory trip for both of us. 

I worked hard and over time i found my feet. I had good friends along on the adventure - friends from school and university so i wasn't lonely and although my family were at home, my sister came over for a while and life was busy and full and there was always someone to go drinking with, or head out of town on a long weekend with. Sometimes i felt like i was living my own version of 'Friends' and i loved all of it. It was never a decision made to stay away. Not to be at home. I had gone in search of adventure, not left for political reasons. Along the way i met many who had left years before, scared of where the country was headed. They were the South Africans i avoided. I had no time for their fearful predictions and constant negative tirades. That was not me. I had my concerns about the future as did all of us. It was hard finding work in post apartheid South Africa if you were white and young, with no work experience under your belt. After two years of battling at home, London offered plenty of work and enough to live off when i got there. I didn't need a car there, i could pay my own rent (a tiny room in a digs but i loved them, all the places i lived in, in those first years) .... i had a bit of money to spend on beers and museums and sitting in the park at sunset, pinching myself. There were so many South Africans arriving - whole houses of us living together as friends arrived and paved the way for the next group and soon whole communities sprang up. Houses and flats of South Africans ... South African shops selling biscuits and apricot jam and Nik Naks and peppermint crisp, the flag flying outside, a welcome sign to those of us missing home. It was hard at times but it also felt like a personal challenge. To try and make it here, in this place I was told i wouldn't last in, couldn't last in. It felt good to manage on my own, to work and to survive and start building a career.

The conversations began back then and never really stopped. How long to stay for. When to go back. When visas were due to expire. Goodbyes were said to those loving the freedom of London life but having to go home - two years were up and there was no way to stay. Those on foreign passports had the luxury of taking their time, really weighing their options. Knowing they had a choice. I was on a two year visa so i knew i was going home eventually. And it's what i wanted. To go home. I have always loved South Africa. It was always meant to be home. I was the girl who walked barefoot and threw herself into the sea on a whim, still in her clothes. Who grew up in the berg and in the humidity of Natal, who loved the cultural mix of the world around her. Who dreamt of moving to the Cape one day and starting her own business and wondered if maybe one day she would find herself living on a farm, the childhood never had.

But then life happened differently and i got married. He is South African. We went to the same primary / elementary school. He had an Irish passport and we could stay. And so we did. I wasn't ready to go home. I was loving life overseas, the freedom, even being married young. We didn't have a lot of money, we couldn't travel as much as i wanted to, but i was happy. Building a new life but not realizing that that's what i was doing ... it's small tiny steps and then suddenly you look back and realize that the landscape shifted behind  you as you walked and now you're not sure how to return.

It's been 17 years since i left. I cannot believe it when i count the time. It feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at once. The country has changed in my absence but i still feel as if i belong. I don't ever want that door to close on me.  When i step off the aeroplane in Joburg i am home. Just like that. Every cell in my body knows the fact. No matter how long it's been since i was there, and I have never tried to fight it. It's who i am. South African. I hope I never lose my accent. I carry a bag my mom gave me for my birthday the last time i was at home - it has a map of Africa with a heart stitched on the side. It's brought on some lovely conversations and a chance to share the country of my birth with strangers along the way. And what do i tell them when they ask me about it ... where do i begin ? I just smile hugely and tell them it's the most beautiful country in the world, and yes, they really must visit if they get the chance one day. Most of them sigh enviously and say they've wanted to, for a long time. And then I'm so glad and so proud of where i come from. I've never forgotten my roots. Although life did not work out the way i planned, i still hope to go back. One day. Until then we travel home as often as we can, because it means so much to us to have our children feel at home there too. To know a tiny bit of what it means to be South African. To know their family and to know where we come from. Who we are is defined so much by where. We want them to know the way a summer storm feels when the sky grows green and heavy with rain, the taste of a koeksuster dripping with syrup. The sound a hadeda makes and how it is to hear frogs croaking on a hot summer night. We'll never be able to share all of it with them - for the most part it will die out with us and that breaks my heart - my experiences and everything I have seen and done are part of my story, not theirs. But there's African blood running through them and maybe one day She will call them home. Or at least call to them. Already both my children think South Africa is the best place in the world to live. That makes my heart sing. Not that they're not happy here, this is home for them, it's what they know. But i want them to have that other love. It makes them richer people, and i'm all for that.

But here's the rub for me. As if it's not enough to be living overseas and to deal with the bouts of homesickness when they come (and they do), there's the constant feeling of guilt. The guilt of having left. Every time we came home to visit, whenever we we met new South Africans overseas and the discussion goes that way it's there, nipping at our heels. We left. And with that, if you're South African, there's this assumption that we jumped ship. We abandoned the Motherland. The National Anthem we grew up singing said we would live or die but always for South Africa. It never said we could leave. And here's the thing. Leaving South Africa isn't always about someone having had enough and being fed up and thinking the grass is greener. It's not always about thinking the worst and not having faith in a bright future there. It's not always about not loving a country or not believing enough. Sometimes there are just other factors involved and people leave or live away because that's how life works out for them. Our country has been shaped by immigrants from Europe. Settlers from Holland and England, missionaries, opportunists. People wanting to start a new life for a myriad of reasons. Not all of them hated the countries they left behind when they went, some of them did, but for many of them there was a promise of a better life, a different life. History is full of people leaving and arriving, building new worlds, in search of something new. I come from a line of missionaries and moving was part of their calling. My great grandfather left Labrador where his parents were missionaries, to go to South Africa to become a missionary there. There was no emailing, no flights back and forth, no photos and phone calls. I often think of how much easier we have it. His sons, my grandfather being one of them, were sent away to Germany at a young young age to attend school for many years and didn't get to see their parents in all that time. I cannot even imagine.

