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By clairemac93

I pour out the contents of the folder that perched in my cabinet for the duration of my year in Stellenbosch. Not once sifted through. I cast my memories into this folder- ticket stubs, notes from friends and roommates, pictures, and brochures. On day one, I started with my plane tickets; this being my longest journey to a new country. However past that, it’s blurry where this odd assortment can be placed in the space and time of my year. Concert wrist bands from that Afrikaans festival where we dogpiled in public and danced to music not even on-par with the worst of wedding bands. One labeled “Balkan dance rave” where, unsurprisingly, I lost my phone and from what I can remember, there was a dead pig hanging from the ceiling. A receipt from the Cape Town city tour bus, where in the pouring rain, alone, I spent an entire day seeing everything I’d put off the previous semester. Stormers tickets. A recipe for Fettkook. Knicknacks from an off-season Karnival hosted by the German Society. A secret note passed to me in class by my best friend in Stellies during the first week we met, “Hoe gaan dit mit jou Afrikaans?” Each item turning my brain a new direction, making me think of different people, making me remember how I felt at that moment.

I’m aware that most of the reason that I kept these things, mostly pieces of paper, is to remind myself that this year happened. As much as I now have moments which so influenced me in how free, or happy, or moved I was that I have a clear, still-frame image in my mind of that moment…I fear that given enough time that image will fade, or be forgotten. And scarier still, I fear that I’ll forget the feeling I had along with its image. These items consequently help me physically and mentally piece together where I was and where I am now.

To be perfectly honest, I was waiting to write this last entry until some morning that I woke up after coming home, when the lessons I learned in South Africa would suddenly be made clear and I would write my feelings down and feel satisfied for an easy summarization of my time. And yet, 3 weeks in, and I’m yet to have that moment. South African culture was much harder to pin down or understand than other countries I’ve visited. Each family I stayed with, each town I visited, was so starkly different that each time I walked away with even the basic facts I thought I’d learned about the country shattered. So often did this happen that eventually I gave up on trying to draw any generalizations across people. In many ways this was part of the excitement- always questioning, always confused, always open. But in other ways it made living in Stellenbosch frustrating, as a town relatively monochromatic and privileged, as I had to make a concerted effort to put myself into the unfamiliar.

This being said, I left my year as exactly who I wanted to be. I saw Johannesburg, jumped off the highest bridge in Africa, did two homestays in local townships, traveled to Namibia and along the Garden Route, met my South African relatives, and hiked my fair share of mountains. But at the moment, to be frank, I hardly need to factor those bits into my year. I walked away from South Africa a much better, and purer version of myself, than who had left. I learned to stand up for myself, to focus on others, to live in the moment, and how to verbalize my feelings to those who made me feel used or hurt. I found that life is as simple or complicated as you make it. And I learned to address, via the behaviors of others and myself, the person I want to be and how to honor that via my actions and inactions. And that, is what I’m most proud of from my year.

I am of the opinion that a year abroad is in the end just another 12 months in your life, which is made spectacular and life-changing by the fact that there is a clear start and end date, as opposed to other years in which that blurs. Though I continue to struggle to figure out what this year meant to me, while simultaneously having to evaluate where my life goes in 6 months when I graduate, I am thankful for having had a year to gear all my energy towards shamelessly questioning, exploring, laughing, and wondering - things I often lose sight of in the bustle of the city.

Thank you to everyone who read my blog, to the friends from home who kept me consistently motivated and giggling, to my grandma for always being my most avid and engaged reader and my always inspiration for traveling, to the families who let me into their homes, and most importantly, to my parents for dealing with my visa problems and tendency to wander.

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

~Leonardo di Vinci

By clairemac93

Having lived in two locations abroad for a year each, one time in high school (Germany) and the other in college (South Africa), I can’t help but think of what I would change or tweak if I could do them over again. Though I would never regret anything I’ve done, most of the advice that I would give my younger self, or anyone studying abroad, are things TO do, rather than NOT TO do.

As such, I’ve compiled a list of tips or suggestions as to how to get the most out of your study abroad experience!

