April 28, 2017

How to Survive Your First Few Months as an Expat in South Africa, Part I

Some of you may have already had the privilege of reading some of Phil Maloney's writing at A Canadian in South Africa, as I've posted links to some of his hilarious stories before. If not, visit his blog - but preferably AFTER you've read Phil's guest post here on Joburg Expat. 

It's another good one, full of useful advice for the future SA-bound expat. But more importantly, it'll make you laugh. And who can't use a good dose of that? 

Without further ado, I give you Phil Maloney, from A Canadian in South Africa:

So you’ve taken the plunge. Someone has convinced you that you’re special and talented. Your company could really use someone with your specific skillset at the branch in South Africa. And you bought it hook, line, and sinker. The reality is, you probably just pissed someone off at your home branch, and now you’re going to be someone else’s problem. Whatever the case may be, you’ve just arrived in South Africa, and you’re filled with bright-eyed wonder.

You’re adorable. If you’re managing to read this, great news: you managed to find an internet connection. That’s your first win. Now what?

While I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, I arrived in Pretoria from Vancouver, Canada in September 2016, and I have managed to discover a few things. I don’t mean tangible things. Any travel guide can point you to the best restaurants, the most thrilling amusement parks, and the sexiest statues (if sexy statues is your thing; I’m not here to judge). What I’m talking about is how to survive your first few months without wanting to off yourself in a spectacular fashion.

1. You’re not in Kansas Anymore. Act Like it.

I’ve been to Kansas. I know why you left.

But whether you’re from the US, Canada, Ireland, wherever, you have certain expectations. For instance, you might expect your internet to work. You might expect contractors to show up on time. Or at all. You might expect everything to function in South Africa the same as it did back home. Knock it off.

One of the absolute worst things you can do is to try to put South Africa into your home country’s box. Trust me. I tried. No matter how hard you scream, beg and plead, you’re not going to change the way South Africa works. You’ll have ideas about how things should be (stores should be open when people want to shop, hooking up cable/internet should be a one-step process, roads should be maintained- the list goes on and on), but in the end, your opinion doesn’t matter. Things will operate differently, and that’s ok.

The worst thing for your own mental health you can do (and the most obnoxious) is to try to make your new home your old home. Along those lines, don’t expect to find all the same brands and products here that you did back home. Instead, expect shopping to be an adventure. You’re not going to get groceries like you think you will. Get used to stopping at several stores to get everything on your list. And make sure you try the local stuff. While I do miss some comforts of home, the new food and household items more than compensate for what I thought I was going to miss.

My point here is, don’t compare here to there. You’re not there anymore. You’re here. And the sooner you act like, the happier you’ll be. [Editor's note: But, if you insist, here is a shopping list for stuff you should buy before moving to South Africa-)]

2. Make Friends with the Locals

No matter how adventurous expats claim to be, people crave familiarity. You’ve probably already made contact with some people from your home country in hopes of having a sense of belonging in South Africa. Look, I’m not saying DON’T do that. But don’t EXCLUSIVELY do that. You may think you have something in common with people just because you were born in the same general area. But a lot of people are terrible. I know if I ran into someone from Vancouver here, their incessant prattling on about hot yoga and the vegan diet they feed their dog would drive me bananas. I’ve met a boatload of South Africans who I’d much rather spend time with, and the bonus is they are a wealth of information and advice. Speaking of which…

3. Listen to Expats and Locals

Unless you speak fluent Afrikaans with no accent (not likely) or one of the other 10 official languages in South Africa (even less likely), people will know you’re a foreigner. And EVERYBODY here loves to give advice, from places to avoid and where to buy the best boerewors, to favourite vacation getaways. Pay attention! You don’t want to find yourself getting carjacked in your first week. Or worse yet, buying boerewors from the SECOND best butcher.

If several people tell you to stay out of certain areas, they might be on to something. You’ll have lots of time to make your own decisions as you go, but to start with, play it safe.

This is one of the best spots to stop and count your money.

There are also plenty of places to explore with your family, and you’ll hear all about them in the first few conversations with people you have here. Go wherever they tell you. Most of the areas will probably be pretty touristy, but that’s OK. They’re good places to start.

Other expats will remember when they first got here, and they generally want to make the most of their time in South Africa, so they’re pretty good resources when it comes to where to eat, visit, explore, etc. But also make sure you ask local South Africans where THEY like to go. Oftentimes, you’ll end up finding hole in the wall restaurants or day trips that you won’t find in any travel guide.

4. Don’t Listen to Expats and Locals.

Ignore everything I just said. OK, maybe not everything. For the first few months, definitely listen to what other people tell you. But you’ll soon get a sense of your surroundings. Once you’re a little more comfortable, start exploring. Do things you’ve been told not to. I’m not condoning running around Hillbrow naked at 2 AM with 200 rand notes wedged in your butt crack. But there ARE things to do in Hillbrow. Join a walking or photography tour. Be smart, but not paranoid. [Editor's note: Check out The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours for guidance.]

Also, people here will tell you to tip wait staff 10%, and no more. In Canada, we generally tip 18-20%, and I see no reason why I should do things differently here, much to the horror of locals I dine with. In fact, tipping will become a way of life for you. You’ll tip car guards, gas station attendants, and a host of other people who rely on these small donations to get by. Tip what YOU feel is appropriate. Keep in mind that you probably make more money than most people here. 10 rand instead of 2 rand will be minimal for you, but it will make someone else’s day.

