May 31, 2015

Crime, Oscar Pistorius, World War II Bombers: Topics for South African Readers

Every now and then, I glance over the search terms people use to find Joburg Expat:

Clearly, a lot of people landing in my domain have already heard of my blog and use its name as a search term, which is kind of flattering. Others are finding me because, apparently, they are tired of purchasing their clothes hangers from a street vendor and would prefer a no-hassle online retailer starting with "A" to conveniently ship them right to their doorstep.

What I've written about Amazon and Starbucks in South Africa (or, more correctly, the lack thereof), South African schools, and, curiously, weaver birds, ranks definitely among the most-read content of my blog. Seeing such a list, at first glance, confirms you in your belief that these are the topics you should write about most often, because clearly they are leading your future readers to you.

At least that's what I used to think, until my son urged me to read a book about mathematics he had just read and loved, How Not to Be Wrong (read my Goodreads review here). I was captivated from the first page, which takes you right back to World War II, a favorite topic of mine. A brilliant mathematician and Jew named Abraham Wald, forced to leave the University of Vienna and emigrate to the United States at the outset of the war, was tasked by the American government to apply his statistical knowledge to the problem of the vulnerability of allied bombers to enemy fire. Bomber losses were heavy and everyone agreed more armor needed to be added as protection, but as it made the aircraft heavier, it needed to be applied strategically to those areas of the plane most in need of protection.

Returning airplanes had been studied extensively and the heavy concentration of bullet holes all over the fuselage suggested that more armor on the fuselage was the way to go. Not so, said Wald, in a sort of breakthrough event for statistics. The armor needed to go where the bullet holes WEREN'T. What he had hit upon was the so-called "survivor effect." In only counting the surviving planes, they weren't counting all the bullet holes, and certainly not the ones that mattered. Since all the planes with a bullet-riddled fuselage seemed to have returned just fine, one needed to count the absent planes, i.e. the ones that DIDN'T return. Further analysis confirmed what Wald knew to be true: bullet holes in the engine were the deadliest ones. Clearly, that's where more armor was needed! Seems obvious in hindsight, but it was groundbreaking then, and it saved real lives.

I love this story, and I love that I found a way of writing about it. In a way, looking at which search keywords have led people to my blog is skewed by the selfsame survivor effect. If I want to attract a wider readership, I will have to look at the search terms NOT leading people to my blog. The ones that AREN'T on the above list.

I can readily think of one: "Crime." Who doesn't think "South Africa" and immediately has the word "crime" enter his brain, together with grisly images of people held up at gunpoint, coupled perhaps with brutal police beatings and mobs throwing burning tires around fellow humans in a xenophobic frenzy?

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to tell the world what a dangerous place South Africa is. Plenty of folks already do that. Rather, I want people who have read this elsewhere to come to my blog for some perspective on it. People, who like me will take a second look and hopefully see the full picture, THEN decide whether they could see themselves and their families living there.

What else should I be writing about? For readers already IN South Africa, there is an easy way to find out. I consulted Google Trends and learned that I should write about

Oscar Pistorius,
South African National Elections,
Julius Malema,
how to whatsapp,
what is bigamy,
what is neknomination,

not necessarily in this order.

Please excuse me now so I can read about what the hell neknomination ist.

On someone else's blog.

May 25, 2015

Expat Joys - Sensible Sex Education

The beauty of expat life is that you get to see an alternate universe. You get to see how life might have panned out at home, if only people weren't so bound to tradition.

Sure, in some cases the alternative might be worse. It might send you running right back home where everything is "better," but more often than not the opposite seems to be true: We like what we see abroad and wonder why it's not done this way at home.

In my last blog post, I put together a list of such "Expat Joys," all those little things that you wouldn't have thought of before as being particularly enjoyable, but which now that you've moved to a new life in a new country, have come to mean a lot to you. Those kinds of things that you might be surprised to miss a lot after you've returned to your home country.

And wouldn't you know, just as I hit "publish" on that collection, I thought of another expat joy: sensible sex education.

You might not consider this a joy at all. Who relishes tackling the hairy - no pun intended - topics of adolescence with their kids? Having to stand your ground while squirming under a united front of eye-rolling and exasperated groaning from the teenage contingent in your family?

