June 27, 2016

Do They Speak English in South Africa?

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.

June 20, 2016

You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green

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

June 13, 2016

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

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.

June 6, 2016

What it Feels Like to Be an Expat: Compartmentalized

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."