Your Typical Errand in South Africa

July 25, 2016

Moving to South Africa, or to Africa in general, and adapting to life there, is most of all an exercise in patience.

The irony is that when you arrive, you are all ready to go go GO! for months you've been busting your backside getting visa applications filled out, securing coveted waitlist spots for your children in a South African school, and making sure your packers don't accidentally pack the potatoes they find in the pantry into your container (which, trust me, you want to avoid). You've shown an almost superhuman effort getting it all organized while firing on all cylinders, so that by the time you step out of the glass doors of OR Tambo International, you are buzzing with the energy of five triple-espresso shots, ready to take life by the horns and subjugate this new country to your wishes.

And then South Africa does what it does so well: It puts on the brakes. Sloooooow down, it tells you, not so fast young lady, no need to get everything checked off your list on the first day. Or ever, really. Welcome to Africa!

For the first few weeks, most expats fight a valiant fight, flailing their arms and willing things to happen NOW, not JUST NOW or even NOW NOW. But in the end, South Africa wins, so that eventually you are totally resigned to the fact that an errand, any errand, will always take the better part of a day, if not week, even if it is ever so small.

Living in Africa will teach you to be relaxed while running errands. Source: Unknown

For the budding and newly-minted expats among you, I'd like to share some typical errand stories, just so you can get an idea of what expects you in your new life. Take this story from one of my readers:
I went to the post office to pay a traffic fine of ZAR500. I waited in line for 15 minutes, then the guy looked up my fine and told me how much I owed. Then he told me that traffic fines can only be paid in cash (even though there is a sign at ever post office window saying "Pay with Visa".) I didn't have enough cash on me.

So I left and tried to find an FNB ATM. There isn't one at Campus Square. So I went shopping at Pick-n-Pay so I could get cash back (long line, surly checkout person, and in the end one of the pawpaws I bought was rotten on the bottom). I went back to the post office and waited in line for 45 minutes -- it was packed and hot and unpleasant. I got to the front and the same guy tried to pull up my fine. He tried on three different computers and finally, after about 15 minutes of trying, told me that "the system is down." So I left without paying my fine and wanting to stab myself in the eye with an icepick.

I went to Postnet to see if I could pay the fine there. They charge a ZAR 80 fee, which I declined. A guy overheard me and told me you can pay traffic fines directly through FNB online banking. I went back home, logged into online banking, clicked the "traffic fine" link, and paid my fine in 30 seconds.

To be sure, online banking and payment via EFT is a bright spot in South African bureaucracy, making some dealings easier than here in the U.S., where we still use - gulp, can you believe it? - checks. Handwritten and sent to contractors in the mail.

Most often, however, it is a case of South African Bureaucracy Driving You Nuts. Like Going to the Bank in South Africa. Or A Typical Day of Shopping in South Africa. If you happen to run your errands in one of the townships, you enter a whole new dimension of dysfunction. Read Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day, and tell me if you don't feel like pulling out your hair follicle by follicle just after reading it, let alone living through it.

And yet. In the end, it will grow on you. Like every expat before you, you undergo Type A Remedial School, and eventually you go home "as one cool lady or very medicated." You will think back to your life in Africa and think:

"Those were the days. If only everything wasn't so darn efficient here!"


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5 Ways Moving Abroad is Good for Your Children

July 18, 2016

As a parent who admittedly has been caught up way too much in the college prep race, I found myself thinking a resounding YES! when reading the following article:

I Don't Care Where My Children Go To College

Go on, read the article, but if you're a lazy reader and would rather go for the Cliff Notes, here is the essence:

"I’ve made a decision: I am not going to steal my son and daughter’s childhoods so they may wind up at Yale instead of Westchester Community College. I am not going to force them to be who I say they should be by signing them up for every class and making them stick with it. Instead, I am going to sit back and watch them find their own path. I am going to expose them to life and do it as a family. I am going on month-long family vacations in foreign lands and I am not going to worry about how it will look to the football coach or the college counselor."

After reading this article, it occurred to me that these sentiments expressed by Catherine Pearlman are exactly why expat life is such a gift to our children, no matter how much it may temporarily disrupt their lives.

Expat life can open up your kids' horizons in many ways. Our kids may have learned more from
various safari guides than they did in an entire school year.

