Wednesday, August 15, 2012

straddling two nations as a hybrid

My French friend, who has lived in London for around seven years, once said to me "I am not really French anymore. I'm no more English than I am French; I'm neither."

This is something I always remember, especially as I go through the fluxes and changes of being an Inbetweener. It waxes and wanes, and I suppose more changes are afoot as I become more and more integrated into British life over the years.

I have very recently been tasked with managing some South African work again, and in some ways this has made me realise more than ever how personally detached I have become from my home country.
I am much more attune to and familiar with how things work here now, and taking on the new South Africa work has had a surprisingly rather personal affect on me.

It feels like I'm going back to the past a bit, not a bad past, but a past nevertheless. More likely, I think it's made me realise that I am sitting on the same fence that my French friend is. And maybe this is a common effect of immigration over time.

You kind of feel like you've moved on and can't go back - you've been tainted by your new country. You've been thrown into a whole new life, a new hemisphere, you're forced to embrace it. You adapt with vigour -  just to survive. The more you embrace your new country, the further away you get from your old one. And therein lies the limbo - the push and pull only an immigrant can really feel.

There are phases where I still find the UK to be foreign and for lack of a more creative phrase, fucked up.

It's not the gargantuan amounts of tea these people drink, or the accents. In fact I don't hear the British accent anymore. The British accent is a normal one, unless it's one from up north.
It's when I hear the South African accent on the street I sit up - it's really really...South African. The vowels are all flatter than London after the Olympic torch has been snuffed out, and it can sound pretty vulgar, in varying degrees, if we're honest. My accent must sound similarly grating to Brits.

It's not how cosmopolitan this place is, or how open minded it is. Or how you can be anyone or anything in this place and no one bats an eyelid. It's not how endearingly eccentric these people are or how dry their humour is. These are the reasons I love living here and don't want to go back.

I still find pieces of Britain completely baffling and foreign - the optimism and ridiculousness around shorts-wearing when it's 15 degrees and raining outside. How no one stands up to a chavvy little twat when he deliberately bumps into an old lady while she climbs aboard a train. How health & safety takes precedent over logic. Or how the cops will fight to retrieve your stolen iPhone eight months later. (True story).

How people are afraid to speak up in case the ten year old wearing the Adidas tracksuit pulls out a knife. How people drink milky tea with their fish and chips. How PC everyone is. ("Look at that coloured house!" What did you just say? (look of utter horror.) How grey it is here. How crowded. How I should probably call myself a "foreign national" not an "immigrant."

In the same light, there are pieces of South Africa I now find foreign and scary. From the obvious: Reverse racism, no accountability for crime, two days of snow in Johannesburg (WTF?), to the less obvious: how provincial the place seems, how cut-off it is from the rest of the first world, how small-minded some of the people I once knew you have to have had settled down by 28, be married by 29 and have a kid by 30 to be considered socially normal.
(In Joburg terms, I'm a complete freak show. Maybe I'm just a freak show. Whatever.)

How having an A Grade car in South Africa - whether you live in a townhouse or a shack - is the be all and end all to everything. It is completely at odds with the rest of the world and its priorities.

It's how so many men wear [fucking] chinos.
And as my Brit picked up quite early on, how many [white, middle class] South African men seem to have a bit of an old-fashioned concept of what men should be. The meat-turners, the bread winners. Where men are men. And don't admit to wearing face cream.

So without completely dragging both countries through the hedge, what I'm trying to say, really, is that I don't feel more South African than I am British. I feel like a bit of a hybrid, sitting somewhere in the middle, but continually being pulled closer and closer towards joining Team GB.

Most South African here are fiercely South African. They bitch about the weather, fly home every six months and don't plan to stay here forever. My circumstances are different. I am here indefinitely. I don't really want to return to South Africa in the longterm. My home is in England, alongside my Brit.

I'll always follow the smell of biltong though. Some things won't change.


Flarkit said...

Methinks it's the access that we have to wide open spaces here, and the amount of sunlight and the potential-for-greatness, which makes ZA so attractive. It's people have exposure to most modern trappings (aside from functioning and effective education justice systems sadly), whilst still having firm attachments to times-gone-by, often to our detriment.