But that is precisely the point. Back home in the United States, this was such a big to-do on my parenting list of unwanted chores. Because you didn't expect the school to put forth any meaningful discussion of changes to the human body, let alone contraceptive methods - we lived in Kansas, after all! - you knew that bringing your kids up to speed would fall squarely onto you. And if you started too early - which most experts agree is probably the best time - you faced the real threat of irate parents at your door who couldn't BELIEVE that your child passed on their newly-won knowledge about how babies are made to their own pure and innocent offspring. How COULD you spill the beans!!! Here their kids were all on a path of abstinence well into their twenties, and you had to screw it up by painting an oh-so-luring picture of sexual bliss, by proxy of your child's recounting, that of course NOW they're going to want to try it out first chance they get.

So you might imagine I was pleasantly surprised that in South Africa, our school took on a leading role of enlightenment. As part of the Life Orientation curriculum, a compulsory class at most schools taken all the way until matric, an external coach of some sort was brought in for an extended talk with the boys and girls. I believe it started in 4th grade, but I could be wrong, it might have been 5th. But not only that, the same coach was also booked for several sold-out nights at the school auditorium to enlighten us PARENTS about the secrets to sex education.

At first, being a good American, I sat there squirming in my seat. The woman standing on the stage was using embarrassing words! She called things by their name! But once I got over my initial shock to hear such frank talk in the same halls we were normally treated to soaring sermons from the headmaster, I began to pay attention. Soon we were informed about stuff I'd never even heard about, in an effort to bring us up to speed with what our kids might be discussing or ask us about. Surely not my kids though, who will smell potentially embarrassing talks from a mile away and steer clear before they can become entangled, much like they have a sixth sense about when to disappear from the kitchen and poke their nose in a book lest they get roped into unloading the dishwasher.

Kudos to South African schools for being much more sensible about sex education than their American counterparts - at least in the states we'd lived in.

We might not like it, but our kids ARE going to grow up. They ARE going to find out about the facts of life one way or another, so why not be a part of how they achieve this? I'm not saying we should shirk our duties and let the school do the unpleasant parts so that we can sit back and relax. But the school being involved early on makes it so much easier to start the talks you need to have at home. Your 4th grader coming home and telling you about his day is much more prone to share and have additional questions than that same kid by the time he's in 7th grade. If you've ever met a 7th grader, you will know that he will roll his eyes about EVERYTHING, let alone you interrupting his video game with the words: "We need to talk about the Birds and the Bees."

About those birds and bees: Another thing South Africa has going for it is that you don't have to resort to birds and bees at all. It's much more compelling with, say, lions. Watch for yourself.

May 18, 2015

Top Ten (Small) Joys of Expat Life

As frustrating as it can be to move households across continents, to navigate the incomprehensible currents of the Department of Home Affairs to obtain your visa, or to find out that "just now" means "perhaps in three weeks" at best, there are also many happy sides to expat life, if you only choose to open your eyes to them.

And I don't mean the obvious biggies. As a typical expat of the corporate world, you might have negotiated a generous package of expat perks - a gas guzzling car you neither had to pay for nor have to fill up with gas on your own dollar, a beautiful house your company is paying the rent for, domestic help if you're lucky enough to live in a part of the world where it's affordable, a tax accountant, an elite school for your kids.

What I mean are the small and often overlooked things any expat can enjoy, no matter which circumstance might have landed him abroad. Over the course of writing this blog, I came to think of them as my "Expat Joys" and started tagging certain blog posts with that label. But in hindsight I feel that they weren't particularly unique to South Africa. Each expat, I think, should have a similar list.

This picture and accompanying blogpost about starting my day in South Africa prompted the creation
of the Expat Joys series. It may strike you as bizarre, but few things make me pine for South Africa
 as much as this picture does.

So here, for the first time, I've put my Expat Joys all together in one list to read at your leisure. Maybe in bits and pieces to savor occasionally with your morning tea, or to pull out on the darkest days when needed most. Or to binge-read them all at once for one giant expat love fest!

  1. The Awesome People
    No doubt it's the people in a country who make or break your expat success story, and South Africans, as I've written in many places on this blog, are a pretty awesome bunch. But I'd wager that no matter where you go, the people of that country are what give it its special charm. You might have to define charm in very different ways to make it be true, but I promise you that finding delight in your hosts is the best ticket to a joyful expat life.