Specifically, there are 5 ways moving abroad and living as expats is good for your children:

  1. Moving abroad takes them out of their comfort zones. Let's face it, we'd all rather hang out right on that sofa with the popcorn bucket and remote control wrapped up in a cozy blanket in the very epitome of a comfort zone rather than voluntarily venturing out of it. But lo and behold, when forced to venture into the big bad world, we learn to be courageous and self-reliant. Being the new kid in a school full of kids who speak with a different language or accent and seem to know what they're doing can be a very humbling experience.
  2. Moving abroad gives our kids (and - shhhhhh! - us) a chance to reinvent themselves. Who wouldn't like a chance to start over again, a chance to be a clean slate, a chance to remake, refurbish, and improve him- or herself? When we moved to South Africa, friends warned us that 13 (our oldest son's age at the time) was a terrible age to move. It turns out that 13 is also the age kids are most in need of reinventing themselves.
  3. Moving abroad expands your child's horizon. Before South Africa, our kids only ever lived in a bubble of privilege and entitlement. I'm not saying that they didn't live an even more privileged life in our very wealthy neighborhood in Johannesburg, but being the extreme minority for a change gave them a very different glimpse of how the rest of the world lived: the endless lines of people waiting for minibus taxis they would cram into at the end of their day on their way home to the shack settlements in Diepsloot, the lack of the most basic infrastructure in the townships we visited, the way street vendors their age had to make a living by hawking goods and services. Not only that, but living in a country with 11 official languages made them realize there are a lot of different cultures out there, with their own being only one of many. I'm not saying it's a given expat life will automatically have this positive effect. Expat children can very well grow up to feel very entitled. Read Entitled Expat Kids: How to Avoid Spoiling Your Expat Offspring to avoid common pitfalls.
  4. Moving abroad gets overachieving parents off their children's backs because now those parents have REAL issues to solve. Sometimes, the parents even rely on the children to navigate a strange and exotic culture, perhaps even a foreign language, because with this uncanny knack for fitting in as best as they possibly can, children often figure things out before their parents.
  5. Moving abroad lets parents escape the rat race of working so hard at their kids' future success, that hamster wheel of relentless pursuit of the best opportunities. It sometimes takes seeing an entirely different culture and their approach to raising children to allow us to take a step back and view our own parenting philosophy from afar. It can be an eye opening experience to see that there are other paths to our kids' future than just the one we thought was paramount, the one everyone else at home was working so hard pursuing. 
Expat life may very well keep us from being that one-track parent trying to keep up with the Joneses and overscheduling our kids. Because as expats, who the Joneses are and what they do changes with every move until you realize that there are happiness and success to be had in a lot of places, and that there is no one path leading there. 

Might as well enjoy the ride. And let our kids enjoy their childhoods.
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Transitioning Back to an American School after Three Years in South Africa

July 11, 2016

"We are trying to decide which school to send our children to in Johannesburg, do you have any advice?"

Many of the emails I get from prospective expats begin with this question. I can appreciate the importance of it - where your children go to school determines where you go looking for a house, and looking for a house is the very first important to-do on  your Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist.

As I've told you in a previous blog post, International or Local School, the way we chose a school for our kids in South  Africa was anything but well-thought out or scientific. We simply kept driving by Dainfern College on our way in and out of a cluster of neighborhoods our estate agent wanted to show us, and the kids milling about looked so pretty in their school uniforms. And many of them were walking to and from school! That fact alone was enough to sell me on the idea, and so we chose to forego the American International School of Johannesburg that our company would have willingly paid for and enrolled the kids at Dainfern College, a South African private prep school. We did not regret it for a moment afterwards. These were the most enjoyable three years for me in my kids' school careers. That alone should count for something, right?

If you're in that same position we were in at that time, where you need to pick a school in South Africa and are overwhelmed with all the factors to consider, I advise you to read Everything You Need to Know about South African Schools, which addresses a multitude of all the concerns you likely have.

But the worry about the transition back into the U.S. system is a concern deserving of its own writeup. The reasons expat fret so much over the choice of school is not only a desire to secure the best education for their children during the next several years. Of more importance is often how they fit back into life at home once the expat assignment is over.

Because so many American expats have questions for me regarding that transition, I wanted to summarize our own experience for you. I'm not saying yours will be the same in any way. All I'd like to do is give you a level of comfort that things will most likely turn out alright for you, even if you don't make the simplest or most convenient choice.

Our kids transitioned well, even after three years of a "weaker" South African curriculum. A few months ago as the school year was coming to its end, I was invited to several awards ceremonies at our middle and high schools. Even though in a comparison of South African School Awards vs American School Awards South Africa wins by a mile, the fact that my husband and I continue to get to go to them is rewarding in itself. It shows that the South African private school curriculum doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage.

Our two middle children on their way to accept high school top student awards

In fact, I would say the diverse experience probably helps more than hurts. There was a bit of a catch up period right after we'd moved back, especially with U.S. history and math, but nothing crucial. Our oldest was in the middle of 11th grade when coming back, and for that reason only we had everyone go back the half year rather than forward, so he could start grade 11 from beginning rather than middle. For that, he had to repeat the 2nd half of 10th grade, which was incredibly boring but helped him take more AP classes in gr 11, have time to obtain his drivers' license, get his first paying job, and take the PSAT - all rites of passage for an American teenager. He ended up being accepted into 8 universities, one of them in the Ivy League, and received multiple scholarships. If anything, the South African private school experience helped his resume because it made him stand out a little bit more. It certainly made for a good college essay.

