South Africa was amazing. I loved my time there. I saw so many beautiful things and made some great friends. However, I sometimes struggled with language barriers and cultural differences—culture shock.
South Africa has eleven official languages, nine indigenous and two colonial. South Africans speak any one of the eleven languages, one of which is English. English, however, is not many South Africans first language. Those who speak the other ten languages, though, learn English as a second language in order to communicate with each other and participate in state activities like education.
I was warned that this multitude of language might be straining, but my language challenges originated within my exchange program rather than South Africa at large.
I was the only American in the program. This meant I was also the only native English speaker. I gather that this is a common experience for Americans in UP’s exchange program.
In some ways, this gave me an advantage over my peers. It was easier for me to understand professors, read and write assignments, and communicate with locals. Everyone spoke my first language at least to a certain degree.
In other ways, this isolated me. Understandably, no one wants to speak in their second or third language all the time. This meant if I was in an all, say, Dutch-speaking group, they tended to speak only in Dutch. This left me out of the conversation, often confused about plans.
I logically knew that my friends did not do this to hurt me. I knew they enjoyed my company. Yet, situations like this mentally and emotionally wore on me. It made me feel like they didn’t care about me, like I was nothing to them, like I was invisible.
And though my English skills helped me, almost no one I encountered was on my level. School officials and my friends all spoke excellent English, but it was never native American English. I had to exert extra energy to focus on what others said, either because of their accents or their phrasing. I did not have the easy flow of conversation that comes from speaking to someone who has the same first language.
Beyond language, culture played a part, though more minor, in my frustrations. My friends appreciated me as an individual but, especially those from Europe, often made references to unfavorable American stereotypes. My love for peanut butter and Coca-Cola earned me innumerable obesity jokes. My ignorance of Angela Merkel spurred multiple conversations about Americans’ uncultured self-centeredness. I don’t even like Donald Trump, but I hated hearing derogatory comments about him because for them, he represented the United States.
I didn’t have anyone to share these frustrations with, who would understand them on a personal level, and that made them harder to handle. Even worse, I was the only one who had this problem. Everyone else in the program had at least one person from their home country. While my two Mexican friends celebrated Mexico’s Independence Day and Day of the Dead together, I worried about what Thanksgiving would be like as a celebration of one.
It makes me feel unnecessarily guilty, but I went home a few weeks early to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Finals were over, I had no more travel plans, and I was done with culture shock.
I changed my flight without telling anyone except my sister and surprised my family the day before Thanksgiving. It was its own amazing experience.
I want to make it very clear that I loved my time in South Africa. I wouldn’t take it back for the world. I enjoyed being a resource to my friends who wanted to improve their English, and I liked that as the first American many of my friends had personally known, I could project a favorable image of my country.
But my struggles were real, and I want to share them. I received one small warning about these issues, and maybe if I had known more, I could have been better prepared.