We could have Utopia, if selfishness just took a permanent backseat.

Anonymous said...

You are probably right in a generalisation kindof way about life in SA. London is a great place to live, but the one thing I felt when I lived there was that my life didn't really matter that much and I had no real capacity to make a difference. I was just another person on the train, much the same as every other person next to me - the anonyminity is both the best part and the worst part. Back home you do count and you can contribute in more ways. Maybe all this is also a generalisation of sorts, but I do think it might be easier for women to assimilate into a UK life than men. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong, just personal choices that make you happy.

Anonymous said...

Wow you have said everything i have thought for the last 5 years and not been able to put in words, especially when friends back home ask "when are you coming home?" and i can't tell them I actually love the UK and the people in it. It has opened my eyes to so much more than i could ever experience in SA but saying that, SA has taught me a lot too but in a different way. Here I seem to have learnt to be more open minded and develop as a person or understand others more where as in SA, its all about judging people (cars/ clothes/ houses etc). I like that no one judges here. Well done, you really have hit the nail on the head. I will be forearding on this link :)

Anonymous said...

Aaahh..finally someone who understands what it's like.

I still have emotional roots in Jhb though and as times goes by, I see more and more of good and bad in both.

But what I've realised now, is that the ethos at the heart of a nation is key to our compatibility. It took many years for me to be able to peel away the stoic/PC/posturing layers of British culture and what I have discovered inside the onion wasn't completely comforting.

SA on the other hand is still recovering from a very dark past and has plenty of years to go before it can be compared like for like to a first world nation, but the beauty of the country itself and the hidden selfless humanity that I've never experienced in any other country is what makes me feel that great things are still to come for South Africa.

Chicken said...


Lovely post. I think that to truly immigrate you need to let go of a large portion of your past life and country in order to really embrace your new one - otherwise it's a recipe for disaster and flights home every 6 months. That said, I have been living in Italy for the past 6 months, and the experience has completely changed my perception of 'life in Europe'. I came on a contractual post so never intended to stay long, which undoubtedly means I have a very different attitude to living here. However, living in Europe has always been on my bucket list so I'm glad I've done it and got it out of my system, but truth be told I can't wait to go home. This experience has made me appreciate many aspects of life in SA that I took for granted - foremost, the people, and secondly, lifestyle. I live in CT though - the best city in the world (IMHO), and very different to Jozi. Ps with regards to your pill saga, if you have a moment check out a blog a friend of mine writes (the last few posts have been about her experience with endometriosis) - Buona Serra!

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with one thing that you JHB most of my friends have waited until well after 30 to have their first child. In London most of them had them at around the same time, so it's not different in JHB than London.

Peas on Toast said...

Thanks everyone for your awesome and very relevant feedback to this post.
Much appreciated, and as always, thanks for reading about my funny old emotional and physical journeys on this page.
I have no doubt there are plenty more to come.
Your comments and thoughts are always welcome.


Anonymous said...

Peas, what an interesting and well written post... I am a saffa in the biltong belt (wim to putney) and I often wonder where my life would be better. Holidays back home show the best of the country but meeting another Saffa who has had a gun to his head a week ago and completely cleaned out then the same thing a few days later makes me appreciate not being stressed over such barbaric behaviour.

Reading about the mines incident is scary and thinking of just blending into the london surrounds depressing.

That said both places are amazing in many ways, so enjoy the good times because the bad times here will make you want to face anything else head on!!!

Anonymous said...

I have recently come head on with this "limbo" feeling. Having moved to London 2 and a half years ago I often still have days when I'm not entirely settled and I think about moving back to SA. But having not been home in over 1 and a half years, I also feel a bit detached.

As much as I love where I come from and am proudly South African - to put it into perspective, I am 24 and I would be the only one of my friends who is single if I were to move home to SA. It feels like we are in different spaces in life.

I just love London and all it has to offer - the quick trips to Europe, events on every night of the week, and all sorts of other lovely things to keep you entertained in any way, form or mean. Don't get me wrong, SA has a diverse lifestyle as well, but I just can't help but feel you're judged a little more for your actions than you are here.

So for right now, here is good. Best I check back in after my 3 week holiday home!