Our second son, because we made everyone go back the half year, had to go back to the second half of grade 8 in middle school, even though he'd already been in high school in South Africa (high school goes from grade 8-12 for a total of five years in South Africa). It was probably a mistake, as he was much more mature than those middle schoolers, and it took an entire year for him to find new friends once he was finally in high school. He might have been better off moving up to the next grade, and the school certainly would have let him.

Our girls had just finished grades 6 and 4 respectively, and we had them repeat the second semester of those grades. Again, there was no academic reason for this - it had mostly to do with preserving our family symmetry trickling down from oldest to youngest. Their school would have let us enroll them in grades 7 and 5. If  you're American and worried that time in a South African school will "derail" your kids' path through school so that they lose a year when coming back, don't be. Most schools will take them back into the grade they would normally have been in, and academically there is generally no need to repeat a year.

But what do the kids say, you might wonder? It's a valid question. My kids would be the first to tell you that South Africa was behind academically. Especially in math. And they resented that. They didn't like having to catch up when thrown into these classes. Would they have preferred to never have left the "American track" so that the transition would have been smoother? No doubt.

And yet as a parent I see other aspects that my kids wouldn't consider or value. The fact that exams in South Africa rarely included multiple choice questions but required long-form essays. That kids only rarely scored above 80%, making that feat all the more meaningful, no grade inflation there. They weren't prepped for tests like here with sheets that listed exactly what was going to be on the test. They weren't told how to keep their notebooks or take notes - much more was left up to them, from a much younger age, so they were able to become more independent learners. A South African "Matric", the equivalent of an American high school diploma, is a nationally standardized examination, meaning a particular school can't dumb down as they please. Passing your Matric and getting a few distinctions is a pretty big deal. And, my favorite: The school put a huge emphasis on polite behavior. I remember coming back to the U.S. and dropping the kids off the first day of school, when a door almost hit me in the face because the kid in front of me didn't think to hold it open. I was more surprised than annoyed. In three years in South Africa I had been utterly spoiled by the "Good morning, Ma'm" I would hear left and right when walking across campus. All these are non-academic values that I, in hindsight, value much higher than mere academics. For all I care they could have not progressed past long division and I still would have loved all the other things they did and learned.

The bottom line: Yes, transitioning back to the U.S. is most definitely easier if you've remained in the American school system via an international school. It'll be as if you've never left. Whereas if you've temporarily left the American school system, it may take a bit more effort, especially in that year between 10th and 11th grade where which grade you enter into makes a difference. Before South Africa, I never would have considered adding an extra year to our kids' school careers.

But to close with my words from an earlier blog post: Expats often don't know when or where the next posting is coming, so why not take the scenic route and make sure you immerse yourself fully into whatever is on offer at the moment, and trust that it will make you into a well-rounded person, no matter what the actual "curriculum" says?

To read more stories about transitioning back into the U.S. system from abroad, read my article in the Wall Street Journal, Expat College Admissions: A Bit Like Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. If your timing is such that your child may finish high school in South Africa instead, you might find interesting advice in Finishing Matric in South Africa - Then What? 
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Do They Speak English in South Africa?

June 27, 2016

The short answer to the question, Do they speak English in South Africa, is yes. Check. You can breathe easier now - one of the things not to be afraid of when moving to South Africa as opposed to, I don't know, Uzbekistan.

But the long answer makes for some interesting insights.

For instance, did you know that English, though the language most widely used and understood in South Africa, is the mother tongue for only 8% of South Africa's population? And that Zulu tops that list with 24%, and that altogether there are 11 official languages recognized by the South African government? (Which comes in handy if, say, your driver's license is issued in Tsonga, meaning you won't have to get another one when moving to South Africa.) All of this, and more, I've explained in one of the very first Joburg Expat blog posts in May 2010, The Language(s).

Zulu is a wonderfully poetic language, but a complicated one. The grammar isn't intuitive, but some words are. Often, you just use the prefix "i" or "isi" followed by the sound a thing makes, and voila, you have yourself a word, like isithuthuthu (motorcycle). Xhosa, a close relative to Zulu, uses many of the same words but with a good helping of three distinct click sounds that seem impossible to emulate by a non-native. See Zulu Potty Talk for more on both Zulu and Xhosa, including a lesson on how to click your tongue the right way.