They will also tell you not to trust anybody, even your domestic help (oh, you WILL end up hiring domestic help. And you’ll start to enjoy having your underwear ironed and folded. Trust me on that one). But people are people- if you treat them with respect, you’ll form relationships that many South Africans didn’t think possible.

Before anybody jumps on me in the comments, yes, I know the crime rate here is relatively high. I know horrific things happen. I know people have been robbed by their maids. I’m not saying that DOESN’T happen. What I AM saying is it’s not as bad as you’ll probably be led to believe. If you’re an expat, you’ll likely be living in an area where you’re in a bit of a bubble. Do some real statistical research on crime in South Africa, and you’ll see that you’re by no means in one of the most vulnerable groups. Take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Within a few months, you’ll feel quite at home and be able to take or leave all the sage wisdom thrust your way.

The editorial team is taking a break at this point, so this is the end of Part I. Keep posted for Part II next week!

"Phil is very clever, handsome, and talented. He is very good at colouring and picking out fancy cheese. He smells good at least 64% of the time." -Phil's mom

Phil has been many things- a musician, a university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, and a sales guy. He moved his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016 and is still wondering how that happened. Phil's blog is www.acanadianinsouthafrica.blogspot.com, and he agrees with everything his mom said. 

April 11, 2017

What Americans (and United Airlines) Might Learn from South African Craftiness

Americans are known to like the head-on approach to solving problems and to vanquish an opponent. Not so much subtlety as a show of overwhelming force, even if a lot of resources are needed that might be more wisely used with a more thoughtful approach.

The latest brouhaha at United Airlines just underscores that point. If you live in a bubble and somehow haven't heard about it, read a quick recap:

A flight is overbooked, the airline offers 4 free tickets if 4 passengers step forward to relinquish their seat, no one feels like it because a) they've got important places to be, and/or b) the value of the free tickets is laughably low, especially if - like it has happened to us in the past - they come with all sorts of blackout dates and other cumbersome strings attached. Bottom line: Instead of doing what the market dictates, i.e. upping the offer until you hit that sweet spot where supply meets demand, the airline does what a spiteful and overtired parent might do after unsuccessfully trying to bribe their kids to agree on who gets the window seat: They come down with the heavy diktat that 4 random people will be chosen who will have to leave the plane.

Except a wrinkle: The last of the 4 chosen ones refuses to leave, and starts screaming bloody murder when told to do so. Then the ultimate idiocy: The pilot - I assume it had to be the pilot - calls in law enforcement or security, and they proceed to drag the offending gentleman by his feat and through the aisle out of the plane.

My question: What rock do these people live under? Have they not heard about social media and the fact that people have, lo and behold, cameras on them at all times, and are very happy to film such an affront to a person's dignity? Let alone the fact that it is just plain wrong to drag a paying passenger, or even any human being, by his feet, no matter how uncooperative he might be.

I can't imagine what the fallout will be for United Airlines, and perhaps the entire airline industry by extension. I hope it is harsh. Double booking seats is common practice, but just imagine any other business doing the same. Like, selling concert tickets for Beyonce and somehow thinking, oh, we'll just sell more than we have because surely some people won't show up, and we will have made us some extra money! Yes, not quite the same, but I'm sure there are more comparable examples. I just find it satisfying that in this case, the bullies of the world are getting tremendous pushback.

The incident serves as a classic example of hard power versus soft power, and the benefits of stepping back from the brink to think about how using the latter might be so much easier and satisfying. Here is how Wikipedia defines the two:

"Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by coercion (hard power), using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction."

What would a soft power approach have looked like, you ask? I came across a great answer that a reader posted on Facebook:

"Another way to do this, without so much heartburn, was done by SAA a few years ago on a flight from JFK to Johannesburg. A woman passenger was found to not have a ticket/boarding pass and was asked to leave the plane while the matter was investigated. She refused; flight attendants then quietly spoke with other passengers about the situation, saying that they would make an announcement that the flight was cancelled, and that passengers should leave the plane. Not to worry, though, re-boarding would be quick once the offending passenger had deplaned. They made this announcement, passengers quietly filed out, the offending passenger was led quietly off the plane. We all then got back on the plane, a delay of maybe 30 minutes, with no major incident. United, learn some more subtle ways to deal with passengers...."

All I could think was "of course a South African airline would come up with a more subtle approach." And not just subtle, but creative. An out-of-the box mind at work. It's probably taking this too far to speculate if there are cultural differences at work, though I don't doubt there are. I'll let others chime in for that.

But I would venture a guess that a people who don't take themselves so seriously, and aren't historically the strongest ones on the block, have an easier time using the soft power approach.

I bet you that SAA pilot, or the chairman for that matter, didn't have any fallout from the episode he handled so smoothly. United Airlines on the other side might find itself having to send their chairman to the sacrificial block - mostly for his tone-deaf comments after the event.

Raising my glass to the soft power approach to conflict resolution, and to South Africa.

Having a sense of humor often helps with the ability to use soft power. People love to laugh!