Interactions

To be frank, a large chunk of our South African experience was constricted to a very Western culture and style of living in South Africa. Despite South Africa’s diverse people groups and 11 different official languages. A majority of our interactions were with white Afrikaans or British people who only make up around 10% of the entire South African population. There were several instances where we could interact with other people, like during out isiXohsa language lecture or our service learning sites that we went to 3 times. But those experiences mostly did not lead us to become close to other people. That’s why I was excited to learn that we would have a homestay with a family in the village of Hamakuya. We finally did not have access to any hamburgers or pizza. Instead, we helped our host mom, Constance, cook pap (corn meal), snacked on Baobab fruit, and dined on Mopane worms. We danced on the dirt floor with Constance and the neighboring children and learned how to play Morabaraba with the host dad, Rodney.

I found it slightly ironic that we experienced a mostly Western side of South Africa despite the fact that they make up only 10% in population. This might be because our host school, Stellenbosch University, is still 61% white, and neocolonialism takes shape in capitalistic ventures of fast food and clothing stores. I know one or two students found the Hamakuya experience difficult in food and culture, I treasured this experience of getting to know a loving family and a beautiful culture outside our usual context.

Racism in Post-Apartheid South Africa

In 1994, South Africa officially ended apartheid, a period of segregation, violence, and discrimination on the basis of race. It is what Mandela and thousands of activists fought bravely against whilst enduring unfair imprisonment, torture, and even death. It has now been a little over 20 years since the end of such atrocities, but the impact echoes down until today. Throughout our program, we learned and saw much of this effect. We learned about #feesmustfall campaign fighting against fees that restrict impoverished, mostly black and colored students from attending higher education. We were students at a university that had 61% white students in a 10% white country. We met people waiting to receive compensation and houses from the government who kicked them out of their homes during the apartheid.

Although we saw first hand the impact of racism, we unfortunately experienced some directly. As we explored South Africa, a handful of black men approached the three Asian student on the program and yelled racial comments, such as “China”, “Ni Hao”, and “Hello Asian person”. One employee at the Cape Town airport came up to one of us, tugged his eyes to the side in a squint, and made racial jokes at him. I was furious. Even in Trump’s America, I had not experienced anything like this. The most frustrating thing was that black men, who had experienced discrimination and racial hatred only 20 years prior, were committing those same hateful acts towards me and my two other classmates. Why is this happening? One of my professors explained in a lecture that because 20 years have passed since the apartheid, a new generation of South Africans who don’t remember or lived through the apartheid was coming up. Perhaps my experience with racism in South Africa is due to the fact that people don’t remember being explicitly discriminated against. Or perhaps its for other reasons. But one thing was made clear for me: racial reconciliation goes beyond US boarders or between whites and blacks; despite its atrocious racial history, the world has so much more to learn in loving and respecting others.

Yikes.

(No pictures or the use of phones were allowed during Parliament sessions)

Even after hearing how crazy parliament is from my TA and Professor, I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced during our class trip to the South African Parliament. We had the privilege of seeing different ares of parliament buildings and learn more about the process and daily workings of Parliament from a member of the DA. We had a very structured and well planned tour through different chambers before heading straight into the crazy beast. We started to make our way to the main chamber as a bell rang. It was supposed to indicate to members that the session was to start soon, but it might as well have been equivalent to a bell indicating a natural disaster was to strike and civilians should evacuate.

Somehow, the session was a mix of respectful behavior and chaotic insults. When the Speaker entered, everyone stopped talking and stood up before her. Throughout the session, members would bow towards the Deputy Speaker before leaving the chamber or approaching them to privately discuss a matter. In complete contrast to this practice, members from all parties constantly hurled insults, held private conversations, and texted/played games on their phones DURING speeches. The insults sometimes had nothing to do with critiquing or debating any parts of the speech content. Sometimes, they were directed towards the speaker or party the speaker was a part of. For example: a member of the EFF yelled “BORING!!” during the Speaker’s opening statement. It reminded me of a rap battle where participants try to out insult the other through whatever means possible. And speaking of irrelevant insults, almost all of the speeches rarely touched the topic of the session: parliamentary budget. Speech points included gender rights, children rights, drought, secret ballots, and of course, insults.