But back to English. You can't just assume that English is English and that's that. Don't be fooled. There is a lot  you need to learn when stepping onto South African shores, if you want to catch on to what's being talked about. It's not only that the accent is different - a lovely accent, make no mistake - but that there are a ton of words you'll have never heard of, from Babbalas to Yebo and at least another 43 South Africanisms. You will have to learn that We Will Give You a Tinkle probably doesn't mean what you think, that Being Pissed can be totally misconstrued, and that a Ballbox is literally a box that holds a guy's balls.

About that accent: The most to the point description of South African English can be found in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux, a keen observer of people and African travel writer par excellence. 

"After a few days I became attuned to the accent, which in its twanging and swallowed way seemed both assertive and friendly. Johannesburg was "Janiceburg", busy was "buzzy," congested "congisted," West 'Waist,' and said 'sid'. There was no shortage of glottal stops, and a distinct Scottishness crept into some expressions; for example, a military buildup was a "mulatree buldup" Nearly everyone had a tendency to use Afrikaans words in ordinary speech, such as dorp, bakkie, takkies, naartjes, and dagga. These words had percolated throughout Central Africa long ago, and I knew from having lived in Malawi that they meant town, pickup truck, sneakers, tangerines, and marijuana. If there was a pronunciation problem, it was that for dagga or Gauteng you needed to use the soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g of Hollanders."

We love FaceTiming our South African friends every once in a while, just to hear precisely that lovely twang again. During school assemblies, the headmaster used to speak about the "yurr," and it took me the longest time to figure out that it meant "year." He'd also talk about "shedules" and "diarizing" things on our calendars.

Oh, and about that "soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g." Bill Bryson, in one of his books, used a less kind description of that sound, but I can't recall now exactly where. It is the same "ch" sound that you associate with a movie about evil Nazis, in which, say, a regiment is called to attention with a bellowed Achtung! by a sadistic Obersturmbannführer.

It has always struck me as funny how South Africans insist on applying that sound to any stray G that comes across their path, whether it's of Afrikaans origin or not. For some months, it seemed like I couldn't drive anywhere without having to listen to a particular Volkswagen advertisement on the radio that ran around the clock, and each time the "g" in Volkswagen was pronounced the Dutch way. Volkswagen is German, you people, and as a German I like my g's plain and simple, thank you very much! is what I always wanted to yell at the radio on those occasions.

But if you live in South Africa, you'll have to get a hang for that G sooner or later, particularly when living in Johannesburg, nestled in the province of Gauteng. If you want to practice it, try saying the year 1999 in Afrikaans: Negentienhonderd nege en negentig - every one of those "g's" a guttural one. You can read more on Afrikaans in An Ode to Lekker and Kak.

To end on a beautiful note, here you can hear five of South Africa's official languages by listening to its National Anthem.

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You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green

June 20, 2016

A common affliction of mankind is to pine for what one cannot have at the moment, to want to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

Surely the grass must be greener on the other side!

One would think this sentiment is particularly true for expats, especially repeat or serial expats. People who are constantly yanked from their surroundings and have to rebuild their lives elsewhere might be excused for not embracing each new place equally well. It would be understandable if they thought the pastures "on the other side" were indeed greener - because, after all, they might have already seen the other side - and to put all their efforts into getting there.

But interestingly enough, I've observed the opposite. The more seasoned an expat you'll meet, the more they seem to be happy wherever they are at that moment.

Part of this is attitude. I've written about how a positive attitude is a key ingredient for How to Be a Successful Expat. And, if you don't start out with it, how a positive attitude can be learned through, you guessed it, expat life itself. It's a bit like a chicken and the egg thing: You need a positive attitude to make it as an expat, but you often only learn to affect a positive attitude through the experiences you gain as an expat.

In other words, happiness and success don't just happen on their own. It's not, it turns out, the color of the grass that determines whether you're going to be happy in a place or not. Or, rather, it IS the color - we all know grass looks the best when it's green - but WE are the only ones who can make it that way.

You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green.

A fellow expat full of wisdom once uttered that phrase, and I loved it enough to go in search of a blog post to fit around it. There is so much of life's beauty in that one sentence. If one lived by no other mantra, one could become a good and content person by making it one's guiding principle. Buddhism in its entirety might be distilled into that single observation. It's both an appeal to your diligence, so that you might not sit on your haunches and expect things to happen without hard work, and to your autonomy, meaning you have control over your own happiness if you do the right things.

What are the right things? How do you best water the grass?

Much like watering grass, watering the figurative expat grass works best in small but frequent doses. It's not scoring one giant coup, like negotiating an awesome deal with the company that's sending you abroad. It's not finding the perfect country, the perfect house, or the perfect school. All these play a role, no doubt, but you can take little steps every day that ensure your overall happiness in a new country.

In the Wall Street Journal's The Good Expat: 5 Steps to a Successful Expat Experience, I've gone into more detail what kinds of step these are, like making sure you get out and about as soon as you've arrived in a new place, participating in the local life whenever possible, keeping an open mind about things, laughing about the things that are awful in spite of your open mind, and perhaps even writing about your experience.

