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How to Spot an American


Wearing raincoats and backpacks. Using a camera. Having a sunburn. Walking in groups of more than three. These are just a few of the things that immediately mark us as Americans on the UKZN campus in Pietermaritzburg. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced to someone and the first words out of their mouth are, “Oh, you’re an American, right?” My go-to response is now, “Which gave it away, the sunburn or the backpack?” This is not to mention our accents. The professor of my Introduction to Zulu class made fun of how we pronounced a list of English words, saying if we don’t know how to speak English properly, how can we learn Zulu? Good question.

There are other stereotypes about us as Americans, but most of the people I’ve met are simply curious to know if the things they see on TV are true. No, Jersey Shore is not an accurate representation of American life, sorry to disappoint you. But stereotypes work the other way as well. I came to South Africa having been warned about high crime rates and petty theft and was scared to leave my milk in the fridge for fear one of my seven roommates would steal it. But I’ve learned that high crime rates do not mean everyone is a thief, and my roommates are trustworthy, wonderful people.  For the record, I am now leaving all my food out and nothing has been stolen. I was also expecting more unity between races, naively assuming that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had eradicated most hostility and hard feelings. While nothing serious has happened, I have been made very aware of how fresh the wounds of Apartheid still are and how decades of oppression and abuse cannot simply be erased with one valiant effort.
Being here for three weeks has also made me appreciate the relative efficiency and speed with which the United States operates. We’ve had to be very patient while registering for classes by seeking out the professor and begging to be let in as opposed to an online “shopping cart” and a click of the mouse. Even tasks such as doing laundry become complicated when the washer doesn’t drain and over two hours in the dryer still leaves clothes wet enough to wring out. But all of this has simply made me realize and appreciate how spoiled we are, quite used to having things handed to us.
Conversely, there are many things about South Africa that I would quite willingly bring back to the U.S. First of all, the willingness to discuss race and its implications. This is important in order to move beyond racial barriers, and something we shy away from in the U.S. I also love that here, everyone greets each other with a smile and a hello, even if you’ve never met and are simply passing on the street. Lastly I love the slower pace of life, no one pressed to be anywhere at a particular moment, taking the time to enjoy the sunshine and the fresh air. And that is precisely what I intend to do while I’m here.
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