Subjects of Study

24 02 2010

I’ve been feeling like a bit of an anthropologist/voyeur lately.

For the past four days, we tracked animals at two different game reserves. Sunny’s parents are visiting for two weeks, and for part of their trip they wanted to go on safari. They generously offered to bring us along. On our drives, we found rhino, elephant, giraffe, lion, cheetah, antelope of a thousand different varieties-it was like being on a marathon episode of Animal Planet.

When we found the animals, our ranger guide would explain different things about the species. “Cheetah brothers are always found in pairs….This male giraffe seems to have been kicked out of his herd, probably because he is the weaker than the dominant male…The black rhino is a solitary creature….The male ostrich, like most species, is more beautiful than the female.”

Sunny and I started doing the same (under our breath) with the people we encountered. “You’ll notice that this is a male human because he’s more beautiful than the female (Sunny’s words) and he tends to talk a great deal about himself (my words).”

“This human appears to be angry because his food is not available yet. You’ll notice that some humans are very particular about dinner times.”

In truth, I have felt like my work in South Africa is much like that of an anthropologist. I study the actions and words of teachers and students and try and make some sense of it.  I’ve kept a running list of some of the more interesting things, all said directly to me. For me, each exchange is a tiny window into the spirit of this city. I’ll share a few with you below:

 “There’s a saying in Afrikaans: what happens at home stays at home. We don’t talk about our dirty laundry.” -Teacher


“The rich and the black, I mean the rich and the poor, in this country are just so divided.” –Teacher


“I am a racist. I am. I’m racist against whites and against Americans. I tell my students that. But I say- you all are not supposed to be racist- you have no reason to be. You didn’t grow up in the same world I did. You didn’t have our history, our experiences.” -Teacher


“The thing that is so great about Cape Town is that Muslims are completely accepted. We have no problem with Muslims at all. In France, you know, there was that whole thing with the headscarves. But here, no one minds. The students are so accepting of each other. They stay in their groups. They don’t socially interact, but they are so accepting of one another! It’s just wonderful. –University Professor


“How might you use propaganda?”–Teacher

“Target the poor, promise them things to get them to support you. Make them feel that you are going to help their situation. Then, control them.” –Student (it’s worth mentioning that this is a student from a poor community)


“How did you overcome the race issues in America? When we read Langston Hughes, we are so impressed. How did you do it?” -Teacher


“Oh, as a public school, we’re not allowed to only accept the top students, but we do (grinning). Well, you know, the government needs top schools, so they’re not going to challenge us, so we accept only certain students. We invite them for an interview, so we can see them, you know. That’s the way we do it.” -Teacher


“Of course, if a competent black person entered the pool for a head of school position, of course, we’d like that. But if five people apply for the position and one of them is a person of color, as you in the States like to say, that person will definitely get the job. So, you know, we have to find ways around that.”



A student says something to me in Xhosa.

“I’m sorry? I don’t understand,” I reply.

“Miss, it’s time you learned our language.” 


I hope that gives you a sense of the different things I’m starting to sort out. Complicated, to say the least.

Today, however, I was struck by a very different exchange. I’ve been moving through Cape Town feeling rather proudly invisible. Here I am, trying to research and understand this city. I negotiate moving in and out of neighborhoods, townships and schools with grace and discretion. Right?

I walked home today and a man that I have never seen before was sweeping leaves at the house across the street. I greeted him.

“Hey!” He said. “Where’s your car?”

Our car has been gone for five days, as we’ve been traveling.“I’m sorry?” I said, surprised that he recognized me at all.

“I mean, where has it been? And why are you walking today? You know, you never drive.”

“I like to walk,” I replied. (And he’s right. I pretty much refuse to drive here. Sunny does it all.)

“Now, tell me,” he smiled, “You are not Chinese.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Right. You’re like a white person. Right?”

“Yes. I guess I am.”

“But he is Chinese? Or is he white?”

“My husband? (Lest you worry that we got married and didn’t tell you, it’s just easier to say than fiance). He’s Korean. He has the car right now.”

“Ah, I understand. You know, we had other people like him living here. A family with a daughter. Do you know them?”

I shook my head, realizing that he was talking about the previous tenants of our flat, who also happened to be Korean. I’m amazed by how much he has picked up about us without us ever having noticed him.