All of these are best accomplished by setting small goals for yourself and your family: Explore one new store each month; plan a family outing to a place you haven't yet seen every other month; volunteer at a charity once a week; host a dinner or organize a joint activity each time a new family arrives at your school, pick up at least one new hobby in your new country, have your kids try out at least one new sport. The possibilities are endless.

By no means do I advocate for an overscheduled calendar with all these new activities. Chances are, your life may actually slow down because the pace has changed by moving continents. What seemed so urgent before is now perhaps something people don't care about as much, so you adapt. Nothing cures you of your Western-style Type A obsessive-compulsive workaholic tendencies as well as life in a slower-paced (perhaps but not necessarily 3rd World) country.

What I'm saying is that you have to work at your happiness. What you put into your expat assignment (or, really, life in general) in terms of time, outreach, curiosity, and friendliness will be returned to you many times over, I can promise you that.

You water the grass wherever you are, and it will turn green.

Some expats are happier than others, and it's often the ones who seem to cling to their habits and activities from home that struggle the most. Going on home leave every opportunity you get, enrolling your kids in the school that's the closest replica of the one at home, driving them for hours so they can keep playing the sport they already know versus the one that's played five minutes from your house - these are all akin to straining your hose so you can spray the yard five houses down from you. The precious water will be spread too thin, and you will end up on a dry patch of land.

Most expats have learned the art of watering the patch of grass they're endowed with - maybe not the first time, but surely the second and third times. They've learned that most everything in life is temporary, and that it's important to start living right away rather than later.

I'd venture to guess it's almost harder for non-expats. If you've stayed in a place all your life, you might get awfully tired of all that watering. It just never ends! If that's true for you, perhaps it's time to move to greener pastures. Sometimes that's a chance to Remake, Refurbish, and Improve yourself. But if you do, don't simply arrive and expect a lush oasis, just because you've heard good things about a place. The drudgery of daily life is going to catch up with you no matter where you are, and you might wake up one day in a parched and dusty landscape.

Wherever you are in life, don't forget to water the grass around you.

Yes, this expat child is watering the pool, not the grass, but it's the closest picture I could find
in my vast archives to approximate the situation. And it has a bit of grass in it too. Green, even.

If you liked this article, you might also like:

The Balanced (Expat) Family
Welcome to Type A Remedial School

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Why Would People Want to Move to South Africa? Let Me Count the Reasons...

June 13, 2016

Some time ago I received the following reader comment:

I am astonished to read that people want to move to SA.
Are they blind on both ears?

Anatomical issues aside, I was bothered by this comment. It is the typical reaction of people who know nothing about South Africa and yet feel compelled to make some kind of judgment about its fitness as a place to live.

Perhaps the best answer is to just shrug and say, "suit yourself." One less grouchy person to contend with. Let them miss out on what could be a beautiful life experience.

But I've never been one to just shrug it off. And the thing is, the other side of the coin needs to be represented, as a counterweight to the doomsday-sayers crowding the expat forums. These are the people who perpetuate the myth that South Africa is a cesspool of crime and corruption. They want to tell you that you're better off living somewhere in Europe where you're always safe and where governments are beyond reproach.

I hope you caught the sarcasm in that last sentence. The point is, no place is completely safe, and no government beyond reproach. Some places are safer than others, I grant you that, but they might have other factors counting against them, such as the weather. Or the gloomy faces put on display by the majority of the population. Or any number of other things that play a role in making you happy, day to day and also in the long term.

So why would you want to move to South Africa? Here are three reasons:

1. South Africa is a beautiful country

Perhaps it's the coastline along two oceans you'll fall in love with. Or the bush teeming with wildlife. The rugged peaks of the Drakensberg, the view down from Table Mountain, or the exotic vibe of Durban's beachfront. Here is a small taste of the scenery awaiting you in South Africa:

Sodwana Bay, just south of the Mozambique border

Franschhoek, South Africa's fabled wine region

Johannesburg street with blooming jacarandas

Sunset near Kruger Park

Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Joburg

Giraffes in Madikwe Game Reserve

The Southern tip of Africa near Cape Town

Elephants near the border to Botswana

Cape Town waterfront with Table Mountain in the background

Aerial view of the Magaliesberg near the Cradle of Humankind

2. South Africa offers an incredible lifestyle

Perhaps I'm a simple mind, but for me, lifestyle starts with the weather. When the sun is shining, I'm happy. And by God the sun shines in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg and the surrounding highveld. It shines in the summer and it shines in the winter, and yet temperatures almost never get oppressively hot. This fosters a lifestyle full of outdoors activities. The kids run around outside, and half their school day seems to take place out of doors. Shopping and infrastructure are there when you need them, but the wildest Africa is always within easy reach if you want to get away. The quality of fresh food is amazing, eating out and evening entertainment is very affordable, and you can indulge the luxury of live-in domestic help. To top it all off, South Africans are some of the friendliest people on Earth. If you're not invited to a braai at someone's home for some Boerewors and a glass of Chardonnay within a few weeks after arrival, I'd say you accidentally stepped into a wormhole and have landed in some faraway galaxy instead of South Africa.