  2. The Head Massage
    In which I prove that enjoying expat life is a matter of perspective. That instead of bemoaning all you've lost, you're much better off looking at all you've gained. And the head massage is a HUGE gain, trust me. Except what's a head massage to me in South Africa might be shopping at to you in the USA. The trick is finding as many "head massages" as possible.

  3. The Beautiful Artwork
    An ode to the beautiful pieces of art you get to amass during most any expat assignment. They will always have special meaning to you ("remember when we haggled over that statue from the street vendor while our car was being towed?"), and they will move on with you to the next assignment no matter where, serving as reminders of the stations of your life even as they reside in new zip codes every few years.

  4. The Gas Station Attendant
    Forgive me, I realize that title sounds a bit, well, saucy. No, I'm not suggesting an inappropriate affair with your gas station attendant (although, who knows, maybe that has actually been someone's expat joy before). I'm talking about the rather mundane joy - instead of getting out of your car and manhandling that unwieldy hose - of just sitting there and smiling and having the whole nasty business of filling the tank done for you. Granted, this might not be true in every country. I personally know that in Germany, for instance, you get the opposite effect, the one at the supermarket checkout where you break out in cold sweats because you can't pack your own bags fast enough to escape the cashier's (and other customers') withering stares... The lesson there is: When in Germany, don't look for any expat joys at the hands of checkout clerks, or any clerks for that matter. They do have good sausage though... and the bread will make up for any perceived and real expat slights, I promise you!

  5. The Netball Perspective
    The title of the original post is the much more mundane "Variety and Life Skills" but I changed it here to go with a certain pattern for titles stolen from Robert Ludlum. What I mean with it is the fact that you may be forced to learn a new skill as an expat (here, I give you netball as exhibit 1), and that you may be annoyed at first that you can't pursue your OLD skill you were much more skillful at, but that in time you will come to appreciate the wisdom of learning new stuff and adapting quickly. Turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective, which kind of takes us right back to the head massage.

  6. The Corner Shop
    When I was a child, my mother would sometimes send me to the corner shop about 10 minutes from our house to buy a last-minute ingredient for her. All I had to do was cross the street, make my way through a nursery full of adventures (like litters of newborn kittens I could spend hours with), skip down a few stairs, and voila, there was the shop of Herr and Frau Schaal. I always came home with the cola-flavored gummies from the clear plastic bin at the cash register, purchased at 5 Pfennig a piece with the change my mom let me keep. (Actually, it was mostly my dad who sent me and the change was from purchasing his cigarettes for him.) In Germany, this kind of shop was called a "Tante-Emma-Laden" or "Aunt Emma's Shop." Of course I never really appreciated the existence of that shop, in fact looked down my nose a little bit as it was incredibly old-fashioned, including the proprietress with her wizened old face. But now that I've lived in the United States half my life where we have megastores it takes a week to push your cart through and that possess absolutely zero charm, I've come to pine for the Aunt Emma's Shops of my youth. And wouldn't you know it, a lot of foreign countries have them. 15 minutes in and out, tops, and you can always go back because they're right next to your house. Heaven!

  7. The Prevailing Common Sense
    There is a place common sense prevails?, you will ask. Yes, there is. Particularly often in the countries we consider "less developed."  Where you actually get to use your head to make decisions, where you don't have to ask for permission for every little step you might take, but where you might be eaten by a lion if you do something stupid.

  8. The Sun God
    Year-round sunshine was my Number One expat joy in South Africa, bar none. I suppose not every country has that going for itself, but the weather definitely plays a huge role in your well-being as an expat. It also helps mitigate other expat factors that might not exactly make the "joy" list. Trust me, when your internet has been down for a week, and each time you call the provider you get disconnected after listening to horrible on-hold music for an hour after punching in your 10-digit phone number 15 times, it's so much easier NOT to pull out your hair when you can just go outside and work on your tan while dangling your feet in the pool. If your expat assignment is in Norway - or, you guessed it, Germany! - then strike this entire bullet.

