One of the peculiarities of ships is the ever-increasing breadth of our circle of friends. As a Torontonian, the odds of my having friends living in every continent would have been incredibly low were it not for ships. It’s a great opportunity, an amazing and personal way to increase our understanding of various worlds with differing cultures, politics and geography.
Eventually, many of us find ourselves gravitating toward certain nationalities. Something about these people resonates within us, and they gain our interest and trust more easily than others. I seem to be surrounded, for instance, by other Canadians, Australians and Kiwis.
Most predominantly, though, my friends are South African and I really don’t know why. My knowledge of South Africa is still quite limited. Canadian newscasts have attached names like Apartheid and Mandela to the name. I loved The Power Of One (and its sequel, Tandia), a novel set in SA that also became a Hollywood Movie. Africa in general has always captivated me the same way I imagine it does all North Americans: as the ultimate exotically wild travel destination of movies and storybooks.
Now that I’m getting to know some South Africans personally, I’d like to think I’m a little more enlightened than the average North American. Let me share.
I think South Africans are the undiscovered curiosities of our world (meant in the kindest sense, of course). Thanks to movies like Crocodile Dundee, every Canadian knows an Auzzie accent, a good deal of Auzzie slang and popular Auzzie stereotypes. South Africans as a people are no less intriguing but, because they’re a touch more subtle, word has yet to get around. I’m here to change that.
(Obligatory disclaimer: the following are generalizations that, by definition, do not even attempt to reflect all)
Their accent is distinct from the British, changeable depending on English or Afrikaans influence. After a lot of initial “eh?”s (every Canadian knows that “eh?” is more polite than “huh?”), I eventually grew accustomed to the sound and actually came to like it. Their slang, though, is a whole new ball game.
A South African will call, “I’ll see you just now!” at the end of an evening, not realizing that a Canadian friend will stand there, patiently awaiting their return. In South Africa, “just now” (with emphasis on the “just”) means sometime in the indefinite future, akin to “see you later!” They also say “now-now” which means either the same thing, a little more, or a little less time… even those who say it can’t seem to agree.
“Howzit” is a standard greeting, more of an exclamation than a question. Replying in kind is acceptable, but if you insist on treating the word as you would “how are you?”, then “lekker” (pronounced lekk-ah with their accent) is a great reply, like a cooler version of “good”. I’m told the surfer types will say “Howzit my china!” instead of “hey, dude!”, but it sounds so silly to me that I wonder whether everyone’s just putting me on.
Auzzies are famous for their drink as well, and the South Africans are no different. Check facebook.com and you’ll find a group aptly named “I’m South African, therefore I can outdrink you”. As a people, they’re a fun-loving bunch, always up for a good time. They also seem outdoorsy and down to earth, a great combination.
Then there are the misconceptions. Somehow, even amidst the news of politics and Apartheid, there are people out there who are surprised to see a white South African. Let me clarify here and now that they do exist, in multitudes even. When someone tells you they are South African, it is poor form to point out that they are white and then ask if they are sure. Frankly I think that’s a stupid thing to say to anyone from anywhere, but I’m amazed at how many South African friends tell the same story of their experiences in North America. South Africa is a highly multi-cultural nation. Recognize that.
Along those lines I was told of a South African born man of Lebanese heritage who moved to the United States to attend college. He grew up with mostly black friends back home, and so fell in with a similar crowd in his new home. He was thrilled to discover an African American club on campus, and immediately signed up. At his first meeting, when his skin tone became apparent, his membership was revoked. No one seemed to grasp his argument, that he was actually the very definition of African American. He left the meeting disheartened, wondering aloud “if they meant black why didn’t they just say black?” No one could answer his question.
Here are some of the other misconceptions my South African friends wanted me to clarify. South Africa is not a third world country. Capetown is a city, not a small town. Do not expect to see lions, giraffes and elephants as you exit the plane. South Africa produces some of the best wine in the world, largely because their wine culture was established by the french.
Finally, the all time favourite North American question I watched a South African friend struggle to respectfully address:
South Africa! Really! Now, where exactly is that?