What Culture Shock?

As I glanced through the pictures of our recent trip to Addo Elephant National Park, I began to think that we might be giving a fairly misleading account of our time here in South Africa.  For 4 days, we visited a national park and surrounding environment and saw and interacted with animals.  But we have been in South Africa for 30 days now.  That’s 26 days in which we were not on safari.  For almost all of those days, we have lived a life that would be incredibly familiar to those who know our life in Memphis.

Indeed, the most surprising thing to me about our experience thus far has been just how similar life here is to life at home.  That this is surprising says both something about my expectations about our life here, which in retrospect were not based on much beyond caricature, and about the realities we are living.  Yes, we live near a game reserve where we have come across unrestrained (if not quite wild) animals and yes, we have had intimate interactions with monkeys and ostriches, but these are very much the exception – and even those exceptions occurred within protected wildlife areas.

Since we returned from Addo, we have spent the vast majority of our time in our cottage, a cottage that is situated in a tree-filled neighborhood within a modern city.  IMG_9845Near our house are a couple different squares – the nearest has our favorite pizza restaurant, a small grocery/convenience store, a DVD rental place (here’s a difference!  Still doing DVD rentals here), a gas station, a couple other restaurants, a bookshop, and a wine and liquor store.  My excursions out this week have been to the university a couple of times, for a jog through our neighborhood, and to a Target-like store to grab printer ink and a cricket set for Ben.  Meggan’s excursions out have been to the gym and to the grocery.  With the kids we went swimming at the gym and spent a lovely afternoon on the grounds of the nearby art museum, doing afternoon lessons among mosaic sculptures and the most interesting carousel I’ve ever seen.

My concerns about giving a misleading account of South Africa were reinforced when I came across an NPR story on twitter about the latest Taylor Swift video.  The new video is set in Africa and has been criticized for romanticizing colonialism and misrepresenting the continent.  (Quick side note – on one of the radio stations here, our first weekend in South Africa was dubbed “Taylor Swift weekend,” a gimmick that made me ecstatic, but made my family quickly tired of my joyfully singing along about the players that play play play play play and the haters that hate hate hate hate hate) (Second quick side note – the video’s director has responded to the criticism here)  Within the NPR story was a link to a tongue-in-cheek article entitled “How to Write About Africa,” which lays out every stereotyped image of life in Africa (wild animals, poverty, primitive villages and scenes, etc.) and notes that it is taboo to include any ordinary domestic scene when writing about Africa.  I’ve included below a series of photos that hopefully give a sense of just how ordinary parts of our life here have been.  By way of example, for dinner tonight, Meggan had a vegetable soup, I had spinach cannelloni, Ben had mac and cheese, and Sadie had an avocado and hummus wrap – not a terribly interesting answer to the question “what do you eat over there.”  Sorry.

So this is an attempt to at least include the mundane facts of our life here among the more unusual experiences we have had already.  I have no doubt that we could push ourselves into less familiar territory culturally (indeed, pushing into the culturally unfamiliar is a goal of our time here), but we could do that in Memphis as well.  As we do in Memphis, we are leading a privileged existence here, an existence that can be kept apart from those living different experiences.  We have seen concentrations of intense poverty on a scale that is different in depth than impoverished parts of Memphis, but it is not like Memphis is without neighborhoods of intense poverty.  As in Memphis, we are not forced to acknowledge these places on a daily basis if we don’t want to.  This spatial and economic and, for the most part, racial segregation is perhaps the most unfortunately familiar element of our life here.

So life here is familiar.  It is certainly not identical, but it is familiar enough that I do not believe we have experienced any sort of culture shock.  The kids were far less comfortable in hustle-bustle London than they are here.

There is a saying that South Africa, particularly urban South Africa, is “Africa Light.”  I take this to mean that it is not the “real” Africa.  That “real” Africa, according to this way of thinking, is an Africa that fits the stereotypes of the continent – a continent, by the way, of more than a billion people who live in wildly diverse geographies and are part of thousands of local cultures.  It is probably true that urban South Africa, given the prevalence of English and the degree of historical colonial control, feels more western than other parts of the continent.  But I have discarded the idea of a “real” Africa (maybe I’ve had to “shake it off”?).  That myth has been replaced with the real experiences we have been having day-to-day here and a more nuanced perspective on a place that is just as complicated as any other.


2 thoughts on “What Culture Shock?

  1. Daniel, a picture may be “worth a thousand words” – and your pictures are amazing! – but your written words add a whole other visual dimension, which I’m loving!! I think I see a book in your near future!
    Keep enjoying & keep sharing . . . XO


  2. Jeanne is right about not just looking at the wonderful photos and taking the time to read what you write.
    The written description has totally clarified misconceptions I had about where you are. I do an African tour
    at Brooks for school children and the first thing I tell them is about the vastness of Africa and how
    the whole USA could fit into one little part of the African continent. Then I talk about how diverse it is
    and show the masks and chi waras and the societies that made them. When next I do it, if I”m not
    stepping on some intellectual property laws, I would like to show some of your photos to contrast with
    what is commonly thought of as Africa and your glimpses into a more modern world that is there too
    (even though no roku or netflix streaming!)
    What a fabulous “education” for Sadie and Ben!
    Love to all, and thanks for sharing,
    Deanna & Phil


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