I can’t count how many times I had been told by my family and friends before coming to university that I was going to have to undergo an enormous transition as I adjust to living with people of so many different backgrounds and beliefs. They were right, but they were also wrong. Let me explain.
Afrikaans vs. English
I explained in part 2 of The Student Life that although I felt a bit uncomfortable and out of place to be surrounded by so many white people, race had never been a big issue for me. What really stood out for me were, ironically, the more subtle differences that we all had.
For instance, language. Not only is there a specific accent attributed to people of the same race (this isn’t necessarily always true), there are also minute differences between people from different regions, and even from different backgrounds. It was also interesting to see the Afrikaans and English guys communicating. Because Stellenbosch – and Wilgenhof in particular – is majority Afrikaans, the guys, when speaking to me, would automatically speak in their home language. When I responded in English – my home language – most of them would get this sheepish look on their faces and immediately switch to English.
For those of you who don’t know, there is currently some tension on the campus of Stellenbosch regarding language. As I said before, Stellies is mainly Afrikaans; the fact that many lecturers and students use their home language as a method of communication apparently upsets a few non-Afrikaans people, and they would see the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in SU completely removed. Now, I would empathize with their plight if it weren’t so damn hypocritical. Many of these non-Afrikaans students cry “racism” in defense of their movement, saying that it is “racist and unconstitutional” for them to be forced to learn in a language that is not their home language. Only, no-one is forcing them. SU is one of the only (if not the only) universities in in South Africa that still offers courses in Afrikaans; however, all courses are available in Afrikaans and English, and all study material and tests are presented in both Afrikaans and English. I fail to see how forcing people to get rid of their heritage and culture – when it isn’t being “forced” on you – isn’t racist as well. This isn’t meant to be a political post, though, so I’ll stop here with my ranting.
Even after I explained to almost all of the Afrikaans guys that it’s okay if they speak in their home language to me, as long as I can respond in English, most still refused. To be honest, I wasn’t doing this because I’m such a nice guy and I wanted everyone to be free and equal to speak in whatever language they wanted; I did it because my Afrikaans sucks balls and I really need to get it up to scratch.
You know when someone says something to you, and you can’t hear what they said, so you say, “What?” Then the person repeats what they said, but you still can’t hear what they’re saying, so you say, “What?” They repeat it for a third time and because you still can’t hear them you just laugh and say, “Yeah.” I am the person repeatedly saying “What?” whenever someone speaks fluent Afrikaans at a speed anywhere faster than a tortoise making sweet, sweet love.
What’s up with the shorts and flip-flops?
I swear, it can be storming, fucking raining cats and dogs with Thor himself thundering about in the sky, and you will still see guys wearing shorts and plakkies (flip-flops, though I’ve also heard them being called ‘G-string sandals’). Statistically, on such a bad weather day, about every 3 in 10 guys you see will be dressed like that. On a relatively ‘nice’ day, those are the stats for the guys not dressed like that.
For my family, I was always considered weird because I could wear shorts and walk barefoot no matter how cold it was outside, as long as I was warm on the top half of my body. That was considered “weird” back home. Here, in Stellies, it’s just your normal everyday outfit. In Wilgenhof, the shorts and plakkies are an even bigger deal; look at most of the photos of us guys together, and you will see what I’m talking about: incorporate a shirt and tie into the equation and you can consider yourself classy.
Knife and Fork
Okay, many of you probably won’t relate to this one. As a Cape Malay individual, from a Cape Malay community, our food is not usually eaten with a knife and fork. It’s part of Islamic tradition to eat with your hands, but if you really want to, you can eat with a fork and it’s chilled. Come to my house and eat with a knife and fork and watch how everyone stops their meal and looks at you weirdly. Before coming to Wilgenhof, I had never before in my life seen anyone eat roti and curry with a knife and fork. It was like watching a monkey on roller-skates!
The meals that I grew up with were very flavour-rich, and were quite spicy (I didn’t know just how spicy until I let someone who had never eaten chicken curry before try my mom’s; I thought he was going to die). Now, I’m not calling the food I’ve eaten here bland, I’m just saying that it’s different to what I’m used to.
(Also, anyone who says that the food in residence is better than the food they get back home needs to have a culinary intervention).
If anyone’s interested, here are some good foods that I would regularly eat back home that I would definitely recommend (including the roti and curry referenced earlier):
- Cape Malay mutton curry
- Lamb or Chicken Breyani
- Tamatoe bredie
- Traditional Malay koeksisters (perfect on Sunday mornings)
- Buttermilk bolla
The Real Cultural Shock
I thought I had experienced it; this grand cultural shock that everyone kept speaking about. I thought I had seen all the weird things that other people do and say and wear, and I had survived, and now I was a more culturally aware person. Boy, was I wrong.
Yes, coming to university is a cultural shock, don’t get me wrong. It is hard for people to adjust to this new environment, and for them to get over their differences; some aren’t even able to. I have a close friend who was not able to cope in this new environment and felt it “Wasn’t for [him],” so he left. What I’m saying is that the real cultural shock comes after: when you go back home for the first time.
Okay, many guys again probably won’t agree with me, because for them, coming to Stellenbosch and living in Wilgenhof wasn’t such a big difference in their lives. Being in a majority-Afrikaans environment and staying in an all-male residence was something that they were used to by now; but it wasn’t for me. And I think that the deep and secret traditions of Wilgenhof added to the impact I felt when I went home the first time.
There were things I said in the car ride home (I won’t repeat them here) that my mom and sister found completely strange. They had no idea what I was talking about, and I immediately missed being back at Willows, with guys who would have known what I was talking about. When I got home and had a shower, I felt oddly lonely with no-one to have a chat with while shampooing my hair. I remember my mom looking at me strangely when I emerged from the bathroom, a frown on her face. “Since when do you sing Afrikaans songs in the shower?” she asked, and I felt taken aback: I hadn’t even realized that I had been singing Afrikaans songs. It had become an automated mechanical response to being in a relaxing environment.
Then there were my friends. Some were studying, some were working, and, even though some of them were sitting at home doing nothing, I never saw them, for whatever reasons. I begun to feel lonely. I missed being able to open my room door and instantly have dozens upon dozens of guys I could just walk up to and have a chat with. I wanted to go out for a beer, but then I realized my friends are mostly non-drinkers and my family are Muslim – they don’t even know that I’m an Atheist. Even though I had no complaints about the food at home, I missed sitting at the table in the dining hall with five other guys, eating and chatting about whatever happened to be on the tip of our tongues at that moment. Conversation at the table at home was forced, strained; I was the first one in my family to go to University, and they had no idea what to say to me, and I had no idea what to say to them. It was a weird experience, and I was glad to see Wilgenhof again.
If you’ve been following all these Student Life posts so far, let me know what you think. What would you like to see more of? What would you like to see less of? Otherwise, I’ll just post funny memes about socialism and that will be that.