“Do you live here?” I asked. I felt a little strange asking the question, knowing that if he did live here, it was probably in some servant quarters attached to the McMansion across the street. But I wanted to show him that I saw him as a neighbor, not as a worker.

He proceeded to give me directions to his house, and when I said I knew the general direction, he told me I must call and stop by.

I shook his hand and walked inside.

What a reminder. Anthropologists abound. I, too, am not immune from being a subject of study, nor can I pretend that I am also not part of this big complicated puzzle of human interactions.

Who knows? Maybe Sunny and I are the talk of the town.

“You’ll notice that in this pair, the female is more beautiful than the male…but the male appears more cuddly…”


P.S. Victory!

24 02 2010

1,000 pages later…

8 02 2010

People say that you’re not fully settled into a new home until you’ve found your go-to coffee shop, video store, supermarket, and, in Sunny’s case, kitchen supply store. By that definition, I’m happy to say we’ve officially begun life in Cape Town.

We’re loving our little flat, and we’re especially loving our next door neighbors, Maverick and Ice. These “Top Gun” stars are puppies that share our garden and come visit us several times a day. They seem to adore us, but it might have something to do with the rawhide treats Sunny keeps buying. They humor him by obeying his commands, pretending that he is the first person ever to introduce the language of “sit” and “stay.” They know that if they play the part, peanut butter biscuits await. As a fellow peanut butter junkie, I can hardly blame them.



We’ve spent most of this month exploring the city from top to bottom. While we’re still overwhelmed by the poverty and segregation, I think we’ve transitioned to a stage of wanting to learn more than anything else; we’re both in awe of all there is to understand about South Africa– the complexity AND the beauty.  So, we walk and read and talk to people to try and understand this city in particular and societies in transition in general. The education could last a lifetime.

My other, much more mundane but equally massive, task has been trying to register for classes.

When I arrived, the professor assigned to me told me that there was nothing for me to do for two weeks; he gave us the keys to his beach flat and told us to enjoy. Understandably, we obeyed.

When I returned to campus, he said I better get down to the international office because he had no idea how I was going to register and things might get complicated fast. Slightly confused by the switch from the original message of “there’s not a thing to worry about,” I proceeded to the office, where I was told to wait in line. And line. And line after line. At the end of each line, I’ve been told that I’m a strange case, that no one is quite sure what to do with me, and by the way, here’s a form for you to fill out. After you do that, go to that other line over there.

I can’t remember how many forms I’ve filled out at this point. At the end of each rainbow is another. Today, my fifth day of waiting, for what I was convinced would be my final stop and would result in the glorious, much coveted, student ID card, I was turned away with not one, but two forms. The second form was only an idea of a form, one that is stuck in the online world and unable to be downloaded because the server isn’t working properly.  No one knows when my unknown form might be released from the internet onto the world of paper. Until that form comes out of cyberspace, my student profile can’t enter the online system of the University of Cape Town, which is the prerequisite for an ID card. Ironic, I know.

So, here I sit, having read 1,000 pages of three different books while waiting for the ubiquitous ID card and library access. I’m not convinced I’m ever going to get there, and frankly, I’m not even sure I care anymore. No ID card=no tuition bill. I’m not sure why I’m fighting this hard to pay the school money. I think I’m just determined not to let go first. I’m in an arm wrestling match, and I want to win.

Beyond this excitement, I’ve been visiting schools and working with some new colleagues here. It’s wonderful to see students and start learning about the different types of schools here. Again, there is too much to learn. It is intimidating and exciting.

Clearly, I don’t think I’ll leave here having written or discovered anything new for education or for Cape Town. My new humble goal is to leave knowing a few more things about myself.

One thing is for certain: I better leave with the knowledge of how one gets through the university bureaucracy in this country. Oh Lord, hear my prayer.


1 02 2010

It’s hard not to feel guilty after leaving a school full of kids and teachers behind.  It felt like leaving them in the lurch.  It’s hard not to feel guilty when you get to travel all over the world for nearly a year.  It’s hard not to feel guilty when you aren’t earning a salary.  It’s hard not to feel guilty to have such a great fiancée that I love and to get to spend so much time together.

I know that I worked hard for this opportunity, but I still feel guilty sometimes.