3. People who HAVE moved to South Africa don't want to leave

There is no better way to judge what people think of a place than to see how they're voting with their feet. I don't claim to have done a double-blind study on this, so if you're now opening your mouth to accuse me of anecdotal writing, you are absolutely right; I have nothing but anecdotes. However, as the founder of one of the most-read expat blogs about South Africa - 1.6 million pageviews strong as of this month - I have many such anecdotes. Very few expats end up in Joburg without first having read my blog, and many of those end up contacting me personally to ask questions. And between all these people as well as my extensive network of friends, I haven't met a single one who has voiced unhappiness about their life in South Africa.

Yes, we all know that blogs and Twitter and Facebook pages are echo chambers. Perhaps only those of us who share the same views are talking to each other. I'm sure there are expats who've tried South Africa, didn't like it or had a bad experience, and have returned home. But I do know that there is a huge number of expats living a happy life in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and many places in between, who have their eyes (and ears) wide open and see a beautiful country. Their biggest fear? That the day they'll be transferred back home is coming too soon.

Granted, expats are not locals. Many South Africans do vote with their feet and leave the country. They fear financial insecurity, a job market with few opportunities for them or their children, a government that might take over private enterprises, and yes, crime. Leaving their home and building a new life elsewhere is often their ticket to what they crave most, a second passport, their security blanket, just in case. As an expat moving TO South Africa, you already carry that passport with you, meaning the problems driving South Africans away aren't necessarily your problems. You get the upside of weather and lifestyle without much of a downside.

Still not convinced?

Several years ago I wrote Top 10 Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate for ExpatsBlog, an article that was somewhat tongue in cheek but touched the same points. It received many wonderful comments from people who shared more reasons why they thought life in Johannesburg was or had been a wonderful experience. Be sure to check it out if you're still on the fence on whether you should move to South Africa or not.
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What it Feels Like to Be an Expat: Compartmentalized

June 6, 2016

The following is as good a summary of what serial expats, and particularly their children, often feel like:

"That is the very nature of the expat's life: It is divided, compartmentalized across geographic boundaries and into cultural and linguistic spheres. There is the crowd that you belong to in your place of expatriation, in which the people you enter into relationships with will likely never visit your specific place of origin, and then there are all the people from your specific place of origin who will never know the places you make home."
This excerpt is from Five Flights Up by Kristin Louise Duncombe, author of Trailing: A Memoir, which I've previously reviewed here.

Compartmentalized. I've often wondered how it might feel if our life wasn't so compartmentalized. If, like so many people do, I'd stayed in my home town and grown older surrounded by the same set of friends I met in first grade. It's almost impossible to imagine, but it does have a certain appeal: no need to communicate so much to keep everyone informed of the goings-on in my life, no need to reinvent myself all the time, no need to constantly reach out to make new friends. And, maybe most alluringly, no need to always explain where I'm from.

In a previous blog post I've described why that is so annoying:

"One of those little inconveniences of expat life is having to answer the question of where I'm from. Because there is never just a simple answer.

Somehow "I-was-born-and-raised-in-Germany-then-moved-to-Raleigh-North-Carolina-to-attend-business-school-in-1991-with-my-then-boyfriend-after-having-been-an-exchange-student-in-the-US-at-age-16-and-really-loving-it-there-then-got-married-and-had-kids-then-lived-in-Singapore-for-a-few-years-then-moved-back-to-North-Carolina-then-to-Wisconsin-then-to-Kansas-then-to-South-Africa-after-becoming-American-citizens-right-before-leaving-America" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue easily.

I'd love to be able to unequivocally say "from California" or something equally short and simple. Period, end of story." (Read more in Where is Home?)

Well, wouldn't you know it, the very next paragraph in Five Flights Up, following the one I quoted above, brings up California in precisely that way!

"My mind flashes to the story of my sister Steph, who, her first year of college, couldn't find a comfortable way to keep re-explaining her complicated geographic trajectory when she landed in a dorm of people who had grown up together in eastern Maryland.

So she finally started telling everyone she was from California."

Not sure why it has to be California, but it seems a popular place for those of us wishing for a simpler identity. I'm now wondering if the people I know who are from California are truly from California?