  1. Try all of the nomz. I’m a firm believer that food tells you a lot about a culture, and also gains you respect with locals who see you branching out. Though some cringe at my having eaten a sheep’s face in South Africa, it can’t be any grosser than a hotdog from the United States or McNuggets at McDonalds, of which I have no idea what the origins of the food are. At least with the sheep’s face I knew it came from a real animal as I was looking at its face, and I shook hands with the man who cooked it in front of me. Just take a deep breath, remember this may be the only time you can try this, and eat it. As a caveat to this- do not, under any circumstance, reject food from someone. If someone is making the effort and spending the time and money to cook a meal for you, they are trying to show they care. So please, if I can eat chunky sour apple and carrot purée to show my respect for someone’s mom trying to feed me, you can eat the unfamiliar food too.
  2. Do a homestay, or create a homestay. I know, I know, some friend of yours told you some story about her sister’s boyfriend’s uncle who had a weird host family who locked him in a closet or something. However, 99.99% of actual host families are volunteers and nice, welcoming people who are eager to learn about your culture as well as share theirs. Homestays mean home-cooked meals and an intimate look at the everyday lives of locals. You can be a cultural authority on everything from a traditional family holiday meal to what type of toothpaste locals buy. If you can’t stay the entire time with a host family, ask a friend if you could go home with them for a weekend. Then do it with another friend. This will help you to gain a more representative picture of the culture and also potentially free food and a comfortable bed for a weekend.
  3. Put your camera/Smartphone down. Now, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t mean you shouldn’t take any photos. But a lot of times I find that people are so focused on capturing the moment that they end up missing it. Forgetting a memory is not the most horrible thing to ever happen- and the events that most moved you will remain in your memory, whether they have a picture of them or not.
  4. Make a concerted effort to stay away from your countrymen. I hate to say it, but it’s a comfort blanket. I couldn’t tell you how many students abroad I’ve seen whose pictures from their entire stay are not only just with other Americans, but only with Americans from their home university. But I totally get it- a lot of programs house everyone from the program together, sometimes you don’t speak the local language, and it takes some time to make local friends. But whether it be joining a rec soccer team, a choir, getting a job as a waitress or bartender, or just hitting up a study buddy for a drink—make sure that when you look back at your week, you can pinpoint times when you put yourself out of your comfort zone and reached out to locals [As a side note to this: traveling in large groups of Americans is a surefire way of preventing locals from talking to you. Big groups are unapproachable and scary. Try going to a café on your own or going to a bar with just one other person]
  5. Make your own opportunity. This is a new one for me, but one I’m hoping to bring home in full-force. I’m used to being the person who waits anxiously until another person asks me to do something with them, and sometimes, that means I never become friends with that person because they never ask. So instead, you create your own event. For example, hosting a dinner. You can cook the first time and ask people to bring refreshments or snacks, and then to continue it, you can ask if someone’s willing to host it the next time. This way, at least the first time it gets people to come over, incentivized by the free meal, and hopefully by the end they’ll think you’re awesome. Or host a movie night with hot chocolate. My French friend hosted a wine and cheese event in her room. I suggest these things as someone (and I know I’m not rare) who has been very comfortable in their friend group back home that I’d forgotten how to make new friends and had to relearn. So stop waiting, and create the opportunity!
  6. Don’t accept it’s the end, until it is the end. I’ll explain this, as I’m guilty of it myself. You get to the last month or two of your program, and you can see the end in sight, but you still have a fair amount of time left. Instead of spending it like your first month when you bounced around doing everything, you get wrapped up in the idea that you don’t have the time for things, or become sad over leaving. But there’s no reason to be sad until you are actually leaving, or back in your country. You’ll end up regretting time spent not making new friends or having new experiences or being sad about something that hadn’t even happened yet.
  7. Take your lessons home. Again, this is something new for me but one of my biggest take-aways from South Africa. I often did things, such as stay in a township or try new restaurants or go exploring an area that I wasn’t yet acquainted with, and I caught myself wondering why I didn’t do these things at home. Additionally, when meeting new people in South Africa or their families, I found myself asking them about their parents, grandparents, where they grew up, what their house growing up was like, etc. Then I returned home and realized I’d never even asked my Dad what his grandparents were like. Why am I so curious abroad and yet so complacent in the familiar back home? So as a challenge to yourself, try to explore your home town like you did the town you studied abroad in. Haven’t eaten at that restaurant? Go eat there. Haven’t ever been down that street? Go there. Pretend you are an exchange student in your own town and see what you can find.

And my last piece of advice, is just to have no regrets. Accepting that not every part of your study abroad experience is going to be positive is part of the deal. You never know when you’ll get to travel like this again. So when things start to suck, which is as common to happen abroad as in 6 months months back home, reach out and get out of it as fast as you can. You are so lucky to live abroad- an opportunity that many don’t get. So have fun, do equal amounts of smart and less smart things, branch out, and enjoy!

By clairemac93

The Gods Must Be Crazy. Though an appreciation for British humor was genetically lost on me, this film is worth a view in other ways. It takes place in Botswana, supposedly, but shows the experience of a Khoisan man, or “bushmen”. Khoisan, as written about previously, are the oldest “people” or ethnic group in the world and we can all draw our ancestry to them. I have been to the Khoisan reservation in South Africa three separate times, and each time have learned something new about their way of life, and especially how this group is adapting to ever-encroaching development. When visiting they showed me things like how to find medicine from basic bush plants (including delicious wild mint you can chew on), how keeping the camp area clean is a way of seeing if a snake is in the area by the disturbance of sand, and mating rituals within the tribe.

