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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.