It may go without saying, but, I will point it out anyway: Living in another country is VERY different from visiting.
I have been living in Cape Town, South Africa, on and off, for almost a year now and I still experience culture shock almost everyday. The difference is, now it is every day life, not just a few days or weeks.
At first, little idiosyncrasies are charming, inconveniences are laughable and culture shock is nothing more than a temporary discomfort. This is the state I lived in for the first 3-4 months in South Africa, and it was blissful.
I was in “tourist mode” until I wasn’t….somewhere around month four or five. Suddenly, the things I found “very interesting” before, were less so and more a reminder of how far away from California I really am. Each contrasting experience egging on the always-looming-over-head Home Sickness. You start to notice things in a more realistic, and less candy coated light when you stay for an extended period of time. But that doesn’t mean you appreciate it any less. Like being able to close up zoom in on your favorite post card, you begin to see all the little details- good and bad.
If you’re planning a visit to South Africa (and I hope you are because I would love to meet up!), take notes. These eleven things may surprise you and, if you’re like me, make you laugh.
- Every sink has two faucets. One for hot, one for cold. Want medium, lukewarm temperature water once in a while? Well too damn bad. You’re in Africa baby. Scolding hot on one side, freezing cold on the other.
- No electrical outlets in the bathrooms…or it’s rare at least. This makes getting ready an even bigger production than it already was in the first place. Using a hair dryer in a hallway isn’t exactly convenient, but hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!
- The “Right” side of the road. South Africans drive on the opposite side of the road from Americans. I still find myself getting into the drivers seat of my boyfriends’s manual car (which I don’t know how to drive), only to laugh at myself then jump over the center console into the passenger seat.
- Traffic lights are called robots. Prepare for massive confusion when you’re questioned why you didn’t slow down at “the robot.” Ummm, because last time I checked there wasn’t an R2D2 compliance regulation?
- Hampers are not what you think they are. Picture this: It’s the first time I’m staying the night at my boyfriend’s place. I’m changing into pajamas and picking up the dirty laundry simultaneously. In my head: OMG look at all these dirty clothes! “Where is the hamper” I ask my boyfriend. He looks at me as if I’d asked him to paint my nails and highlight my hair. Suuuuper weird. I guess this guy doesn’t do laundry?? He responds, “Ummm. We don’t have any gift baskets here.” Obviously, at this point I am deeply confused (and contemplating what would have been in my imaginary gift basket). Fine, I didn’t want to clean up the laundry anyway! FUN FACT: In South Africa, “hampers” are raffle baskets (and have NOTHING to do with laundry). A “washing basket,” however, is what you’re looking for. Noted!
- Parking guys (car guards) line every parking lot, everywhere, to help you park your car. I have to admit, at first I found this unnecessary, but have learned to appreciate them. They help you spot a parking space and then watch over it while you’re away. Note: You should tip them when you return to your car.
- Petrol attendants pump your gas, put air in your tires and clean your windows. Who knew you’d have a more luxurious gas station experience in Africa?!
- “Just now” does NOT mean “now.” “Now now” doesn’t mean NOW either. Confused yet? Me too! South Africans have their own timeline, and their language even reinforces it! You could ask a waiter for a glass of water and get a response “Just now,” which basically means: “Yeah, when I get around to it, so just wait.” If they say they’ll go get your water “Now now,” then you may get it in the next 5 minutes. You can imagine how many misunderstandings this lead to in my relationship with a South African. Me: “Babe, can you please take the trash out?” Him: “Yeah, I’ll do it just now!” Three days and five hours later…
- Bonnets aren’t just for babies, and boots aren’t only made for walking. Ask someone in South Africa where to throw your suitcase in the car, and they’ll tell you in the boot, meaning trunk. Ask them what’s wrong with their car, and they’ll say they need to take a look under the bonnet aka. the hood. Laughter ensues.
- “Okes” are people. When you hear a guy say “Brew” to his buddy, he means “bro.” (Thank goodness for that sexy South Africa accent, though.) A sentence I heard recently: “Brew, okes were going mad at this party!”
- I didn’t know what “brew” and “okes” meant for the first 3-4 months I spent here, so you can imagine what I thought I was hearing out of the locals around town. 😂😂😂 What did they just say about a tree and a coffee at some party?! South Africans are so weird.
11. Language…for days. There are eleven official languages in South Africa. No joke. Be prepared for massive confusion and forgive yourself for not picking up any of the language. A bonus for an American like me? English is one of those languages!
Are you guys surprised by any of these like I was?
I will say this: we are SO SPOILED in the First World, especially in the United States. Back home, I had a million little comforts I never noticed, until they were gone…and not coming back anytime soon- because, well, I moved to another country.
While these little things may surprise me at first and sometimes annoy, confuse or make me laugh, I wouldn’t change a thing. Living in Cape Town has opened my eyes, and my heart, in more ways than I can describe, and that is absolutely priceless.
I know Home, and it’s many luxuries (including uni-faucets and left-side drivers), will be there when I get back. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the ride here in South Africa, idiosyncrasies and all.