It's a bit like when I'm at Starbucks. I'm cursed - or blessed, I guess - with a name no one can spell. Without fail, when asked my name and I give it, the barista shoots me a look, sharpie poised, and says: "How do you spell that?" And without fail, I tell him to spell it however the hell he wants. What's the use in spelling it if then they have no idea how to say it 2 minutes later when your coffee is ready? And yet, I have this huge reluctance to just make up any damn name I please. It's like this big hurdle inside of me that I can't lie about my name, even if it would be so much more convenient for everyone.

My kids know a thing or two about compartments. And compartmentalization.

By the way, keeping your own story straight is not the only hazard of expat wanderings across different locales and cultures. It's the stories of a higher order that are even harder to keep straight. Like the one you tell your kids about where certain presents doled out in December come from. Read A Man With a Sack, Some Old Boots, and a Naked Baby: Merry Crazy Christmas! and your head will spin.

On the other hand, perhaps having to explain a few things along the way is a small price to pay for the upsides you get from a globetrotting existence. Like the aforementioned opportunities to reinvent yourself.

"Because nobody knows you there, nobody has pegged you to be anything other than what they see as they're getting to know you. As scary as it seems, as inconvenient as it appears, getting a chance to remake yourself into something new and better should be appreciated for the incredible gift it truly is." (from my blog post entitled Expat 2.0: Remake, Refurbish, Improve.)  

As long as you don't unwittingly reinvent yourself into a Nazi.

Circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I'd like to close with an excerpt from my review of Five Flights Up, a book I can thoroughly recommend for anyone who has ever dealt with the struggles of balancing career, identity, and family - in short, almost everyone:

"Moving households is one thing when you’re just responsible for yourself and a suitcase, but entirely different when older children are part of the equation, children who have their own opinions and worries and friendships.... As a parent, I felt [the author's] heartbreak when her daughter revealed her frustration at feeling neither French nor American. I felt her despair when her son clung to her before school every day, not wanting to go because “I’m just not good at making friends.” And then I also felt her non-plussed “huh” when she started her weekly routine of commuting as a compromise between her husband’s and her own career and realized, counter to all her most dire predictions, that the world did not come crashing down, her children were fine and even having fun without her, and life went on."

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Top Five Scary Things About Living in South Africa

May 30, 2016

I know what you're now thinking after reading this blog post title. Smash-n-grab, carjacking, hacked off limbs... The list of scary things you're led to believe will happen to you in South Africa is long and grisly.

But I'm here to tell you that danger lurks in more unexpected quarters.

And I'm going to do this in the style of David Letterman - God bless his retired (and unrecognizable because bearded) soul - via a countdown.

5. THE 5th SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
................being asked to put animal feces into your mouth when your safari group is conducting an Impala Poop Spitting Contest. It's a close relative to the much-loved cherry pit spitting contest you find in other regions of the world, except, you know, the part about the poop. Which does, in all fairness, resemble cherry pits. As long as you make sure it truly is dried.

4. THE 4th SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
...............being yanked out of your dreams abruptly at 4:30 am when a pig is being slaughtered right outside your bedroom. Or something that sounds exactly like a pig being slaughtered right outside your bedroom but turns out to be a bird called hadeda that, so the rumor goes, is deathly afraid of flying and therefore erupts in unearthly shrieks every time it takes to flight. Preferably at 4:30 in the morning.

3. THE 3rd SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
...............being told by the clerk at the clothing store that he will "give you a tinkle when the new beanies arrive." No thank you, I'll just check back in a week, is what you say with a shudder before fleeing, only later learning from a friend that giving a tinkle, for a South African, involves a telephone, not a toilet.

2. THE 2nd SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
................when you're driving along the countryside minding your own business and this happens:

(Full disclosure: You might also be eaten by a lion or rammed by a hippo
without ever having received an indemnity form to sign.)

1. THE NUMBER 1 SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa.... drumroll.... coming across this creature:

It's called a Parktown Prawn and it is beyond scary - hairy legs and all. The only good news is that scary thing number 4 apparently eats scary thing number 1.

There you have it, it's what you've always been told - the bad guys all murder each other in South Africa. You might actually be quite safe. Just beware of tinkling store clerks, pooping gazelles, and squatting elephants.

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Everything You Need to Know About South African Schools

May 23, 2016

Which school to pick for their children in South Africa, and how to get into the one they've picked, is by far the most discussed topic among prospective expats on my blog and Facebook page. Second to that are questions about bureaucracy, especially the dreaded Traffic Register Number and vehicle license disk renewal, and the always-pressing quest to find the perfect house in the right suburb.

Which just goes to show that at the end of the day, fear of crime - the one thing South Africa is infamous for - is not at the top of people's minds. Day-to-day practical considerations and our children's education take precedence.