In my travels and time living away from home, I have met people from all over the world. In the UK i had a lot of wonderful English friends and colleagues but there were also friends from other places - people travelling from Australia and New Zealand and none of them carried guilt at having left to see the world. Maybe because their countries were less complicated, they could return more easily when the time was right - there were less issues to worry about back home. Maybe that's true. But still ... there was a freedom to their travelling which i found to be different to those of us South African. As if we had to justify things somehow. Offer an explanation. Why were were there, and if we planned to go back. That would show loyalty or the absence thereof. If you were going back it all made sense - some time overseas to make money and experience life is absolutely fine. But say you might not go back and the eyebrows would be raised and they would think you were racist, too scared to go back and live under black rule. Or scared of other factors South Africans deal with .. and there are many of them. Too selfish to go home and 'make a difference'. Do something positive, contribute to the building up of a new country. It's a guilt I still carry around today and I know i'm not alone because of all the hundreds of comments and stories online when you start reading. Start on this subject with South Africans abroad and it's like opening a can of worms. Pandora's box.

I have friends born in Korea, Croatia, England, Finland, Turkey, Holland to name but a few.  And all of us have left the country of our birth to be living somewhere else and most of us get homesick and some of us sometimes wonder if we're in the right place. But everyone else seems to be comfortable dealing with their decision based on what feels right for themself and their families. If you're South African though, and you have left, it's a whole lot more complicated. Because then there's the assumption that  you gave up hope. Hope in the Rainbow Nation and the bright new future being shaped. Hope that the very complex issues facing the country would be solved, could be worked through. That things would not blow up as so many feared. That life could be good and stable and wonderful. As it had been for many of us growing up. (And i don't say that lightly, knowing how it was for the more than other half of us). Still. It remains my experience that if you're South African and you're living overseas (as we like to call it) then you're one of the ones who chickened out. Who gave up. Who ran out. Ran away. Were not brave enough. Did not believe. Gave up hope. 

And it cuts right to the core of me. It makes me want to jump up and down shouting and screaming, clutching signs telling the world that i love South Africa and miss her every day. But that i also love my life here in the States and these are things you cannot simply place on a scale to see which side goes up and which one down. That things are so very much more complicated and we all make decisions along the way and that the steps we thought would just be small and for a little bit of time, actually turned out to be giant leaps, and might just be forever. And forever is still a bit too long for me to deal with. So i keep it in bite sized pieces of a year or two, or maybe three. I am sad at the weddings we did not attend, and all the years i am missing of my brothers and sisters lives, the cups of coffee with my mom, the little moments of sharing our lives. The sounds of the hadedas at sunset. The koeksusters not eaten, the exhibitions not visited, the mountains not climbed. I feel all of them. I go through my ups and downs just like everyone else.

But one thing i am not is a bitter immigrant (also because i haven't emigrated, i see myself as living away - for now). I will not run down the country i am living in, and i felt the same way when i lived in the UK before. And i'll not run down the country of my birth either. Not ever. Talk about it, yes. Tell some stories which i think are important, yes. But i didn't run away. Life took me somewhere i wasn't expecting. And i didn't turn my back, even though it feels like it sometimes when i miss another birthday or cannot lay a wreath at the cemetery. When my grandmother grows old and i'm not there to hold her hand and reminisce about the days she taught me to play the piano and sat singing to me in German. When i'm not sitting laughing and chatting with my sisters in law on a hot summer night like i'd like to be. Sometimes. But i get to call three countries home, and that's something. Not what the fifteen year old girl dreamt of exactly, when she dreamt of sometimes escaping the worry of what the future would hold, and a desire to see the world. She always thought she would be back. She couldn't see her future stretched out before her.

And so i go on, and I'm happy some days here, and homesick some days too. What I have learnt along the way is that nowhere is perfect, and there is no one place that could suit all of us with our different needs. Some of us travel the world in search of home and maybe never find it. Some of us are lucky enough to know home from the minute we open our eyes and to never need to go in search of it. And that there's really no right or wrong and that all the leavings and the comings home are hard, all of them. They are decisions made which tear and tug at the heartstrings and even when decisions are made happily and with great resolve, there will still be days of doubt and wondering ... what if. What if i had left. Or stayed. Or gone back. Or not. What if.

I guess what i wanted to say, in my very long roundabout way, is that not everyone who is living overseas is bitter. And not everyone is happy and euphoric about their new life either. It's always a bit of both, for all of us. There is happiness and sadness, grief and joy. Just like it is for everyone at home. There are some who need to sever their ties in order to thrive and make a new life elsewhere. There are some who had experiences which made them exhausted and scared and tired and who had given up hope. But at the end of the day we're all just trying to find our own way, wherever that may be. And that's a hard enough journey as it is, without heaping on the guilt and the judgements and making any of us feel bad about our choices. To everyone who left and to everyone who's at home, there's no perfect answer and no perfect place. We're all connected, whether we treasure that connection or not. Our experiences are different and we need different things. To each their own. 

It's enough to be open to the fact that life is full and confusing and beautiful and definitely full of change. That chance happenings can change our course just as easily as decisions made in the broad light of day. And that none of us can ever really know what it's like to walk in someone else's skin. Their life. Their fears. What makes them cry. So maybe we can be a little less harsh in our judging and pointing at each other, us South Africans. The ones who left and the ones who stayed and the ones who left but didn't mean to, or maybe can't quite find their way home. Not yet.


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