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…”



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