Aside from the Khoisan, this film is a nice display of, whether they meant to or not, varying viewpoints on who is the outsider in this world. So many look at tribes like the Khoisan and believe them to be underdeveloped or uneducated- as if they are at a disadvantage living their lifestyle, and that their natural progression should be towards a life more like the West. However, they may, and probably do, look at you as the dumb or weird one. I mean, from a personal perspective, I can’t even sew on a button let alone start a fire, and if dropped into the wilderness I would probably be running around trying to catch rabbits with my hands (in fact, as a child my cousins and I used to lie on the deck and dunk our heads in the water to try to catch fish with our bare hands, and were continually disappointed by our lack of success. There was literally no learning curve) In the end, does it make you smarter to be able to use technology and read a book or to be able to provide basic human needs for yourself? Whether it be tribes like the Khoisan, or low-income individuals all over the world, there is a high probability that they know how to do a lot more practical tasks than an “educated” person from the city or the western world, because they’ve had to learn how to do that.

By clairemac93

I woke up this morning in the bed of my best friend, in the city of Washington. I proceeded to lie there and stare at the wall, while slowly separating my eye lids which were stuck together because I had slept so hard that I basically fused my eyelashes together. “Where am I?” I wondered. “How did I get here?”

After 25 hours in transit, I had a right to be both physically and mentally confused of where in time and space I was. Yesterday, or rather two days ago, was my last day in Stellenbosch. With many of my friends and fellow students already well past finished with exams, I was one of few remaining to write for my departments. It meant a lot of scattered goodbyes, a quiet campus, and trying to process leaving while at the same time focusing on the (seemingly) 1 billion equations and graphs I needed to be memorizing for exams. I felt like I was running out of brain space for so many puzzling concepts. Having then only finished my semester on Wednesday evening, I spent my few free days afterwards sort of bumbling around town, unsure what act would solidify or best end my time there, while at the same time keeping in mind that after a year in a small town- it was more the people I would miss than things in the town itself. In the end, my last day was perfect in its simplicity. I went to breakfast with my best friend’s family, who have acted as a pseudo-host family all year and have given me a steady dose of Afrikaans language and culture since the beginning (perfectly summarized in their goodbye gifts which consisted of my own potjiekos pot and lifetime supply of rusk). I then spent the day at an organic farm exploring, in the striking heat that was hinting of summer being just around the corner.

Cue then to arriving in Washington. After making the pivotal mistake of admitting to having brought with me produce from the African continent, I lost what seemed like several years of my life to customs at Dulles airport. I started to envision that I would have a movie made after my experience called The Terminal 2. Once freed from the grasps of airport personnel, I finally took my first new steps into the United States. The sky looked exactly like what I remember a November sky looks like- bulbous and cloudy with every shade of gray included and a dull light seeping through. But aside from the sky, everything else in the city looked familiar in the most foreign way, as if I was visiting for the first time again. As if I didn’t identify with these streets anymore. As if the paths I had hammered into these sidewalks had slowly molded to someone else’s while I was away.

Spending the evening with close friends of mine, I realized that a lot of work will be involved to identify the spot where this “new me” fits back in here. Work at NGOs? Internships? Applications for scholarships? Homemade beer kits? Brunch? $20 for a meal at a burger joint? What are these things? What do I talk about? Where is the intersection between what I want to say and family and friends care to hear?

And so the process begins. I know people will tell me that I have done this before (Germany 2009-2010), and that I can do this again. And they’re right. However, it’s hard to accept that when looking at the daunting idea of condensing and packing away a year of your life into a digestible portion of your personality and then moving on from it. But I have to remember that this, this coming home deal, is also a part of my South African adventure as much as any other part. It is the part where I challenge what I truly learned there, what parts I want to keep and discard, what parts taught me lessons and which just happened and I’ll have to accept.

Updates to come later.

By clairemac93

In skyping with my parents tonight, I finally put to words something that has been building within me since I arrived in South Africa last January. It was under the context of, with less than two months to go here, what will potentially give me reverse culture shock when I return to the United States. Though there are expected potential culture shocks such as the proportion of black people to white, the presence of interracial couples, or lack of intimate daily contact with extreme poverty, the biggest issue I can see myself facing is the idea of consumption and the idea of deserved consumption.

