Joburg Expat: The South African Teenager vs the American Teenager

October 1, 2013

The South African Teenager vs the American Teenager

Not much in today's world is more universally reviled or at least complained about. Almost everyone who has one usually agrees that they are a pain. It's the one topic Bashar al-Assad and President Obama would likely find much in common about. Even though Assad doesn't quite have one yet.

I'm talking about teenagers of course.

Which is why I recently wrote Ode to Teenagers, just to buck the trend. And while I was writing it, it occurred to me that there are some small but meaningful differences between South African teenagers and American ones, so I thought I"d try to highlight them in another USA vs SA standoff (see USA versus South Africa for a quality of life comparison, and South African House versus American House for a bit of silliness). Just to preempt any howls of protest, please know that I'm mostly comparing white privileged suburban teenagers, because that's the world I live in.

People in the American South are often lauded for their friendliness. And it's true, compared to most of the rest of the world, Americans, and especially those of Southern heritage, are very friendly and polite. And kids are generally also raised to be polite and respectful of their elders. There is nothing like returning form a trip to continental Europe (where "please" and "thank you" are entirely optional and "queuing" is a quaint concept you've once heard about in English class) to remind you of this truth. But nothing, in my mind, compares to the South African private-school bred teenager (the promoters of the Johannesburg's Rand Club might get a secret thrill from the fact that I used the word "bred" here).

While at times the American politeness I see here in some teenagers can come across as a bit stilted if not to say phony, there is almost never anything phony in the way South African teenagers interact with adults. It's perhaps a remnant of that English boarding school aura of rules and respect. Or the habit of Afrikaans-speaking kids to call their elders Oom and Tannie (uncle and aunt). Or based on old African tribal traditions. Probably it's a combination of all three. I've had South African boys lift their hats to me in greeting. Hats! When I had delivered one of my batches of baseball equipment to the Alexandra kids sometime in 2011, they surprised me by stepping forward, one by one, and delivering speeches of thanks. Speeches! I don't think I was a particularly rebellious kid, but I would have rather died than giving a speech to an adult when I was that age. Edge: South Africa.

This is going to be a tricky one. In some ways, American teenagers are not independent at all. Their hands are held pretty much all the way from Kindergarten to high school graduation. Their parents sign them up for things, and then they proceed to drive them to the things they signed them up for. The word "playdate" is mainly an American invention. Their days are long and structured. At school, teachers tell them exactly what is going to be on the test, and hand out study guides with practice questions. They also tell them exactly which notebook they have to use, what color it should be, if the lines in it should be wide or college ruled, and what, precisely, to write into it every day. South African high school and even elementary school students, in comparison, are pretty much left to their own devices. They sign themselves into extracurricular activities and they choose the method of note-taking they bloody well like, including none at all. How they prepare for an exam is their own choice. Except the one choice all American kids are given in abundance, which is multiple choice. South African teenagers don't have that choice, mostly.

I mentioned being driven around: Of course this drastically changes by the time American teenagers reach the ages of 15 or 16 (or in some states 17) when all of a sudden they're let loose on the world (after first being let loose on their poor mothers) as newly-minted drivers. Driving their own car and the responsibility that comes with it is certainly a big step towards independence. But really what it is is a huge privilege. You don't see American teenagers riding their bikes to school very often, especially not on open roads. If they were truly hankering for independence, especially those who couldn't afford a car, wouldn't they hop on their bikes or even walk rather than be ferried to their doorstep via bus? In South Africa, underprivileged kids who are so lucky to receive a scholarship to a private school are often seen navigating the treacherous roads in even more treacherous minibus taxis, often leaving their homes before 5 am and returning after dark. Mainly because they have no choice. Nothing like necessity to foster early independence.

Independence: A teenager's first car

At age 13, a lot of South African kids (boys more so than girls), at least those born into privilege, are sent to boarding schools, often those of their fathers and mothers, and often far away. It's not like that really gives you a lot of independence, because at boarding school any minute of your life is pretty much regulated, but it pretty much puts a stop to your parents middling in your life. Goodbye helicopter mom!

The one thing South African teenagers pretty much don't experience (again, just speaking about the ones growing up in financially secure environments) is work. As in a job. It's not so much because they don't want to work, but because of the dismal state of education and unemployment. All the unskilled or low-skilled jobs teenagers typically perform in the United States like wiping tables or manning fast-food joints or even babysitting are sorely needed for the scores of unskilled and low-skilled South Africans desperate for even the lowest income, and strong affirmative action legislation makes it pretty much impossible for a white kid to get a job. There are lots of outreach opportunities in surrounding townships, and plenty of South African teenagers work very hard at those, but they don't get to experience making money. Or paying taxes. Which, to the shock of one particular American teenager I won't mention here, are actually deducted from your paycheck, even if you're still a kid. Edge: Undecided.

Neatness: You would think that having a maid pick up after you from the day you were born makes you a total slob. But curiously, there may be evidence to the contrary. I've spoken with several South African mothers with older children, and the consensus seems to be that those kids who've never known anything but a very tidy room actually grow so fond of that status quo that once they live on their own they magically do learn to tidy up and keep a clean house. But that's mostly after they're teenagers. While they are teenagers, all teenagers are slobs. I do know, using a sample size of three teenagers, that they have been slobs in either place. It's just that here in the U.S. it is visible because this maid, yours truly, doesn't do a very good job of picking up after them. Edge: Even.

Knowledge of other places: I've never met anyone anywhere who was less informed about the rest of the world or even their own country than the average American teenager. The only person who typically knows even less than the average American teenager is the average American adult. Especially those adults participating in "Are you smarter than a fifth grader," of which for some reason we were just watching all the reruns.
The typical conversation my kids have had to endure here goes like this:
"OMG you sound funny, where do you come from?"
"South Africa."
"Which country in South Africa?"
"South Africa IS a country."
"Oh... Can you say something in African?"
Edge: The rest of the world over USA.

Self confidence: I've also never met anyone quite so able to confidently talk (and as a result promote themselves) as the average American teenager, even if they don't know squat. Don't underestimate the power of talking a good game. And being able to speak truth to power. When we first got to South Africa, one of our kids got into some hot water for "talking back to the teacher." Turns out the teacher had insisted that the USA had 52 states, not 50. How many states the United States has is pretty much the ONE thing your typical American teenager DOES know. And he will not shy away from telling his teacher. Even if the teacher then tells him he is the most arrogant boy he's ever met in his whole life. Edge: USA.

Passport endowment: The average American teenager has zero passports. Because he hasn't actually ever left the country. He thinks he's left the country, but that was a trip to Hawaii. Which if you remember is one of the 50 states. Or 52. Whatever. Whereas the average South African teenager has three passports and counting. Not that he could ever live anywhere but South Africa. Because he really doesn't want to clean up after himself. But ever since birth his parents have spent every spare minute of their lives to find some old Irish great-grandmother in the family tree and to subsequently pester the Irish consulate until they've handed out honorary citizenship. And they've already ferried all their money to Australia which will give citizenship to anyone who shows up with money. The only country South Africans don't want to become citizens of is Zimbabwe, because Robert Mugabe is even worse than Jacob Zuma. He wouldn't even let you get away with making a painting of his dick and displaying it in public. Which in South Africa you still totally can. Edge: Robert Mugabe.

Have I forgotten anything? What's your take on expat teenagers?