Cookies, Death, and Africa

What do “nothing is happening” and “too much is happening” have in common? They’re both great excuses for not writing blogs.

According to my best estimate, I was writing that last post at almost exactly the same time that my father was (without my knowledge) passing away, away on a different continent where it was midnight while I sunbathed. You would think that such an event would warrant a blog post, right? But re-reading what I wrote at that time, I think it’s already been written. Well, partially written, but on principle I never really finish anything that I write, so we can safely consider the issue covered.

I’m in South Africa now. Don’t worry, it’s temporary – investor conference for a client. I’m currently taking a break between bouts of making sure CEOs have cookies. (Cookies!). For those of you who prefer more straightforward travel writing, I’ll condense my experience into

~*~*~THE THREE CULTURE SHOCKS of Me in South Africa~*~*~

(Snazzy!) Shock #1 is Americana. There is more Americana here than in backwater America’s most log-cabinest “tradin’ post.” The most striking example is a pervasive steakhouse chain that has a Washington Redskins-style beheaddressed chief as a mascot (and a “Texan Spicy Chicken Sandwich,” which I ate but still don’t understand).  I ate there once in the airport and once at this thing next to our hotel called Montecasino, which I think is supposed to be a casino, but is really a disorienting fake European village encased in a huge castle-looking building with blue skies painted on the ceilings (or ceiling – it’s just one big alienating sky), filled with coffee shops, Asian restaurants, the aforementioned traditional Native American steakhouse, and at least one “American Trading Post” whose wares fall neatly into one of three categories: Cowboys, Elvis, or Marilyn Monroe.

There are more examples, but life is short. I just ate a candy bar called Tex (which I also do not understand).

Shock #2 is the politeness. It’s insane. Southern courtesy doesn’t hold a candle. No matter who you talk to, you will be asked how you’re doing. I thought it was interesting so I gave it a shot, and previously guarded hotel staff immediately lit up in smiles and helpfulness when asked how they were doing.

One of our hired drivers (a Dutch from Pretoria) told me the habit comes from local African culture, and that if you don’t first ask someone how they are doing, they will likely not give you the help you need. That’s one explanation, but with each passing hour I think more and more that it’s just an inside joke, or perhaps some sort of mass compulsion. Within one hour of putting a local SIM card in my tiny old Nokia, I received a call from a stranger (wrong number) who opened with, “How are you?”, as if someone at the phone company noticed that a new number came on the grid and freaked out worrying that maybe nobody had asked this person how he was doing yet. I bet there are huge buildings full of people who just sit around and call random numbers to ask people “How are you?”, and then play it off as a wrong number by pretending to be looking for someone with a name impossible to pronounce and in complete defiance of the concept of spelling.

Shock #3 is the language. I had the same shock when I moved to China, but I spent a couple years and got over it, and then I spent a couple of years and learned the language (well, one of them). Now, when I’m suddenly thrust back into a tingbudong situation (tingbudong means, literally, “I hear but don’t understand” in Mandarin), it seems like the universe is taunting me. “Hey, you, you learned Chinese in four years? That’s great. Now look at all the other languages you will never understand. Here’s one! Here’s another! Those old defeated feelings of helplessness don’t feel so defeated now, do they? Don’t you wish you had spent those four years sitting in a hot tub eating Snickers? Hah! Mortals.”

What I described above is a normal sort of foreign language situation, where there’s one local language that you don’t get but you just might be able to find someone who can speak English. Here it’s like a language crazyhouse. I bought a book on adapting to South Africa (I was stuck in an airport for 16 hours, what was I supposed to do?) and the bubble chart about native languages wasn’t the usual one-big-bubble-labeled “90% speak XXX as a native language” with a few little specks scattered around, but more like a scattering of dropped coins, all about the same size, with the largest one (a slightly-standing-out silver dollar) marked, “The largest native language is Zulu, with just over 20% of the population.” What this means is that there are all kinds and colors of people speaking to each other in all kinds and colors of accents of all kinds and colors of languages at all times. At best it’s colorful and interesting, worst it’s maddening and demoralising, and the longer I stay, the more I suspect that this barrage of unintelligible chatter is really just a million tongues chanting over and over again the de facto city slogan of Johannesburg: “How are you?”

And now it’s time for lunch. Yippee.

For the more concerned among you, please note that the above hyperbole is not meant to offend South Africa or any of the corresponding South Africans. No South Africans were harmed in the writing of this blog.

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