I moved to South Africa exactly 8 years ago on the 1 August 2011. It’s been a long and bumpy road and I feel like I’ve changed a lot during my life here. Some changes are positive and amusing, others more negative and at least a bit sad. Here’s my list in no particular order:
1. I’ve Learnt to Love Peanut Butter, Avos and Rooibos
By now I think that peanut butter is amazing. However, when I first came to South Africa and my teenage ex (long story but he lied to me about his age) tried to feed me some peanut butter I’ve turned my nose up to it.
I guess especially unsweetened peanut butter is a bit of an acquired taste. Years of people sneaking it into my food and healthy treats have taught me to not only tolerate but also love it. Today, it’s one of my favourite cooking ingredients for making healthy sweets (more recipes will be uploaded soon!).
Avos were a no brainer, really. I just didn’t have much access to them earlier on in life as they were super expensive.
Rooibos tea took me some time to get used to but the health benefits made me keep drinking and eventually fall in love. A fair warning, kids: this method won’t work with everything. Sometimes you really don’t like something and that’s okay too!
2. I’ve Been Traumatised by a Number of Disgusting Things to Eat and Drink
Cream soda is a green soft drink I’ve discovered in South Africa but I believe people drink it in other places too (tfu, tfu). I consider it the most disgusting thing ever. The first time a friend tried to serve it to me to cure a hangover (when I still drank alcohol) I thought she was trying to poison me.
Another crazy thing is Milo, which is a chocolate malt powder used to make drinks with (I’m gagging as I’m telling you that).
Last but not least, there’s Marmite, which is actually British. It’s a spread made from yeast extract (like, really?).
3. I’m Used to Being Concerned About Safety
This one is pretty bleak but South Africa has major safety issues. Cape Town can be relatively safe for walking but it’s good to know where you can go and what time it is no longer or not yet a good idea. In other words, you need to be aware of your surrounding. The same goes for caring for safety of your house and car.
Touch wood I’ve been mostly lucky for all these years and apart from our car and camera being stolen, I haven’t experienced direct crime.
Even though I have my concerns, I’m still quite reasonable when it comes to safety issues in comparison to many South Africans. This is why I always recommend taking advice from expats, not locals.
The saddest thing about the concern for safety is that it doesn’t disappear when you travel. In fact, I often struggle to believe that a place is as safe as people say and I’m overly cautious. Visiting both Zanzibar and Baku and being able to walk around past 10 PM was weird and so were my trips to Poland.
4. I’ve Changed My Mind About Having an Accent
When I was still a student all I wanted to be was British-sounding. I even remember practicing articles we had to present at my Pronunciation 1 and 2 exams with a friend over and over again to the point that most people thought we were insane. I ended up getting two A’s and being proud that I can pronounce “Strawberry Daiquiri” in a way that Polish bartenders struggled to understand.
Then I moved to South Africa and I sort of stopped paying attention to how I sound. Every time someone would mention my accent (and it’s ALWAYS mentioned as a negative thing, like a defect I’m not addressing but should or to sexualise me for being Eastern European) I felt more and more defensive and protective of whatever comes out of my mouth naturally. My “f*ck you” grew even more when I noticed that no one ever asked questions about not sounding South African enough after X number of years to first language English expats (mostly Americans and Brits).
I sound like I’m not from here because I’m not and I’m unwilling to put effort into pleasing people and pretending that I’m someone I’m not.
6. I’ve Become a Nature Lover and a Fitness Enthusiast
I can attribute becoming a fitness enthusiast to living in South Africa. Cape Town is a pretty fit place, where sport events happen all year round. Friends and acquaintances regularly tell you about triathlons, marathons and cycling races.
It took me a while to find things I like to do and decide on what I’m not willing to try (a marathon, duh). However, I feel like I became much stronger both physically and mentally because I’ve been challenging myself so much.
One of the most popular sport activities around Cape Town is hiking. The obvious perks are stunning views, no cover charge and trails for all fitness levels. It’s thanks to hiking that I started to appreciate nature. I’m still not exactly a tree hugger but I understand the appeal of wilderness now.