My professor and TA have proposed that the ANC is too corrupt and the DA need to step into power. But no matter which party is in power, the parliamentary culture would leave the parliament at a stand still, or frankly, a laughing stock. From my limited knowledge of South African politics and my background in Learning and Organizational Change, I believe a mere change in part power will not solve parliamentary problems. Alas, the ANC can’t be blamed for everything that’s wrong in South African government.

Spring break in Cape Town

I came to Stellenbosch without taking any class on South African history, politics or culture, so the only things I knew were of the general variety—that apartheid happened, that it ended in 1994, that Nelson Mandela was a hero.

But I came anyway, and I came a week early, figuring I would spend spring break in Cape Town and catch up on my knowledge gap. For a week, I hiked Table Mountain, visited the Kirstenbosch gardens, walked through Bo-Kaap’s colorful streets, visited the District Six museum, watched so many breathtakingly beautiful sunsets on the shoreline, and took many, many jetlagged and finals-week-exhaustion naps.

I also was able to read a few books. On my last weekend there, before the program began, I spent some time alone, drinking coffee in amazing cafes (check out Truth Coffee Roasting, a very not-insider’s-scoop because it was literally named the best coffee shop in the world) and finishing two books about South Africa.

The first, titled After Mandela, is a journalistic perspective from a white American author named Douglas Foster about the Mbeki and early Zuma regimes—how the African National Congress (ANC) political party has or hasn’t delivered on promises and what the political regime looks like from young people’s perspectives. I was particularly interested by the interviews he conducted with members of this Born Free generation, who are more or less my age—individuals born after apartheid ended in 1994. A significant gap exists between this younger generation and the older generations who lived through and fought against apartheid. True liberation, including economic empowerment of black and “coloured” (“mixed”) populations, freedom from HIV/AIDS and fears of sexual and physical violence, seems far-off, despite the post-apartheid promises of a nonracial, equitable world.

However, this was written in the perspective of a white American journalist. Though I haven’t been able to unpack his hidden biases completely yet (I’m hoping my global health classes will help me understand more clearly South African perspectives on traditional medicine versus antiretroviral medication, South African populism, and specific cultural values among all the diverse identity groups in the country), it’s safe to say that every person brings his or her perspective to bear on whatever it is they see, and in this case, report on.

I sought a true South African perspective next. I visited the Book Lounge on the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets, just down the road from Truth Coffee Roasting, and found Period Pain by Kopano Matlwa, an award-winning South African writer. This was a first-person perspective, fictionalized but based on lived South African experiences, from a black female doctor who works in a public hospital. The writing is structured in journal entries that are, in turn, anguished, personal, biting, deep. The words seemed to sink in and nestle in my chest, and I reread multiple passages. I sat in the bookstore café and read the whole thing through in one sitting. It’s 200 pages and riveting, with zero wasted words—about violence against African immigrants to the “exceptional miracle” of South African democracy, about sexual violence against women in a patriarchal society, about the idealized nonracial world that South Africans hope to live in—but without using these cumbersome academic words. The issues become personal, as these issues always are, and relatable, from an American perspective and an American society that now openly espouses patriarchy, racism, and sexism and calls is populism. I feel lucky to have read Matlwa’s words. They are so good.

So my spring break was, in every sense of the word, perfect—a perfect “pre-departure” trip, or in my case, a perfect pre-program trip. I rested after finals week. I hiked!—my favorite thing in the world. I read!—my second favorite thing in the world. Now I feel like I have a marginally less-meager background in South African culture. It’s still sparse and narrow and dated, but far more substantial than it was previously.

