Top 20 Questions for a South African Expat: Answered by an Expat

South African expat CORNEL MARAIS, who has been living overseas for nine years and is now based in Hong Kong, answers the Top 20 Questions South Africans at home have for an expat*…

Cornel and Rensia Marais. Photo: Cornel Marais
Cornel and Rensia Marais. Photo: Cornel Marais
1 Why did you cop out – didn’t you have the guts to stick it out for the long run?

We didn’t cop out. We went looking for adventure during a gap year and the adventure hasn’t stopped yet. We’ve lived in three different countries – Taiwan, New Zealand and Hong Kong; and have travelled to over 22 others over the last 9 years, experiencing the diversity that each country and culture has to offer.

2 Why do you continually try to cast negative impressions of South Africa whilst living abroad?

I don’t. At times I get so fed up with negative South African Expats that I purposely avoid them. (But fortunately there are more positive South African Expats than negative.)

3 Why don’t you consider coming back to South Africa, pride aside?

As teachers in South Africa, my wife and I would probably be looking at a combined salary of around R30,000 a month before tax. In Hong Kong we currently earn over 7 times that a month. Plus the ability to travel to many new and different countries every year on holiday is why we left in the first place: to see the world.

4 Why on earth did you leave the most beautiful country in the world?

Yes, South Africa is astoundingly beautiful, but there is just as much beauty in the rest of the world and we have only yet seen a glimpse of it.

5 Was it worth it?

South Africa is the Rainbow Nation yes, but there is an entire Rainbow World out there waiting to be experienced. Getting to know people from cultures very foreign to local South Africans has not only enriched our lives, but fueled our desire to travel and experience even more. We have missed a lot in South Africa, from weddings, births, funerals and more which is not easy, but we live without regret and to us it was very worth it yes.

6 Are you really happy?

We have had our ups and downs, highs and lows over the years, but we have come to realize that happiness is not merely based on external circumstances but more about an internal frame of mind. Happiness to us is not a geographical location but living life to its fullest and doing what we love to do.

South African expats abroad
Cornel and Rensia Marais. Photo: Cornel Marais
7 Have you ever thought of returning to this fascinating country?

I think about it almost every day.

8 Are you sure you haven’t just exchanged one set of problems for another?

Very sure. I haven’t had anything of mine stolen in the 9 years since I left. I have never had to install an alarm or burglar bars or contract a private security company. I never have to lock my gears, steering wheel or activate a vehicle tracking service. I once accidently left my wallet in a taxi. The driver went house to house in our village knocking on every door until he found me so he could return it to me with the money still in it. I hadn’t even realized I had lost it when he finally found me. We definitely don’t miss the crime.

9 How could you leave South Africa when we have so much here to live for – South African rugby, Mrs Ball’s, biltong, the Big 5 and the Rainbow Nation?

We have all of that here too. Well, not the Big 5 but everything else. There has been an industrious South African in just about every country we have lived who imports everything you could want from back home. Plus I make my own biltong, beskuit and melktert. ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan.

10 If you had only a year to live, would you want to spend your last days in South Africa or not?

Without a doubt.

11 Is life over there really more boring than in South Africa? Do you miss the thrill of living in a changing, diverse, challenging, sometimes scary place?

New Zealand was a bit boring compared to Asia, I’ll give you that. But thinking that South Africa is the only changing, diverse, challenging and scary country shows a very limited understanding of the world. There is nothing scarier or more challenging than moving to an unknown country and immersing yourself in a new culture, but we have always come away far more enriched than we could have ever imagined.

A South African expat abroad
Photo: Rensia Marais
12 Are you holistically satisfied living in your new culture and do you miss Africa and your friends, as you only have one life?

Culture shock is something every expat goes through regardless of where you come from. But growing up in South Africa I have learned to respect and celebrate diversity and differences. Anybody who says they don’t miss Africa and the family and friends they left behind is lying.

13 Do you really have a better life now? Is the grass really greener?

Better is a relative word. Every country and culture has its own positives and negatives. We believe that the negatives we gave up by leaving South Africa still far outweigh the negatives of where we live now

14 What’s it really like on the other side?

It is immensely diverse, outrageously beautiful and extraordinarily exciting. We left to experience the world and the world has not yet disappointed us.

15 Do you feel safe?

Very safe yes. We once came back from holiday to realise we never even locked the house. Another time I left my motorcycle keys in the ignition overnight and somebody took my keys out of the ignition and placed it safely under my helmet. Yes, there is crime here but nothing near the crippling epidemic that exists in SA.

16 Is it possible to be totally integrated in your new society or do you think you will always feel you are South African?

I will never want to feel anything other than South African regardless of how much I can integrate.

17 Do you feel passionate about your adopted country and do you feel that you truly belong?

Yes, we are very passionate about where we live. I love living in Hong Kong. I loved living in Taiwan and New Zealand too. But I will never call myself anything other than South African. To me it is not about belonging, it is about experiencing.

South African expats abroad
Rensia and Cornel Marais. Photo: Angela Kotze
18 What has been the most difficult issue to deal with?

Not seeing our friends and family as often we would like. Missing weddings, births and funerals are not easy. I missed my brother and sister’s weddings as well as the birth of all their children. Skype and Facetime are great, but it doesn’t quite close the gap.

19 What’s life like without the constant threat of attacks, hijacks, robberies, corruption and fraud?

Exactly how you would imagine. So much time, money and energy is wasted in SA worrying about and combating these things. When they become a non-­issue, you can spend the same time, money and energy pursuing anything you want. I don’t for a second feel guilty for leaving those threats behind.

20 Can we come and live with you?

You will always be welcome! Just bring some Ouma Beskuit and Aromat when you do come over.

A South African expat abroad
Photo: Cornel Marais

Cornel lives with wife, Rensia, in Hong Kong, China. They left South Africa in 2007 and have lived abroad ever since.

*This list of questions first appeared in the book ‘The Expat Confessions‘, following a survey of over 500 South Africans. SAPeople published the list – 20 Questions for an expat – back in 2009 and Cornel happened to “stumble” upon it a couple of days ago!