A friend told me that South Africans who immigrate to the US struggle and whine more than most. We think we know it all, because our culture already embraces so many facets of America. We’ve tasted McDonalds, we love Hollywood and wish we were Angelina Jolie. We’re cool and secretly believe we speak and spell better English, and we’re not afraid of hard work. Many of our exports have excelled in the fields of art, science and technology. Charlize Theron is one of ours, and so is Elon Musk. Some of us are hybrids, and we imagine this gives us an edge.
I struggle and whine a lot. I miss aspects of that place I still call home, where I saw lions and black backed jackals at least once a month and could argue with my mother over tea and koeksisters. I miss biltong in my efforts to become a vegetarian, and long for a glass of pinotage. I’m often the only person who gets my oddball, irreverent sense of humor. I get lonely.
So why did I leave? Why do I stay in America? Perhaps because of all the things I don’t miss. Fear, for one, although I think the beast has simply changed its camouflage. In South Africa, my daughter and I were robbed a number of times, and we were luckier than some. I’d worked with foreign nationals who’d become refugees of the xenophobic violence that broke out in 2008, I’d seen hate and violence, and I had little faith in Jacob Zuma.
I stay in San Francisco because I hope for an expansive future, one that embraces all cultures, one that is flawed but where great minds and free thinkers congregate, where writers and dancers and scientists, musicians and politicians, economists and forensic experts pursue truth and justice, and the people demand it.
But such a place is the stuff of hope. In America my fear takes a sleek, financial shape and issues of personal safety have to do with keeping a roof over our heads. I struggle to find my footing in a landscape that swings between political correctness and primitive approaches to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. I’m bewildered by the pace of technology and get snagged in jargon. I reinvent myself constantly, and in the process fear that I’ve lost my voice.
And I must trust that in this loss and thrashing about, there is a still and safe place that I will build myself, that resides within me and each of us, because I know that finding that peace and all the grace I seek, radiates from inside.