Being Asian-American in South Africa

Before I came to South Africa, I assumed that I would experience at least a few uncomfortable moments due to my race. I surmised that there weren’t many Asian South Africans, and that I’d probably be subject to a few curious stares and yells of “China!” or “Nihao!” from random passersby.

I was right.

But the yells and comments were more common than I’d imagined. I had traveled in Europe before, and had gotten those comments more often than I’d have liked, but somehow, it felt different in Stellenbosch. When I was in Europe, it was only for a few weeks of vacation — my experiences were much more removed from my everyday life, and the catcallers lived and worked at least an ocean away from me.

But in Stellenbosch, the comments were screamed at me when I walked by myself to meet friends at a restaurant downtown, when I was with friends at a club filled with Stellenbosch students, and when I was at the mall shopping for groceries. It was pervasive in my everyday life in a way it hadn’t been before — in the neighborhood I lived in, in my new university, and in the town I called home for a few months.

The worst incident occurred when my boyfriend was visiting from Johannesburg, where he had been completing an internship abroad. My boyfriend, who passes as white, had convinced me to watch the final football (soccer) match at a sports bar in Stellenbosch. The bar was filled with male Stellenbosch students — that is to say, white, blonde, mostly Afrikaaner Stellenbosch students. After the match finished, my boyfriend and I walked across the street to grab a burger at Steers.

Just after we finished ordering at the counter, a white, blonde Stellenbosch student approached my boyfriend and said hello in a pretty typical drunken way.

Then he asked my boyfriend if I was Korean.

When my boyfriend said “No,” he asked, “What’s her descent?” as if I were a racehorse or a dog, and my boyfriend the proud owner.

“I’m American,” I said too-loudly, angrily.

“It’s great to see you two together,” said the stranger, as if his random microaggressive comment could be absolved by his “encouragement” of a mixed-race couple.

We left as soon as we could, angry and shaken.


The crazy thing about all of this is that South Africa does have a significant history of Asian slaves and immigrants. Malay slaves, from current-day Southeast Asia, were brought to South Africa by Dutch colonizers. Chinese workers from Hong Kong were brought to Johannesburg by the thousands to work the mines. Indian and South Asian South Africans like Gandhi made an indelible mark in Johannesburg and Durban. Even during apartheid, Chinese and other Asian people were categorized as “Colored,” in between Black and White categorizations, and were given some sort of second-class designation.

But Asians in South Africa are still viewed as a foreign influence and are called out on their foreign-ness every day. Of course, this happens in the U.S. as well, where Asian American history is ignored or only briefly mentioned in class, if at all, and Asian Americans are portrayed as socially awkward nerds in TV shows and movies, if included at all. I had gotten used to American microaggressions, which are weaved into “polite” conversation with acquaintances  about where I’m “really” from, but I wasn’t used to overt comments like the ones I experienced in South Africa.

At the same time, the microaggressions I experienced were mitigated by the fact that strangers probably thought I was a well-off Chinese or American tourist. Though the comments made me feel unsafe, my class and foreign status actually protected me from physical harm. Being Asian-American in South Africa has privilege attached to it, too.

In contrast, xenophobic violence in South Africa actually targets immigrants from Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Poor South Africans may feel that these immigrants are reaping benefits from the government that they are denied, resulting in violence against African immigrants in recent years.


If you’re not white and going on this trip…

Be prepared to feel uncomfortable — but also try to find at least one friend on the trip who you can be open to about your experiences. For me, it was cathartic to talk to my friends and feel heard whenever I experienced this kind of a situation. Find a support system.

I get by with a little help from my friends 🙂

At the same time, try to focus outside of yourself. As a quasi-tourist, you’re in a particular position that is mostly outside of the South African sociohistorical context. Try to understand the larger race relations issues that are at stake, and understand how your experience fits in with that.

You’re there to learn, and learning is not always comfortable. Be present, be honest with your emotions and soak in all you can.

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.

First Week in Stellenbosch

Our first week in Stellenbosch was a whirlwind. Getting myself set up in a brand-new city was fun, and weird, and at times, kind of terrible. Though I thought IPD prepared me pretty well for the program as a whole, there are a few things you’d only know from actually going through the program.

Here are some tips I would have found useful that first week:

  • Buy an ethernet cord and Mac adaptor (if you have a Mac). As of Spring 2017, there was no WiFi in Concordia, the international students’ dorm, except for in the lounge area — and the lounge WiFi was sometimes unreliable. The adaptor was around $50 USD at electronics stores at the nearby Eikestad Mall, but it was Worth It. Trust me. Soon, you’re going to want to be able to use the Internet in your room to do research for papers, watch YouTube videos and stream Netflix shows all night. And don’t even think about sharing an adaptor with a roommate. Maties WiFi, the university network, has a security feature that only allows you to register one computer with each adaptor.
  • Go to the mall for groceries. It’s super close to campus — about a 10-minute walk, if that, from Concordia — and has everything you need to get off on the right foot. The two grocery stores are Food Lovers’, which has more of a Trader Joe’s feel and great hot meals, and Checkers, which is more like Jewel Osco. Get pinotage wine, rooibos tea and lots of rusks for a South African wine/tea experience. Each Condordia dorm has stovetops, a toaster oven, a sink, a hot water heater and lots of refrigerator space, so go crazy!