Now, I have three months to learn more, and hike more, and read more, and make new Northwestern and Stellies/Maties friends (University of Stellenbosch nicknames for the students and the sports teams, respectively). Here’s hoping that I walk away from this trip having learned a lot—about South African history, culture and public health, and about myself, as an Asian American woman who’s trying to figure out her post-graduation plans.

Pre-Departure Thoughts

Within the past couple of months, it has been made clear that I am called into international Christian missions work. This is definitely not the path that most Northwestern students take, and definitely not one I thought I would be doing when I first came into Northwestern as a freshman only a few years ago. Even still, there is a lot to consider: am I going straight into missions after graduation? Should I go to graduate school first? If so, where should I go and what should I study? Do I even know ethically sound, theologically solid missions organizations? With graduation looming around the corner, I am coming into study abroad with a lot on my mind. I am hoping that this step away from the normal Northwestern life and my usual circle of friends will help in discerning possibilities of my future. I won’t have the same group of friends who have walked with me through the past couple years of my life. I won’t have my usual church to lean on. Perhaps the change in pace will help me to gather my thoughts and think things through in a new way. South Africa will still be a blast: eating new foods, meeting new friends, hiking Table Mountain, etc. But I think I’m coming in with a lot more hopes of clarity and growth than most of my peers. I’m looking forward to having deep and meaningful conversation with them as we explore the beautiful country of South Africa together. I think I’m ready to do this.

A Reluctant Goodbye

It’s taken me a while to write this final post.  Mostly because I was unsure on how to put all of my feelings about being abroad onto paper (well, on the internet). But now I finally feel as though I am re-adjusting to the American culture that I hadn’t experienced for over 2 incredible months. I think I might have taken a bit longer to fully process all of my thoughts and experiences in relation to my time abroad, in comparison to my fellow classmates, but I think I’m ready to finally share them.

Ever since I got off the last 16-hour(!) plane ride home from Johannesburg, I’ve gotten non-stop questions about my time abroad and all of the different activities and classes that I experienced while I was there.  I was extremely excited to share everything that I did, but I was a little disappointed to find out that most of my family members only asked about the excursions.  And yes, of course I was happy to tell them about my week in Kruger and the different animals that we met during our Garden Route trip.  I continue to retell those stories with the biggest smile on my face.  But, they don’t often ask about the classes that I took or about the reason why I even chose to go to South Africa to study Public Health.

IMG_3472

Thankfully, some of my family members and friends asked those kinds of questions, and we were able to have conversations about topics like the current income inequalities, the effects that came from the end of apartheid, and the quadruple burden of disease that afflicts the population.  I had hoped to have these conversations upon my return to the US, and I was relieved to find that there were people at home who did want to talk about these things.  Especially because I wanted to share all of the things that I had learned and show their importance.

My experience in South Africa definitely changed me for the better.  I feel more open to other perceptions of health, culture, and various aspects of life, as I had to be open to a perspective different from my typical westernized-world view.   I feel that I can continue to use this newly acquired skill, which still needs to be developed fully (I’m not 100% there yet), not only in the future as a physician, but also in my everyday life to empathize with others and continue to grow as an individual.  I know that sounds cliché, but I feel as though I partially completed a goal I had going into this program, so I see this experience as a huge success.

Although I may not have made a huge impact in South Africa, South Africa has definitely left its mark on me, and its one that will continue to be with me as I grow further.  For the students who are participating in this program after me, I have some advice.  Take it all in.  The landscape, the people, the history, the entire country.  Open yourself up to everything that is different.  Be open to the things that make you uncomfortable.  This will make your experience even more worthwhile.

So here’s my final goodbye to South Africa. I hope to see you soon.

IMG_3331

What Comes Next?

I’ve been home for about two weeks now, and in the meantime, I’ve quickly reintegrated into my normal Northwestern student routine of taking some summer classes and working in my research lab, but I still think of our South African adventures every day. So, in the wise words of Hamilton’s as King George, “what comes next?” My transition back into my life at Northwestern has been so fast that I feel I’ve barely been able to reflect on our trip so far, and I’ve been struggling to think about how to move forward with my experiences in a meaningful way. It’s easy to reflect on our trip in terms of the crazy adventure activities we did or how much we learned in our classes and what tourist sites we visited, but it’s been much harder for me to capture what I experienced and make it a part of my life from this point on.