  9. The Juicy Mango
    I came to love not just mangoes but also papaya, cape gooseberries, and avocados while in South Africa. There is something about their fruit. I think it has to do with everything pretty much being home grown, meaning it's always incredibly fresh when in season and then not available at all other times of the year. This makes the experience so much more intense. It's like getting out certain toys for your kids only once a year, and they devour them like they've never seen them before. Getting to know and savoring the fresh fruit and other delicacies of a certain country certainly ranks right up there in the expat joy department. Although I wouldn't go as far as calling the Durian we got acquainted with in Singapore a joy, expat or otherwise. If you've been to Singapore, you'll know what I mean. If you haven't, just imagine the stinkiest cheese ever and cross that with a little bit of a rotten egg smell, and bingo, you've got your Durian.

  10. The Unannounced Playdate
    This one has to do with people popping by your house unannounced, bringing a brood of children with them to raid your fridge and run around the yard screeching, and yet somehow I've managed to construct this into an expat joy, and one of my favorite ones at that - read and see for yourself.

I'd love to hear from you! What are your biggest joys of expat life?

May 10, 2015

The Embarrassing Expat Mother

I am a mother. And an expat.

I'm also a wife, and a writer, I like to dabble in art, I'm a bookworm, and lately I've obsessively worked on my forehand in tennis, but those two - mother and expat - seem to define me more than anything else.

However, I'm not just an expat and a mother. I'm an Expat Mother. Combining the two doesn't just add up like one plus one, it creates a whole new dimension of motherhood. Motherhood on steroids, motherhood cubed, the nth degree of motherhood.


Well, here's my theory:

You call yourself an expat if you go live abroad, temporarily or, in some cases, your entire life. You chose to go there, were sent there, or fled from some horror in your homeland. In almost all cases, you made some conscious decision to go.

If you're a kid, you're not an expat. You didn't choose to go there, because there was no choice. Most likely your parents took you along, or you emerged into the world while already there. What you are most commonly called in today's language is a Third Culture Kid or TCK.

You and your child inhibit two different worlds: the World of Expat-dom, and TCK World. And they are not really the same. As an expat mother, you have to mother a child of a slightly different species. There is an identity gap between the two of you. As can be expected, this has its challenges.

One such challenge is embarrassment.

I was inspired to sit down and write this column on Mother's Day, of all days, because - as I was sitting in bed eating from the glorious breakfast tray my daughters, bless their hearts, had planted on my lap, discreetly leaving the room again knowing that I would love being left alone with my tea and the Sunday New York Times - I came across the always-inspiring Pamela Druckerman and her Mother's Day message: "On Mother's Day, Embrace Embarrassment." In it, she wrote about the myriad ways immigrant parents embarrass their kids. This really spoke to me. Of course I tend to think of myself as a totally cool mother, as opposed to MY mother who really WAS embarrassing. I speak English with almost no accent, I "get" things like The Daily Show, I understand the sports scene. But I know that I'm deluding myself.

Take that sports scene, for instance. I was at my first netball game in South Africa. Impatience was playing, actually playing pretty well, considering she'd never played netball before in her life. But I was going crazy because no one was going for the rebound after shooting at the basket. "Get the rebound!!!," naturally, was what I yelled from the bleachers for an entire half. Well - it turns out it's not called a rebound. It's also apparently not something you can "get," willy-nilly, because there is some kind of zone around the basket, or perhaps the goal-shooter, into which you can't extend your arms, as Impatience informed me later in hushed tones so that I would abstain from any further "encouragement" from the sidelines. South African mothers do not seem to provide such encouragement at all, I came to learn.

Jabulani, Zax, Impatience, and Sunshine, often the victims of extreme embarrassment at the hands of their mother, simply by virtue of occasionally (and totally involuntarily) starring on this very blog.

On the whole, however, our girls haven't been nearly as damaged by parental embarrassment as the boys. I was  tempted to walk right into the teacher's lounge at Dainfern College one day, brimming with indignation, to tell Jabulani's geography teacher that no, contrary to her firm belief, the U.S. did NOT have 52 states, never had, and probably never would. And, while we were at it, that Zero Degrees North was just as good an answer on the exam as Zero Degrees South, if she really insisted on splitting that particular hair. Jabulani blanched at the prospect. He begged me to abstain. It would be SO embarrassing if I talked to the teacher like that, which is apparently something South African mothers don't do.

It was also Jabulani who found it embarrassing when, upon receiving the supply list before cricket season, I was the only mother who had no idea what a ballbox was. Who then loudly inquired at the sporting goods store as to where she might find one, and who then proceeded to tell everyone for months afterwards, hooting with laughter, how funny it was that it turned out to be an athletic cup - which yes, if you think about it, is indeed a box containing balls (and if she should read anything into the fact that South African "ballboxes" were about twice the size of their American cousins). Hahaha!