I dealt with this in Germany to an extent too. You walk in a grocery store, and whereas in America there might be 20 cereal brands to choose from (this is a conservative guess) in Germany there would be 2-3. This was not thought of as abnormal, as “how complicated can cereal get?” Additionally, Germans just really like musli, so there’s that. Here in South Africa it is something similar. Though South Africa is certainly much more developed than I think the Western world gives them credit for, the average yearly income being $1,164 (as opposed to $60,526 in the States) does not inspire consumerism for the sake of consumerism. As such, at the grocery store there are a couple options for each item. Nothing deprivational, just food. You can find things in season, and you can suck it up when they aren’t. The most purchased good food-wise is a loaf of white bread, as for many that alone serves as nutrition for the coming day.

So in evaluating what might shock me in coming home, I realized that pure consumption- much of it for consumptions sake- will be the hardest to witness coming home. The idea in the United States that every product must be exactly personalized to every preference and need- gluten free, low fat, low sugar, high fiber- is slightly ridiculous after spending time here. We have grown up to believe that these products which we like, these things that we regularly buy, are parts of our very character- as if without these items we, as a person, will cease to be 100% us. We tie our personality to our product choices, and feel deprived when those products are no longer offered. We import for year-round fruits and vegetables, as to prevent ever being “deprived” of these foods we love. We buy that new product simply because we’ve never seen it on the shelf before. We pack our kids lunches with the snacks that have been branded to them or serve them Spongebob Mac n’ Cheese because they believe it tastes better when its shaped like him—I myself am guilty of this specifically!

But the problem I have is not in our desire to consume, but in our feelings of deprivation. We, in reality, require very little to survive. We do not specifically need those avocados. If that store went out of business, I would find other clothes. If my favorite cereal went off the shelves, I will find something else to eat. However I know many who get truly upset at the thought of these products disappearing. We are taught to believe that lack of choice is against human expression, but much of the difference in products we consume are small and inconsequential- only to the benefit of the producer/marketer for the product.

In thinking of home I can already see the long lines of items on shelves at grocery stores, and I can feel a sense of confusion of why its all necessary. If more choices were the key to happiness or health, America would be the happiest healthiest place on earth. But it’s not. So why do we think all the hoopla is necessary? Is it a distraction? Are our lives, down to every product we eat, meant to be so personalized? And what does this constant personalization teach our citizens about what they deserve and what is necessary for living? Does it make any difference?

I don’t know. What I know is that in comparing myself to the average South African here I am happy to eat what is provided, and having not been exposed to the choices that are provided in the U.S., many here are happy with a smaller amount of choices and never stop to ask why there aren’t more. Though a couple of years ago there was a phenomenon of youth burning money and cars to show they “didn’t need it” as to indicate wealth, on the whole I find South Africans much less apt to shamelessly display wealth and much less apt to ask for more. This is humbling. However, my stepmom once asked me, “If America is perfectly capable of providing these products and importing goods in season, why shouldn’t they?” And aside from the environmental ramifications of the transportation of these goods, I still don’t have an answer. In this way, my culture shock will be more of confusion, than anything, about how I feel about the contrast between the two countries and how they define what they need.




By clairemac93

I think one of the most exciting parts of traveling abroad is trying new foods. As much as I sometimes find myself craving things from back home- from the everyday of black beans and plantain chips and Mexican food and granola bars, to the foods I crave just because I can’t have them at my fingertips- cinnabuns being the most infamous of those, generally eating here is great. Stellenbosch is famous for the amount of eateries it has, many of them quaint little café’s, and township food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten. But I will say that in coming here I knew very little about the food, and I can assume most people wouldn’t know what to expect from South Africa too. As such I’ll share with you some of the things I consider “typically South African”.


Rusk: Rusk is a bit like biscotti in that it’s a sweet-ish bready-ish thing you dunk in your coffee. They go from ultra- healthy to diabetes-flavored.


Biltong: Oh biltong. Biltong is essentially a much fancier version of beef jerky, and let me tell you that if you don’t like biltong you lose some points in most South African’s minds. It’s dried and hanged meat and you can get in everywhere from grocery stores to shops especially for biltong. I’m of the opinion that it gives you gout, but my theory has thus far not been proven.

Koeksisters 2

Koeksisters: Oh these sweet little spirals have capture me body and soul! They are little twists of dough soaked in honey. So pretty much, everything you ever wanted in life.

bunny chow
Bunny Chow

Bunny chow: Bunny chow is where you start to see the Malay influence in South African cuisine. Whereas most places in the western world had slaves from Africa, South Africa had slaves from Malaysia- referred to as the Cape Malay. This dish is a third of a loaf of bread filled with curry. Make sure to eat it either when in Joburg or better yet, Durban.


Potjiekos: This is the only dish I was aware of from South African before I came here, though I’ve actually rarely eaten it here. It’s quite a labor intensive meal- and one of those usually designated for the patriarch to handle. It’s essentially a thick meat soup and takes days to make.