Sunset on the Garden Route

Sunset on the Garden Route

Other than continuing on with my professional interest in medicine and global health, I’m not entirely sure how to incorporate what I learned in South Africa into my life. I think that many people treat these experiences as eye-opening and life-changing events that make them more grateful for what they have, and don’t get me wrong—it certainly was eye-opening. But I believe that the goal of this experience was not to feel sorry for the people we met living under harsh circumstances but rather to understand their culture and learn about the entangled determinants of their conditions and how previous attempts to fix them have failed. Our professors often joked that it would be our generation to help solve all of these problems, and this may or may not be the case, but either way, I feel a strong aspiration to fighting for equality in terms of health care and social justice in South Africa, where so many issues they face are the same as those here in America, and I hope that my life will involve something that will keep me connected to South Africa.

Hope to see you soon, Cape Town!

Hope to see you soon, Cape Town!

Sundays were the Highlight

Every Sunday we were in Stellenbosch, Anna (a fellow program member) and I tried to attend church. We did for the most part. We both come from Christian faith backgrounds, so coming to South Africa, I felt that it was critical for me to find a church to attend while living here. Kaley, the NU South Africa program ambassador this past year had recommended a church called Hillsong that had various locations in South Africa. The one she told us to check out was the Somerset West location and even went as far as connecting us to some members of the church community.

Right as we got off the bus shuttling us from Stellenbosch University to church the first day, the first thing I noticed was that the congregation members were spilling out into the courtyard giving roses to the women. I asked a church member about this, and she said that it was in preparation and excitement for an enormous conference for women focusing on empowerment, strength, dignity, and etc. happening the next weekend. I later found out that our program already scheduled some events and got bummed that we couldn’t go. I further got surprised when I myself received a rose from a complete stranger, as well as Anna.

The lobby of our church

The lobby of our church

One of the aspects of this church that I appreciated the most was how far above and beyond the church body made everyone feel like it was their home. Especially for me, who was over 8,000 miles away from home, this community made me feel like being in South Africa for 10 more weeks would be a piece of cake. That first day, we were introduced to multitudes of people. Whether they came up to us because they heard our loud American accents, or because we looked hesitant or even a little anxious, I felt loved and noticed. Not forgotten. Not invisible.

This church was not a typical church service that I’ve experienced in the past but felt more like a concert. The music was always loud and pumping getting people genuinely excited to be there at church on a Sunday night. The pastors wore skinny jeans and were just as trendy as the hipster Stellenbosch students. I couldn’t believe that this was normal life. This happened each week.

One of the highlights of my church experience in South Africa was being able to attend a large worship service consisting of thousands of other people coming together for church! It was an amazing service and experience! We heard inspiring words from the founder of the global church as well as other revolutionary leaders in ministry.

The thousand plus church service that Anna and I attended in Cape Town.

The thousand plus church service that Anna and I attended in Cape Town.

The other highlight was simply getting to know the actual people that made up the church congregation. Anna and I were able to join a bible study group where we could go deeper into the lives of some of the people in the community. They were all loving and accepting of us and seemed to genuinely want to get to know us. One of the most difficult parts about leaving South Africa is having to leave behind a community that helped ease the transition from America to South Africa.

Justice Under a Tree

Upon arriving to Johannesburg, I could feel an immediate difference in the atmosphere of the city. While Cape Town felt more California-esque, Johannesburg felt more like the bustling cities of Chicago and New York City back home in the US. Endless mountains were replaced with a skyline filled with towers – although it has nothing on the Chicago Skyline (sorry Jo’burg). Also, we were able to not only see the city itself but also see the historical impact that the apartheid government and anti-apartheid movements had on the city. Our visit to Constitution Hill showed most of those effects.

IMG_2781

Skyline of Johannesburg.