But it is our oldest son, Zax, who is now 18, who has suffered the most from parental embarrassment. Or, as I like to say, whose embarrassment radar was so sensitive from, oh, age 11 until about 17, that I didn't even have to DO anything to cause embarrassment. I merely had to exist. I will never forget the quandary he was in when he was invited to his first bar-mitzvah, back when we lived in Kansas. He wanted to go and asked me for a ride. I took him, of course. When we arrived at the parking lot, he stared at the large, forbidding building in horror and sat in the car, unmoving. He'd never been to a synagogue (and not often in a church either, come to think of it), and didn't know the protocol. Did I know where he was supposed to go, he asked. I did not, but offered to come inside with him. That caused even higher degrees of horror. To be seen with his mother by his side, walking into a group of teenagers, was too much to bear. It caused beads of cold sweat to appear on his brow. Potentially opening the wrong door and having a congregation of strangers turn their heads in unison to stare at him might be a risk he'd have to take if he didn't want to be seen with me, as well as the risk of handing over his present that I, his German mother (and not an expert on bar-mitzvahs by any means) had picked out and then realizing, from the recipient's expression, that it was totally inappropriate. After long agonizing minutes in that parking lot he chose to leave me behind. Clearly, whatever dangers lurked in that building it was I, his mother, who was the biggest embarrassment. To this day I don't know if he ever attended the bar-mitzvah or just ended up circling the building waiting for my return.

Perhaps it doesn't matter whether you're an expat or not. Perhaps all mothers are embarrassing to their children at some point in time, even if they don't jump up and down and yell "Jaaa, tahdshdown" when their son slides across home plate to score a run. Might as well go all out and do what you want to do as a mother, damn the consequences.

Embrace the embarrassment!

And Happy Mother's Day to you all!

Which embarrassing mom moments have you lived through? Which faux pas have you commited?

May 4, 2015

Load-Shitting, Excuse me, Shedding


It's the word on every South African's lips these days.

(For my non-South African readers: no, this has nothing to do with going to the toilet and getting rid of THAT load, as you might be inclined to deduce from the title of this post or the word itself or even from the fact that I've been known to cultivate an obsession with potty topics. Rather, load-shedding describes the event when Eskom, the beloved (and on this very blog much written-about) public utility turns off the power for a few (and often a lot of) hours every day because there simply isn't enough for everyone.)

Load-shedding isn't really anything new. It's a problem that has haunted South Africa for years but has recently returned with full fervor. The two big coal plants that have been under construction for eons, Medupi and Kusile, are something like 3 years behind schedule, bedeviled by a scarcity in skilled labor, bad project management, a raging legal battle between the various contractors, and of course a scourge of endless and often violent strikes - the one skill South Africa's labor force has honed to perfection. I have a husband who could tell you a thing or two about all that. For a more in-depth explanation about load-shedding you might like to read this article with the apt headline "shedding a light on load shedding", published by a rather unlikely expert on load-shedding and, incidentally, my favorite wine label Vrede en Lust.

But fortunately, no one can joke about such a kak situation as well as the South African people, so here I give you the - ahem - lighter side of load-shedding (I stole this phrase from the site Traveller24).

What did South Africa use before candles?

New work of South African historical fiction: Fifty Sheds of Dark
Eskom has added stage 4 load shedding. For those of you who are unsure, it means start collecting firewood. #eishkom

By the way, the #eishkom tag is a great way to find and share good load-shedding jokes on Twitter. Incidentally, if you Google load-shedding, quite a few jokes about Pakistan surface. Well done South Africa, to find yourself in such good company!

In a drive to save on electricity consumption, the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off till further notice. Kindly postpone all hopes and dreams. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Load shedding stage 5: Eskom switching off the sun and the moon. #eishkom

Eskom has good news and bad news, bad news is the shit is going to hit the fan!…Good news is the fan is off due to #loadshedding.

From the site, I gleaned this one:

Baby Bear : Who ate my porridge?
Daddy Bear: Who ate my porridge?

Do you have more? Please share!

Many thanks to Lara McGinty Kinfoil, Sue Harwood, and the SA People Facebook page for their input.