Gatsby: Gatsby’s are the footlongs of South Africa. They are the biggest sandwich you will ever consume, but pure deliciousness. They are so big in fact, that even in a heroic like effort to conquer a Gatsby, my roommate and I only ate a half. Any sandwich with French fries in it is a winner in my book. That half a sandwich is half to blame for the 15 pounds I’ve gained here!


Vetkoek: Vetkoek is my favorite township food, to the point I’m bringing home the recipe for it. It translates to fat cake, just to make you aware of its health benefits, and is eaten with meat straight off the braai. Its slightly sweet and can cost as little as R2, or $0.20 for each one.


Pap: Pap is a bit like the fufu of Ghana. It is almost mashed potato-like in texture and eaten as the carbs of a meal. Never ever ever eat pap with a fork…ever. Hands only.


Chalaka: Definitely just thought this word was a joke when I first heard it, but chalaka is a salsa-like side dish served with pap and meat, most times. Best if nice and spicy!

Red Espresso

Red latte/espresso: Here, Rooibos is king. Rooibos, if you haven’t had it, is a non-caffeinated tea that’s a domestic product of South Africa. They put it in almost everything. As such, a red latte/espresso here is a must- which is rooibos tea and espresso.

Luckily for me, I’m not so much of a meat eater so it keeps me from eating these things every day. Nonetheless, South African food has continually surprised me in how tasty it is. I’m not sure I would say it’s a culture where you necessarily need to go home with someone to eat traditional food, but it’s definitely one where you need to interact with many different social groups to “taste the country” as regions and ethnic groups eat very differently. As an aside, though certainly not considered delicacies by anyone’s standards- college kids everywhere would benefit from the sweet chilli Doritos and pinapple Fanta only available here!

By clairemac93

The title seems broad, but months pondering this subject and I’m yet to come up with a better summarization of my feelings. White people here, are indeed, afraid of everything and everyone…it seems at least.

Stellenbosch is located in the Western Cape. It is 17% white, 49% coloured, and 33% black African. But I’m going to be perfectly honest. Despite my returning to the United States and everyone imagining that I spent my days surrounded by “black Africans”, I spend my days in Stellenbosch almost entirely interacting with whites and maybe, coloured people. Stellenbosch is an Afrikaans university, which is why it attracts that demographic. In fact, despite the Western Cape being 17% white, the most of any region in South Africa, Stellenbosch University is 68.5% white.

So great, we’ve established there isn’t much diversity here. But that’s not really my issue, as whether I’m here or at a small liberal arts college in the United States, I will probably find myself disappointed by the sea of white privilege—myself being a part of that. What I’m disappointed about is the connection it has taught me here between race, income and safety.

Last semester we experienced two girls, on their own during dark hours, individually get kidnapped on campus. It shook the campus. Suddenly students were saying there was a “crime spike”. Every kid who had his wallet stolen or was approached by someone weird contributed to this theory. Emails were sent out explaining the situation to parents, and to avoid another “incident”, evening exams offered bus trips for kids to and from the exam venue. I later received an email from the University president that “crime had been pushed to perimeters of campus”.

And I stood there, and I wondered what that meant. Crime had been “pushed” off campus? There was always crime in Stellenbosch. The kidnappings had just made people more aware of it. And there are reasons for that. Despite the university being, predominantly wealthy and white, the town of Stellenbosch itself is not. In fact, Stellenbosch is actually vastly majority coloured and there is a huge township, Kayamandi, viewable from basically every window at this university. Within a 5 minute walk from campus, you can find yourself in a very different world. Forget the tree lined streets and cute cafes, bring in the discounted expired-goods grocery stores and beggars on the streets.

As such, its not so surprising to me that Stellenbosch University would be a target for crime. Kids here have grown up in literal bubbles of gated communities which within themselves have 8 foot walls and security systems. They went to private all-boys and all-girls schools where they receive a world class education while other students in their country can’t afford books or even a school lunch. They walk around campus with I-Phones in hand and newly bought clothes. This is all not so different from my university at home. But what I’m saying is that the blatant display of class difference here would piss me off as someone not part of that social class, too. Though kidnapping is certainly extreme, for a large amount of robberies or theft to go on here is unsurprising to me, as from the outside it looks like these kids have everything- and could certainly live past losing a laptop or a sandwich.

It is also shocking to me that the university would promote its students to stay indoors during evening hours, to bus to and from exams, and to never walk alone. Perhaps living in DC has given me a thick skin, in which they text us to tell us of crime but don’t necessary guide us of what to do- instead assuming us mature enough to react on our own. I feel like promoting these things only keeps these already naive students in their bubble. Hiding from crime does not make it go away and these same students will one day be entering into the real world where crime still happens, and be equally as uneducated of how to handle it.