Constitution Hill is a place of great importance as it was a prison from the late 1800s to the late 1980s and was later chosen to be the site of the new Constitutional Court during the 1990’s. This site was chosen because of its history for holding anti-apartheid activists who were awaiting trial and were subjected to the unhygienic, violent, and degrading conditions. Many famous activists had spent time within this prison, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

IMG_2729

When rebuilding the Constitutional Court, many different aspects of the new South Africa were incorporated. The building itself was built using the bricks and even stairways from the old prison blocks, as a reminder of where they had come from. “Justice under a tree” was used as the theme of the court, as that was where traditional African societies would meet to solve disputes. This theme was seen everywhere within the architecture of the building, and showed the importance of the cultures that were previously minimized by the former government. The new 11 official languages were incorporated into the court by having the name of the constitutional court written in each language on the building as well as the 27 Human Rights carved into the doors of the court in each language, including sign language. The 11 languages were incorporated into the court again by having 11 justices to serve within the Constitutional Court to symbolize each one.

IMG_2730

The Constitutional Court with the seats of the 11 Justices.

Constitution Hill is a melting pot of the past, present and future. It remembers the past of what was suffered during apartheid, the various cultures of South Africans that were seen as subordinate, and shows the bright future that the country seeks out for its citizens. Johannesburg, to me, felt like the first place where the past was really represented in daily life. It may just have been due to the many structures, museums and buildings dedicated to the past, but it helped establish the difference in “character” of the two cities even within those living there.

Sala kakuhle! Sobonana emva kwexeshana Mzantsi Afrika.

In case you’re wondering what the title translates to: “Goodbye, stay well! I’ll see you later South Africa!”

I’ve been back in the suburbs of Chicago for a little more than 2 weeks now, and all I can say is that I miss South Africa so much. I’ve had so much reverse culture shock the first few days back that it’s been jarring. First, there are no mountains-just flat strips of land. Second, I became terrified being driven in a car because I thought we would crash into a different car coming in the opposite direction (SA drives opposite of us). There’s so much more that I’ve been experiencing, but since you all have heard us talk about South Africa so much, I’ll try to keep it short.

 

A breathtaking view of Table Mountain

A breathtaking view of Table Mountain

In the last two weeks on the program, many of my friends back home have asked me that same question, “Are you excited to come back home?” My response to them has been “I am, but I’m not.”

My hesitation lay with the question: How am I supposed to say goodbye to the place that has radically changed my perspective on the world and life and has become my home? There are so many incredible things that I’ve been able to experience here in South Africa. I’ve met wonderful people, learned about the complexity of South Africa, had so many adventures, and much more. I celebrated my 21st birthday with old and new friends. In South Africa, I learned to be adventurous and to step outside of my comfort zone. I learned how to actually deal with peer pressure and how to voice my thoughts.

Though it wasn’t always easy at times to immerse myself in South Africa, I found that I’ve gradually fallen in love with the place, nation, and entity that is South Africa.

Honestly, it felt extremely surreal that last day in Stellenbosch. We went out for lunch as usual, got on the bus to go to the airport and hopped on a plane. It didn’t really hit me that in less than 48 hours, I’d be back in my warm and comfy home separated from the country that I’ve learned to treat as my second home. Only, when I got home, it didn’t feel right.

Even though I’ve been back and have talked to people about my experience in SA, I’m still hesitant to answer questions like, “What was your favorite part? What did you do there? Tell me about your fun adventures!”. Yes, I want to tell you about my fun adventures and such, but I also want to give you more than a surface level perspective of South Africa, since it’s changed me so much. I also want to tell you about unending plight of the quadruple burden of disease or politics or poverty. The list goes on.

Though I’m still wrestling with how I’m going to answer these questions, I know one thing for certain. I’ll be heading back to South Africa again. So really, I’m not saying goodbye to South Africa, but rather departing with a “see you later” mentality.

All 20 of us at the Cape of Good Hope

All 20 of us at the Cape of Good Hope