Coming back to your home country after living abroad is just as daunting as leaving in the first place.
I often say that I was raised in South Africa but grew up in the United States. Leaving home at 15 was challenging, but it provided me with an outlook on life that I desperately needed. After being back home for a few years, however, that sense of belonging is still elusive.
For six years, I lived and studied abroad, experiencing more than most people my age could even fathom: some experiences good, many of them bad. All of them important.
At a boarding school two hours away from New York, I lived with complete strangers and adapted to different cultures from around the world. In my final year of high school, I was hosted by a family in California, where I received the familial comfort that I needed. That year brought me friends I still treasure to this day.
At university in Washington state, I had a basketball team to root for, and felt as though I was a part of something historic. One of my favourite memories is of driving over 20 hours across four states to support our basketball team at a national championship game.
These memories are dear to me, but the US was not always wonderful. I quickly became aware of the prejudices against me. I would be held back at immigration and customs at multiple airports and questioned about what I was doing in the country, or be “randomly” searched while waiting for a connecting flight.
The breaking point, however, came during Donald Trump’s first year as president. Countless times, I would see cars with the confederate flag flying behind. I would smile at strangers on the street, only to have them clutch their belongings and quickly cross the road. I would hear the president speak about foreigners in a condescending tone that made me feel unwelcome.
I would call my mother in a panic: “Something doesn’t feel right.” It was time to go home.
Even though I had visited South Africa over the years, trips were kept short by school schedules and lack of funds. The final flight home after being gone for so long had me reminiscing about everything I had missed: the weather, the people, the humour and the food.
The sound of South African accents on the 21-hour flight filled me with comfort and walking into the arrivals terminal at OR Tambo International Airport felt joyous – I was finally home again.
At the back of my mind, however, I was worried because that I felt completely unknowing of the South African culture that I was about to experience. I had a bit of an American accent, and my Setswana was rusty at best.
I found myself in many uncomfortable positions, such as at a grocery store till in Melville, Johannesburg where a woman would speak to me in isiZulu, and I could only respond with an embarrassed blank face. Surrounded by Afrikaans speakers I did not know how to act, despite having been raised in Pretoria. My “wannabe American” accent would be the butt of jokes with friends that I had grown up with, and I would simply smile.
These experiences brought me to a heartbreaking realisation: I had left one country where I had felt like an outsider, only to return to my home as an outsider still. I did not think it was possible to be culture-shocked by your own culture, yet that is the position I find myself in today.
For many people, I am not South African enough.
Do not take this to mean that I am unhappy to be back home. In fact, it is quite the opposite. South Africans have a way of helping you see the positives during a dark time, sometimes through humour, other times through honesty.
The US will always hold a special place in my heart, but it never was my home. The journey to being comfortable within my own culture has been challenging and is far from over. I hope to one day be able to laugh with the Zulu woman at the grocery store and find humour with my friends in my “forced” American accent.
I hope to one day feel confident enough to say that I am, in fact, South African enough.
FEATURED IMAGE: Tshiamo Moloko
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