But that is one more caveat. I totally understand why the kidnappings shook this campus. That just doesn’t happen here and is incredibly unfortunate. However, aside from that students are convinced that Stellenbosch is incredibly dangerous. As they spread this message, as do professors and university officials, a general fear becomes ingrained in students. For example, I had a study partner tell me that she previously lived on another side of Stellenbosch and moved because she felt “unsafe”. I asked her why and what had happened. She told me that nothing ever happened, she just felt it. I asked her if there were more black people around her previous residence, and she explained yes. I’m not sure she caught my connection between the two. Students come to fear the outside world as if its going to eat them alive. It also creates an unnecessary fear of anyone who’s not a clean-cut kid. I was walking with a friend once who saw a black man carrying a chair down the road ahead of us. She instantly grabbed my arm and told me that we should stay away from him because he “looked dangerous”. I, naturally, laughed and asked how carrying a chair makes someone scary. I then explained that if it was a white person carrying that chair, they would assume it was just a student moving or doing something stupid. Suddenly it’s a black guy and you are in danger of the man-with-chair. It’s actually ridiculous.

I am yet to feel unsafe at all in Stellenbosch, any more than I am in DC. I feel that if you look like you know where you are going, what you are doing, and look people in the eyes you are doing yourself the largest favor. I’ve walked at all times of day and night, alone, and have rarely been approached. When I have, I have acted calm and nothing has happened to me. I think that by the time you are in college you should not be hand-holded of how to function day-to-day and unfortunately dealing with crime is part of that here. And even if crime, predominantly theft, does happen, can you really blame them?

By clairemac93

This is the second time this has happened to me abroad, or rather, the second time it’s been this intense of a feeling. It is always towards the end of my stay in another country. You have built up your friend group, a community, your favorite places and foods, and at this point, can fully function in another language. As amazing as it is, midway through your stay your eyes blur slightly in that you don’t see the “specialness” of things anymore. You no longer consider even a trip to the grocery store a “cultural experience” and in fact standing this weekend at a baptism for a mutual friend, I found myself thinking it was just an ordinary day baptizing someone in the ocean. You stop remembering how amazing this is and that other people won’t ever get to witness the things you did. You simply stop thinking, which is part of the experience too.

And that’s where this moment comes in. There is a moment where I am suddenly hit with how absolutely extraordinary my experience is. How thankful I should be for not only every minute, but every second that I am granted here. Perhaps it’s that strategic time before I leave- where I can feel the end coming but have just enough time to savor the flavor of this country.

My moment came about while staying the weekend in a neighboring town called Somerset West with my best friend Helen. It’s the fourth time I’ve stayed with her family for the weekend, and every time I feel closer with each family member. Every time the greetings are more personal, it’s easier to have one-on-one conversations, I know my way around the kitchen better, and I feel more at home. Even the dogs seem to remember me by now. I was sitting around the farm-table with home cooked food made by all 11 of us, telling stories of our midadventures, laughing and poking fun as both family and friends late into the night. I found myself realizing how my year had worked up to that moment where there are no invisible walls, no awkwardness, no foreignness. This felt like home and family. And in a large way they are in my life here. It was the moment you take a mental step back to see the wonderful life you built somewhere and you wish that you could remember every detail of this picture in your mind so that you can savor it forever. I want to remember the grooves in this table from how many years its been used and how many generations have sat here. I want to remember the warmth of this kitchen, and the smell of the fire burning. I want to visualize Helen’s mom smiling, as she does so sparingly. But you know that is impossible, so instead you sit back and enjoy and let it sink in the best you can. If my memory serves me correct, moments like those- even if the details are lost- will stick with you for the long run if not just in a general feeling it gives you when you think back on it.

I’m confident that I won’t leave without having more moments like this, though that one will particularly stick out. I think that it’s a nice reminder, that in those moments of the day that from an outsider perspective may seem boring or mundane- to find that light to realize that the company of the ones you love is such a gift. As corny as it is, with my leaving this country within the month, I can’t help but have a feeling of nostalgia of all I’ve experienced here. It’s hard to admit that it’s ending and it’s hard to know I won’t be able to remember all of it.

By clairemac93

It’s one of those things you see on CNN, or in movies, or you read about. The trash- laying on street corners or buried under dirt after long months of no attention. The animals- feral dogs with mange and bad tempers, no collars or owners in sight. The homes- tin roofed, brightly colored, but ultimately threadbare.

I’m speaking of the townships.

South Africa is probably one of three countries I would associate with the word “township”- the other two being Brazil and India. However, countries everywhere from Pakistan (largest township in the world) to Jamaica and Bangladesh consider townships inevitable parts of society. Not surprisingly, the countries containing townships- most of them considered middle income countries, also have very high Gini coefficients [Gini Coefficient=mathematical measurement of inequality in society], with South Africa in fact having the highest measure of inequality in the world.

