Moving to another place gives one the opportunity to learn and understand cultural habits and traditions, and I’ve had the fortune to do so on multiple occasions.
Being abroad also gave me the chance to see my own country – the Netherlands – from an outside perspective, and see how incredibly (weird) silly we Dutchies are.
The most awkward thing to explain to foreigners is our Dutch cultural tradition of Sinterklaas, a sort of radical Santa clone (with black-faced male helpers) who arrives in December riding a horse on the roof and kidnaps kids who’ve behaved badly to take to Spain. (If they behaved well they either have sweets thrown at them, or are presented with food in their shoe.)
Mentally torturing children for possible kidnappings is something we gladly do in Dutch family life. Trying to explain this is met with no understanding, nor why we have a holiday so similar to Christmas…just three weeks before Christmas.
Aside from that, we have habits like constantly talking about the weather, being overly patriotic with the Eurovision Song Contest or ‘athletic’ sports like darts, getting very excited when we have natural ice on our rivers (a bunch of old men coming together to speculate about a race on natural ice is front page news) and we make a lot of songs about how great Dutch people are (also done per province or town).
Having lived in South Africa for a while, it has been quite a challenge to adapt.
South Africa has so many different cultures to understand. I mean, just learning the rules of cricket will take you about two years, at least. Basic cultural traditions, like Braai or Heritage Day, are easily understood.
More advanced cultural lessons include “now-now”, public breastfeeding, lobola, why South Africans lose the ability to drive when it rains, black hair, why some people have removed their front teeth, sangoma medicine and the national anthem. Oh, and rugby. I still don’t know what that is about.
I guess we are all granted our peculiar things. I read there is a Japanese scientist who is known for yelling at rice. True story.
Here are a few things South Africans do that I don’t understand:
1. Driving all the way to the beachfront…yet enjoying it solely from inside the car.
If you decide to explore the promenade in Cape Town (or any beachfront place in South Africa), you’ll notice lots of cars lined up overlooking the ocean. Inside the vehicle, families will spend hours staring, listening to music, smoking, dining and sleeping. Sometimes, they’ll even cover the front window, leaving no view whatsoever, and stay at the parking lot as some kind of outing.
2. Protesting through dance.
Don’t get me wrong. I love it when South Africans dance. Especially because they have moves we white European stick figures can only dream of. As we awkwardly side-step our way across the dance floor looking like we are having a stroke, hips here actually have a purpose worth viewing. They use it to express themselves everywhere.
Going to a sports match is more like a dance-off, funerals and weddings are filled with dance. But protests? Wait, what’s happening here? Teachers striking for higher wages? Dancing through grand parade like it’s carnival. It’s the oddest sight.
3. Carrying half their house to the beach.
When I go to the beach I take sunscreen, a towel, and – in case it’s a bit too sunny – an umbrella. Takes me about two minutes to set up.
Not here. South Africans can turn a beach into a village.
Some will bring everything they have, ranging from tents, tables, braais, fridges, stereosets, bedding and food supplies for a small nation surviving a nuclear disaster. And always the biggest collection of camping chairs, most likely viewable from space.
In Paternoster, I saw a guy with a generator, a satellite dish and a TV on the beach. I’m not joking. By the time they’ve set up it’s almost sunset, and they’ve burnt a herd of cattle on the fire. But they’ve caught the latest episode of Ekhasi, that’s for sure.
4. Swimming with clothes on.
Look, I know the sea is cold. So when I first saw a person enter the freezing Atlantic in full outfit I wasn’t surprised much. But then I got to Durban, where the Indian Ocean is a good room temperature, yet people plunged into the sea wearing jeans and shirts.
I’ve cycled through the Dutch rain and got my jeans soaked, so I know that surely – aside from having to stand in the queue at Shoprite – this is one of the most unpleasant experiences to have. Yet people roll around the sand in wet jeans like they’re in a Comfort advert. Can someone please explain this to me?
So when the foreigner in you tries to integrate into South Africa and get an understanding of the 11 languages with and without clicks, habits, customs and cultures, you’ll notice it will take longer than five years to understand.
Step by step you’ll get there, and if you keep asking questions, you might get most of the answers…now-now, just now, or later.