On the Beach

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

On the Expat Scene

Although, as I have previously discussed - ad nauseum- one might say, the fact that I am not, by definition an expat, many people I assume that I am. I cannot blame them, my accent is a clue and my surname would appear to be a giveaway too (although I must point out that the two do not match, very confusingly).

My British accent is a problem for some people here. My accent over the telephone seems to cause some South Africans much consternation. More than once, I have been asked to spell simple words like "three" over the phone: "Aaaah, THRRREEEE", they say as if they have cracked a Nazi code: "It's that Brrrytyshh egsent". In person, when I ask for things in the supermarket, I am often faced with the facial expression of someone who is hard of hearing, trying to tune into a crackly radio station. I kid you not, reader, once I asked for beer and a poor soul lead me to the pears. Eventually: "Beeeyah, ja, shame man, over theeere".

My surname, frankly, sometimes its spelling should be a question on Mensa entry forms. A couple of z's and everyone is freaking out.

So I do accept that it is legitimate that people might think that I am an expat and therefore ask the question: "How's the expat scene in Cape Town?". It's not a reflection of the people that ask the question that I absolutely loathe the question because of everything I perceive that it implies.

I don't like the use of the word "scene". I know it can mean simply a place, a picture or a view or an embarrassing public row. For me, in the context of "expat scene" I always think of the word in the theatrical sense, like a scene in a play. A bit contrived, a bit practiced and not very real. And that is what an expat scene is- removed from reality.

I suspect part of my prejudice comes from the fact that my parents, even though we were what seemed like itinerant Poles for a long time, always insisted we lived like other natives of the country we were in. Mum and dad felt very strongly that they didn't want to "ghetto-ise" their children; they didn't erase who we were, they felt that we should integrate and get on, rather than live in a pocket of say, Jo'burg or London where you could walk a couple of blocks at least and hear only Polish spoken by people purveying Polish goods. They felt that they hadn't left their country to try and seek it out in another part of the world.

That's not to say that I think people should avoid such communities. To some it is something that they need, especially if they have been forced to leave their country, even if for economic reasons. Sometimes it's just nice when someone else understands what bigos is and don't think it's odd to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. Not only that but the myriad of expat communities in places like New York add enormously to the charm and draw of the city.

I am just saying that I don't feel it's healthy to take the trouble to go somewhere else only to seek out what you have just left. And you know what else? It's rather pointless going that far to be with your own kind. What's more, I think you're really potentially missing out on something.

If you live on the "expat scene" in Cape Town, you'll enjoy the views, the cafes and all the aesthetics but will you ever really experience the real Cape Town? You'll miss out on Cape Tonian hospitality, being invited to a braai at a moment's notice , you'll miss out on the people and their perspective (and they're an opinionated bunch- expect lots of perspectives!). More than even The Mountain, what defines this city is the people who live here.

I get slightly depressed when I hear there is a "British Women only" coffee morning organised somewhere in CT. What would happen if a non-Brit came? Would they all self-combust? Would their morning be a write-off because one person attending hadn't watched Bagpuss as a child?

By "allowing" other people in, they could share their  love of their country and their culture with others and, hey, go crazy, maybe learn something about the place in which they live. Think of it as helping with international relations.

When my husband and I lived in New Zealand, we were made to feel extremely welcome by everyone around us. The New Zealanders have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness. We weren't there for all that long but through our local friends we saw and experienced things that no expat or guidebook would have led us to.

Contrast that with someone I used to know. To look at his "CV" of travel and places he'd lived, you'd imagine he'd be the most well informed person on the planet. He's been to so many places for so long, you'd think you could safely make him foreign secretary and he'd solve all the world's ills. When he lived in Auckland, no Kiwi accent could be heard anywhere near him unless it was serving him coffee. Of course, he ticked all the boxes from the Lonely Planet's "Must Do's in Auckland" section and had photos to prove it. This gentleman has visited a significant portion of the world, in exactly same fashion. He has beautiful photos of things most people will never be lucky enough see.

I always felt, that it would have been cheaper for him and more environmentally sound had he just stayed in London and bought the guidebooks. He'd still have seen pictures and, arguably, had the same experience. For him, travelling and living in different places was the equivalent of notches of the bedpost. There was no attempt at a relationship  or understanding with anywhere that he went.

I know there are places where the expat scene is an invaluable necessity, a sanity finder. Anywhere where you don't speak the language for instance or where the culture is very different. For instance, I imagine living in the UAE as a Brit, say,  it must be essential to be plugged into other expats.

But I do wish that people would try a little harder, rather than cutting themselves off fully from where they are living- they might be surprised at what they find  past the Expat Curtain.

For Brits moving to Cape Town, there is no language barrier- English is one the official languages. You'd think that would be an incentive enough to "integrate" more. But no, for some there is no reason to emerge from behind the Expat Curtain.

Cape Town, and South Africa generally, has a lot to offer those who move here. For a lot of people the main attraction is moving here is the climate, scenery and lifestyle.  But for a value added experience, try enjoying it all with some Cape Tonians.

It's really quite lekker.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I LOVE your blog! I'm due to move to CT with my hubby in the new year from London and look forward to it after reading your blog. The beach lessons will be invaluable - I also read 'how to spot an expat' to my hubby who is origional lay from CT and he was laughing at the bare feet observation. :) thank you for opening my eyes to what CT has to offer instead of reading about all of the negatives online :) sarah