On the one hand, movies like Slumdog Millionaire and events such as the World Cup have made the general public more aware of the existence of townships/shantytowns/favelas and have put a face to those who live there. On the other hand, flying into Cape Town in January I was still mentally unprepared to see these townships stretch for miles, with planes landing only yards from shacks outside the airport gates. On my initial ride through the city, where major monuments and parts of the city were pointed out to me, it was not lost on me that not a word was spoken about the miles of townships we were passing. Perhaps our tour guide thought they spoke for themselves.

Townships are a lot more nuanced than a quick overlook might make them out to be. Densely populated and located in many different areas of cities or the country, townships hold far from homogenous groups of people. Everything from income level, to language, to religion, to employment status is different from area to area and home to home. Walking down the street you may find a shack that is hardly standing, with a cardboard roof and no running water, next to a house which rivals many comfortable single-story homes in the United States.

I stayed in a home in Gugulethu, a township about 15km outside of Cape Town. The township’s name means “our pride”, a very robust name considering its founding was due to Apartheid’s removal of blacks from Cape Town- thereby moving them to areas like Gugulethu. My host family consisted of my host father, Zukile, the right-hand man to the priest at the local church and his wife, Loretta, who works at the Department of Home Affairs. Because of the fact that both of them are employed, something perhaps not associated with those living in the Townships, their house is nicely furnished, with two bedrooms, and all the amenities of a normal South African home.

Besides the fact we were in a township, my time staying with their family gave me a very different cultural experience than what I would get in a place like Stellenbosch. The family was black and Xhosa-speaking, very spiritual, and focused on their extended and spiritual family. We went to church together on Sunday morning, and I got the chance to try what I would consider real South African home-cooked food. Never in my life have I eaten so much meat. My host family was full of warm hugs and curious questions, and I found myself envisioning what my year would be like if they were my full-time host family here in South Africa. Despite this, it was impossible to ignore some of the realities of living in the area. True to what I’d read, trash collection was not as efficient as other places and many families share latrines outside the home, which many times go uncared for and overflow. Alcoholism is a large issue, true in any disadvantaged community, as is HIV.

Going to church was my favourite part of the weekend. Acting as the social and cultural center of the township, the church itself can fit hundreds of believers and reverberates the sounds of worshipers singing for hours on end. From old ladies to little toddlers who can already pop-and-lock, there is rarely a moment when the room isn’t full of song and dance. The old ladies particularly liked to dance a move I called the “chugga chugga choo choo” which involved swinging their arms in a circular motion next to their hips. Though the service was conducted in isiXhosa and I myself am not believing, I couldn’t help but be spellbound by the joy emanating from those around me, and to see and feel how thankful they were for all that they did have in a world where many people can only think about what they don’t. The church itself has gotten a lot of praise as well as criticism for its acceptance of HIV/AIDS positive members and its promotion of inclusion of HIV positive residents. The HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon hangs proudly on the front podium of the church. After church, most of the youth head to a place called Mzoli’s- a place I would recommend any visitor to Cape Town go, especially on a Sunday. With large platters of meat and no shortage of music, Mzoli’s acts as a nice mix of locals and foreigners gathering in one big outdoor day-party in the middle of the township.

Returning home to Stellenbosch, I found myself much more motivated by my time spent in the township to push myself to find new and unique experiences like what I’d just encountered. However, I was also quickly reminded of the divide when I raved to an Afrikaaner classmate of my homestay over the weekend, and she quickly wrote me off by saying that she grew up here and would never take a step into the township. Another student chimed in in agreement. She, and others here, are missing out on a lot of warmth, culture, and critical discussion. It’s a shame that many of my fellow students here have not so much as taken the train into Cape Town, let alone gone into a township. This being said, I can see myself or my fellow students in the United States saying similar things about certain parts of Philadelphia, DC, or Detroit- where poverty and crime are high and most of us would avoid so much as driving into. I hope to come to terms with the similarities between the racial and economic biases in all the countries I’ve lived in someday, and hopefully be able to explain them more eloquently.

By clairemac93

I am 9 months into my time here in South Africa. For the most part, that means I’ve gotten so used to the things that once shocked me that I don’t even see them anymore. This is just a consequence of living somewhere- and they aren’t all bad. I no longer notice the huge looming mountain tops around town that used to awe me every day. I no longer am taken aback at the beggars following me on my way home from the grocery store, and in fact have had some of my most successful conversations in Afrikaans with them. I no longer notice that the internet is slow, or that races don’t interact much, or how every single house here has a fence or wall around its entire exterior. Surprisingly, as someone who considers themselves relatively tough-skinned when faced with insults to my country, the one thing that to this day has not lost its shock-factor are the feelings of South Africans against America and Americans.