At any rate, I spend quite a bit of time every day fielding questions about schools, having evolved as somewhat of an authority on the topic - not so much by virtue of my own knowledge, but because of the vast network of friends and acquaintances I've built, and my ability to ask any of them to chime in on a particular school. Still, quite often I will go hunt on my own blog to dig up the appropriate blog post on a given school-related topic so I can forward it in response to an inquiry, and that can be quite time-consuming. 

In order to make my readers' life - and mine! - a little bit easier, I thought I'd gather all my blog posts discussing South African schools in any way, shape, or form, into one tidy list to hand out henceforth. Bear in mind that I wrote these over the course of 4-5 years, and that my knowledge of the topic evolved over that time period, so it's a good idea to read the more recent posts in addition to the older ones. (Even though I've grouped them by topic, you can see the date under the heading of each.)

Without further ado, voila!

Joburg Expat's Recommended Reading
on South African Schools

School Listings

St. John's College, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Johannesburg

South African Schools: An International Comparison

Dainfern College

Language Education in South African Schools

Sports at South African Schools

8th Grade South African rugby players

Other Extracurriculars at South African Schools

Grade 0 ("nought"), the incoming pupils, together with Grade 7, the outgoing Senior Prep
class, Dainfern College, South Africa

Transitioning from a South African School Back to the United States

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What is the Best Month to Travel to South Africa?

May 16, 2016

Over the years of authoring Joburg Expat, I've answered many questions about expat life in South Africa. And often it's not just future expats asking away, but friends and acquaintances who are intrigued by my love for a country they haven't given much thought to in the past.

"I want to come visit; what is the best time of year?" is the most frequently asked question by these prospective travelers.

I'm always tempted to say, it doesn't matter. There really isn't a bad time to visit South Africa.

However, that's not what they pay me the big blogger bucks for (ha! Who knew, right?), so I'll try to be more specific. Meaning, it depends.

It depends on where you go

What time of year you should visit depends on where in South Africa you plan on going. If your most important destination is Cape Town and all you want to do in South Africa is stand at the Cape of Good Hope, have some wonderful wine in Stellenbosch, and scale the slopes of Table Mountain, I'd say go either in spring or fall. Bearing in mind that spring is in October/November and fall (or autumn) is in March/April.

Franschhoek near Cape Town, the heart of the South African wine region, in October

Cape Town, and also Kruger Park, tend to get very crowded during the South African school holidays from beginning of December until mid-January when everybody floods to the beaches. Incidentally, this is the most quiet time in Johannesburg and therefore a good time to visit and have less traffic to contend with.

I personally prefer South African summers (which really are one long stretch from October all the way to May), just because I love the heat, and you will be nice and warm on morning game drives. December and January are the hottest (but also rainiest) months. We've been on safaris year round and always enjoyed them and always saw plenty of animals. Winters (June through early August), on the other hand, can get very cold in Southern Africa, particularly on the Highveld around Johannesburg, and especially at night, so if you do go in winter, you have to bring enough layers of warm clothing.

Winters are great for safari holidays

Winter is a good time for a South African safari (photo taken in Pilanesberg National Park in June)

However, there is something to be said for going in winter as well: First off, it is the dry season, giving you several advantages. Because it's dry, the animals tend to congregate around water holes, so it's a tad easier to find them. Also, the bush is less dense as there is less foliage, so again, it's easier to see the animals. If you are planning to go to Kruger Park, winter is also a better option because there won't be any threat of malaria (it's not a very high-risk malaria area, but you do have to reckon with it in summer). Also, it might be cheaper to travel than during the Christmas holidays, which is high season and also school holiday break for South African schools.

If you're interested in any other locations besides South Africa, also consider this: The great migration in Tanzania (Serengeti) occurs in June and July. Those are also the best months for the Okavango Delta as it is at its highest flooding then, stretching from June and July all the way to October.

Flooding of the Okavango Delta (this picture taken in April before the peak of the flooding)

Some other factors to consider

There are other months that have a lot going for them in terms of visiting South Africa: March is the best month to view the Cosmos flowering in Mpumalanga province, September is great for Kruger Park (not too hot, no malaria, no crowds) as well as the Namaqualand wildflower bloom, October marks the beginning of jacaranda season in Johannesburg and Pretoria (once you've see the purple explosion of jacaranda season, you'll be pining for your very own jacaranda tree, trust me) as well as prime time for whale watching in Hermanus.

Jacarandas in Rosebank, a Johannesburg suburb, in October/November

As you can see, any time of year has its attractions for South Africa-bound visitors.  Your best bet is probably to go look for some good deals on flights. December/January is high season and therefore the most expensive. I think March is generally a very cheap month to fly, as is November before the start of summer break.

I can promise you this: You will fall in love with Africa, no matter when you come to visit, and your first time most likely won't be the last.

A more in-depth version of this article, including a handy chart listing pros and cons for every month of the year, can be found on SA People.

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