It’s especially easy to feel guilty when you are living in South Africa with the remnants of apartheid staring you in the face.  There is so much economic disparity here.  I feel guilty with our iPhone, iPod, PSP, netbook, Macbook Air, locally bought cellphones.  I am a techno geek, and I love my tech toys, but it’s easy to take my wealth for granted.  Upper-middle class is a term that I laugh at – I guess it is an adequate description, when you think of really rich folks with multiple houses and Porsches and all, but isn’t it laughable putting “middle” in there?  What’s so middle about it?  That we are knee-deep in the middle of all our wealth?

Treaty of Waitangi - Maori version (translated)

English version ... a bit different, no?

It’s not just material possessions.  It’s economic privilege in all its forms.  I feel guilty about the ability of my parents to pay for my schooling so I wouldn’t have school loans to pay off.  About how they could help me buy a condo years ago, which sold for a profit large enough to travel this year on and still have enough to acquire property on my return.  Then I feel guilty for feeling guilty about that, like it is dishonoring their hard work and generosity.  Guilt is a bottomless pit.

A grizzled old man dressed in ragged clothes on crutches stopped me on the street today.  I was walking by him and like usual, I smiled as I passed.  Maybe I smile so they know I don’t look down on them, as I am probably unfortunately looking down on them.  He said something to me but I had already passed.  I stopped, though, because I thought he said, “You are scared.”  I turned around and shook his hand as he held it out, showing my bravado.  He repeated himself, and this time I heard him say, “You are scarce.”  I thought he meant that Asians, meaning fair-skinned Asians, meaning Japanese/Korean looking Asians, are scarce in Cape Town.  I nodded and he said again, “Don’t be scarce around here.”  I then thought he was mistaking me for someone else he knew (as I am used to… after all, don’t all Asians look alike?).  He said, “I don’t see you driving around the corner anymore,” and pointed to the road leading to our old guesthouse.  I finally understood that I had seen him before.  He usually stands at a particular intersection, as many poorer people do.  Most sell magazines, trinkets, even jokes.  Some just beg for money.  He then looked at me and said something I couldn’t make out, but his hands held out to me and his pleading face told me he wanted money or food.  I shook my head, smiled, and said, “Sorry” as pleasantly as possible.  He smiled, shook my hand again, and we parted.

I walked into Woolworth’s (which is a fairly up market store here, kind of in the Whole Foods category of stores for South Africa, without quite as much fancy gourmet or organic) because Jocelyn and I had bought a glass pitcher to make iced tea but wanted another one to cool down boiled water for drinking.  As I scanned the aisles for the pitcher, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  Did I really need two pitchers?  I headed for the prepared foods area and bought a hot Cornish pasty.  I thought about how eating them makes me thirsty and bought a large cold bottle of water.  I headed back out to the street.

I walked back out to the street and saw a flash of silver crutches two blocks down. Putting on some speed, I caught up to him.  I handed him the pasty and said, “Something for you to eat,” rather obviously.  I gave him the water and said, “So you won’t be thirsty after you eat.”  He said, “God bless you” and pumped my hand up and down vigorously.  He repeated, “God bless you” and then said, “Give my regards!”  Perhaps he meant Jocelyn.  Perhaps he meant God.

Does guilt help?  Perhaps temporarily, but in the end, not that much.  In the end it is just a substitute for taking responsibility.  What truly would make a difference?  How can wealth be redistributed evenly?  Am I prepared to give up my own wealth to help equalize it?   Nothing can go up if something doesn’t come down.

Post-apartheid Cape Town is a particularly extreme example.  But we have seen it everywhere.  Descendants of laborers brought from India are denied land rights by other Fijians.  The Maori were subjugated and cheated by colonists in New Zealand.  The Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc in Cambodia.  Our own troops caused suffering in Vietnam.  There are class divisions between hill tribes and Thais in Thailand.  I’ve been learning more and more about the history of Haiti, and the devastating long-lasting impact from past American and European intervention.

Martin Luther King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  He also said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”  Am I one of the “good people?”  Am I an oppressor, tangentially or directly?  How can I productively spend these months in South Africa?  Is it foolish to assume I can make any sort of difference in only several months?  Is it heartless not to try?

One thing is for sure – it will take more than just guilty feelings and Cornish pasties.  But a full belly never hurt anyone.