6. I’ve Got Used to Not Having Stability
I married a South African citizen 3 years ago and I came to the country 8 years ago. I’m still on a temporary visa and if the new regulations stipulated in the latest white paper on the issue regarding permanent residence come to force I may never become a permanent resident and stay on renewable visas until I die. Unless, of course, my husband dies first. Then I’ll just have to f*ck off from the country I will have spent who knows how many years in, regardless of whether we have South African children or not as having children who are South African citizens isn’t a reason good enough to legally stay in the country (no, I’m not joking).
I sort of got used to the lack of stability. It means, among others, living in limbo and not being able to make many decisions I’d like to make such as buying a house, adopting children or others due to restrictive regulations for foreigners without the permanent resident status.
When I was moving here I was hoping to find home. I have a more love than hate relationship with South Africa but South Africa refuses to love me back (daddy issues much?). At the moment, I do feel defeated, bleak and pessimistic about our future here but still a bit hopeful.
7. I Know How to Live in the Moment
This uncertainty that has been my reality for so long has had some positive effect on me. Instead of always living in the past or the future, I have learnt to appreciate the moment. There have been many things that contributed to this change: becoming a regular meditator, quitting smoking and drinking, becoming a fitness enthusiast, healing my eating problems, addressing my many issues and finding support in a healthy relationship. All of these changes happened in Cape Town, though.
8. I Know That Being an Immigrant Is Bloody Hard
You know, when you leave your country with a Master’s Degree, some work experience and fluency in three other languages than English you think you’re the queen of the world and you’re going to slay.
In a way, I was lucky because my degree was fully recognised by the local qualifications authority and still, my CV has to be 10 times stronger than anyone’s else’s to get invited to an interview.
There are still many prejudices against me: not being a first language English speaker, having a degree from a funny country more or less 80% of South Africans never heard of, people assuming that I would need a visa even if it’s not true… Of course, I’m not the only one with this experience and almost all expats I know struggle in similar ways, whether they have degrees from their home countries or South African ones, whether they’re in humanities or not.
The rule seems to be that people from English-speaking countries struggle less but it may have to do with the fact that their native speakers OR simply with the fact they come from “better” countries. Part of the reason is also the South African (Cape Town?) labor market. And let’s not forget, the unwelcoming immigration policy.
Unless you have very specific skills in high demand, you’ll learn quickly that there are companies that hire foreigners and most foreigners work for such companies. Such companies know that foreigners struggle to find other work and often take advantage of it. This is why many foreigners, married to locals or not, leave the country.
And that my Dear Reader is another source of my heartache here: losing friends. I can’t even count how many people I have been close friends with, who’ve given up and left over the years. Since I started to date my husband four and a half years ago, I needed to look for close female friends THREE times already and with another two going soon, I’ll have only one close female friend left (this one is tough, though. She’s been here 9 years already!). Not all of them have been expats, either. It’s pretty bleak!
9. I’ve Become a Nicer and More Social Person
I guess being an expat forces you to be open to new connections and get out of your comfort zone. I’ve become better at small talk, learnt how to listen more than talk and take cool opportunities when they come.
Somehow with all the socialising I became a nicer person too and I find pleasure in being nice and helpful (as opposed to finding pleasure in being a sarcastic d*ck I was before I moved to South Africa).
10. I’m a Married Woman With a Tattoo Now
Last but not least, I should mention two other important permanent changes to my life: getting a husband and a tattoo. I thought about getting this particular husband only for a year and a half after meeting him (here you can read about lessons learnt in three years of marriage) and about this particular tattoo since 2010 (I thought it was shorter but I found a picture of a similar tattoo design from 2010). It makes sense. Husbands look much better on you when you start to wrinkle!
So here you go! I’m sure I’ve changed in other ways too but it’s already an essay so let me stop here.
Any expats with some thoughts to share? Or anyone else?