The outside of Concordia, your new home

  • Get AirTime, minutes, data and/or a Sim card at the mall. The two outlets that we used were Vodacom and Cell C, and have comparable rates. AirTime is a flexible form of cell phone currency that can be used as talking minutes and/or data, and can be purchased at grocery store and convenience store check-outs — but buying data/minutes at the actual Vodacom and Cell C stores have slightly better rates. NOTE: if you have Sprint or T-Mobile, don’t bother! You get free data abroad.
  • The ABSA bank down the street from the mall is the only closeby bank that allows you to trade US currency for South African currency. BRING YOUR PASSPORT. I found this out the hard way, after visiting too many other banks, forgetting my passport and making way too many back-and-forth trips between the dorm and the bank.
  • Find out when the Stellies are playing rugby! On our first day, we found out from Esther, the Concordia manager, that there was a game that day. We walked through campus in a huge group like we were freshmen again, marveled at the beautiful sunset at the stadium and tried to figure out the rules of rugby. It’s a crazy game.

Watching the sunset from the Stellies rugby stadium

 

  • Do the short hike up the mountain behind the Stellenbosch gym. This was a really fun way to bond with the group — we asked icebreaker questions, like first-kiss and prom stories, while surrounded by beautiful scenery. Plus, icebreaker questions are a lot less awkward when you have a reasonable excuse to avoid eye contact — like when you’re trying to avoid tripping and falling down a mountain, for instance.

You get surprisingly great views from this hike!

 

  • Host a braai. A braai is basically a South African BBQ, and Concordia has a braai pit in the courtyard outside! We tried to host a braai, but since we had no idea how to do it, we brought s’mores stuff instead, which is also fine. You can buy charcoal, chocolate, crackers and marshmallows at the Tapas store/restaurant right outside of Concordia. Try inviting your Concordia neighbors so they can teach you how to actually braai!

Your first week will definitely be hectic, but try to relax. Your professors, administrators and TA’s are your best resources, and will give you tons of advice about anything you might possibly need. Enjoy yourself!!

Uncertainty

As I sit at the gate waiting to board my connecting flight to Dubai, the main feeling I have is uncertainty. I can picture some concrete images of what I should expect from these next three months: a new dorm room full of new roommates (maybe a few faces from the pre-departure meeting), picturesque but generic Cape Town views of windy cliffs and ocean, a dinner trying out some local cuisine with the group in Stellenbosch, and classical safari vehicles roaming savannas in Kruger with a giraffe and maybe an elephant in the background. I can’t quite fill in the gaps between these sparse and admittedly blurry images; so much is unknown and so much is waiting to be learned.

After dwelling anxiously on this uncertainty as my fellow passengers slowly collect in the gate, I realize I know quite a bit more what to expect now than I would have a year ago. I can fill in these gaps in images with my less visual expectations. While less concrete, to me, they’re even more exciting because they give me an excuse to reminisce on this past fall in Paris. Having studied abroad so recently, I’m confident of a few things to expect: to gain knowledge and skills in the field of global health which cannot be acquired in the U.S. alone; to gain new perspective with which to evaluate my own culture, my experiences, and my views; to make great new memories with even better new friends; and to grow in resilience and independence as I meet new challenges associated with living abroad.

This uncertainty is the most challenging but also the most exhilarating aspect of study abroad. Thinking back on my memories of the first time around, I can’t wait to go back: not to Paris, but to a new and, at its root, similar adventure.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

The Animal-Human Interaction

Our trip to Kruger National Park was amazing and certainly something I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. We were led by David Bunn, Cleo Graf, and their team of incredibly knowledgeable guides, who helped us learn about Kruger and HaMakuya, the rural area where we’d be going for our homestay experience. We were all very excited to see all of the animals—especially the Big 5—but before coming to Kruger, I didn’t necessarily understand the complex and uncanny nature of the human-animal relationship that is ingrained in Kruger and the neighboring rural areas.

During our lectures in Kruger, we learned about both the ivory and rhino horn trades, as well as about environmental and ecological factors that affect the park’s animal populations. We spent a lot of time discussing elephants particularly and learning about their superior intellectual and emotional capacity and about how their growing populations can be destructive to other animals’ habitats and certain species of plants. This touches on a problem that Kruger currently faces—with growing elephant populations, what is the best way to protect other animals’ habitats and maintain the ecological diversity of the park? Another problem that the park faces is the killing of rhinos to trade their horns, especially because of its proximity to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, allowing for easy transport across country borders.

Some of the elephants we saw on one of our game drives.

We were further able to understand the animal-human interaction when we did our homestay in HaMakuya. After being in Kruger for several days and fawning over the animals, we learned quickly what destruction these animals can cause to rural villages. On our second morning, we woke up to news that some cows had been killed by lions the previous night, meaning that a family would go without their food and income source until they could afford a new cow. When we visited an orchard near by, the workers told us that elephants had recently destroyed some crops there, leaving more families without food or a source of income. One of the most difficult parts of our time at our homestay was trying to reconcile the natural awe I felt about the animals but also feeling sympathy and understanding for the additional suffering these animals caused people I met during my homestay. I think it was important for us to learn both of the importance of animal conservation as well as the damage they can do, as this accurately represents the complexities of Kruger National Park and the rural areas around it.

A majestic lioness one of our guides, Thomas, tracked down on a game drive.

A majestic lioness one of our guides, Thomas, tracked down on a game drive.