Now, I get it—“it’s all in good fun”. “It’s just a joke”. Trust me, I can take some puns at Americans. In fact, they annoy me a lot too when I’m traveling. They’re unnecessarily loud, especially when they know others are listening. They’re ignorant- a stereotype that is very accurate and which I’ve even noticed in my own lack of knowledge. They travel in huge groups and don’t interact with locals despite having come all the way to [fill in location here]. So yes. I’m not shooting stars and stripes out of my extremities.

However, I am also “proud to be an American” in my own way. I have traveled enough to see the many opportunities that having grown up in the United States has provided me, how many opportunities I was allowed purely because of my citizenship, how much our country has contributed to world history and innovation, and how many amazing cities and states we have. I was offered scholarships for study, to meet people of different upbringings. I never had to worry about receiving schooling, food, shelter, or worry that my politicians weren’t watching out for my general welfare. I ran around my neighborhood as a child, and knew all of my neighbors. And national holidays were, to me, a thing to look forward to and to celebrate having grown up in the States, and still are.

I truly believe that despite what the world way think- that America is culture-less, that that itself is an impossibility. When you meet an American abroad, the entire reason you bond is due to a shared culture—a point of commonality despite whatever differences you may have. I’m not saying it’s the most sophisticated culture—our commonalities might be cereal brands we can only get at home, peanut butter sandwiches, pancakes and our favorite 90’s cartoons, or a common university that you share friends and family at. We bond in going to football games and picking pumpkins at Halloween and sitting down for a meal at Thanksgiving. I think Americans share a lot more in common than they think. And I personally am tired of feeling that I need to be ashamed of my nationality. I am often hit with the phrase, “But Claire, you’re a cool American” or comments on me being the exception to the rule, as if the other 316 million people are innately bad, just by being born in my country.

What’s interesting is that in traveling you tend to run into one of two Americans—regardless of age. There are those who are bazooka-ing you with patriotism and will come to the defense of legitimately any claim against the United States. Then there are those who have picked up on ill feelings towards the US and hate on their country before anyone else does. These both seem like bad options and sort of ingenuine. I think it’s important to strike a balance, with any country, between your pros and cons and to be open to someone else’s respectful opinion. Most importantly, I think it is important to try to speak on behalf of the general population- always remembering that you may be the only American someone ever speaks with and whatever you say may be associated with your country. For example, I have an American friend who likes to rave about how many firearms he and his father own whenever someone approaches him about the issue of gun control in the US. What could have been a productive conversation on media and stereotypes and the diversity of people in the US turns into a game on how intensely someone can fit a stereotype. You can see him getting the shocked reactions he aimed for and you almost witness in their eyes that a stereotype has been solidified forever. Those are chances to act as the middle man- to say what your family does but to also say that plenty of people don’t own firearms and that the reason there aren’t any laws restricting them is due to the NRA’s political influence. This may shed some light on information that foreigners do not know. But many, instead, just tend to shoot to one or the other side of American representation.

Despite always wanting to be a representative of the general public of the States, I’ve run into more than a few snags here in South Africa. I never suspected that anti-american feelings would be worse here than in Germany, but they are. 9 months in and almost daily someone, a professor or fellow student, says something against my country—not to me but in my presence. Most of it is ignorant- assuming were all idiots, we eat fast food 24-7, are all obese, racist, greedy, etc. Rarely do I get approached with a mature argument on political or economic grounds- rather people take easy hits to America’s belly. But sometimes the issues are more serious, such as when I was yelled at for what was going on in Ferguson and told by a South African that “if American can’t even figure out their racial issues, how can they criticize South Africa for theirs?” And I’m not going to lie, it gets old. I can only softly smile and say, “Oh, we're not all like that” or the most common “That’s only in the movies” so many times. I start to wonder why if I insulted a majority Muslim country or an east Asian country I would be considered a bigot or insensitive, yet if I insult the US at every turn its considered socially acceptable. Especially in a country like South Africa, in which I could freely insult blatant inequality differences, racism, lack of education, or any number of other social issues- I don’t. So I find it entertaining at best but insulting at most that South Africans have been so apt to, despite obvious issues of their own, throw so much shade at the United States. Perhaps it is just easier to say, “Hey look over there! Look at how much they’re screwing up!” to distract people from domestic issues.

Essentially, the United States is the country I grew up in, and the one I will go back to. It is a country that, when all is said and done, I am proud to be a part of and proud to represent and which I wish people could experience for themselves to see how diverse it is. I don’t need to be a patriot to respect the amount my country has contributed to who I am and to my values. I suppose it is just difficult to identify with a country whose business is so publically broadcasted, whose movies and music is consumed by the world, and whose political decisions aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor mine.

I’m just realizing that solidifying how I feel to be an American abroad is one of my hardest challenges here.