Preparing for this trip was a roller coaster of emotions. I was stressed, anxious, doubtful, and the least bit excited. Studying abroad for a semester is a long a time and large financial commitment and I was nervous about the possibility of not liking the city or not finding close friends. This was my second time studying abroad, but my first time going away for five months, and I wanted to be sure that I was making the right decision.
I lived in South Africa from July to December of 2014, studying for a semester at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Cape Town is a vibrant place where culture, nature, people, and city harmoniously intersect. This cosmopolitan city is surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains and pristine beaches and is inhabited by a diverse population of ethnic groups. Looking back, I was silly to be so worried. Feeling nervous is natural; I realized early on that I had the power to shape my experience.
It has been about five months since my return from South Africa and I still reminisce about Cape Town memories. I speak to my study abroad group and my local South African friends almost on a daily basis. With my fellow American travelers, we discuss how our learning experiences in South Africa manifest themselves during daily interactions and reflections, especially about race and privilege in the context of current events. If you do not think about race already, you will start thinking about it in South Africa and then you will never stop.
The University of Cape Town was academically rich and rigorous. My peers were diligent and ambitious and my courses challenged me to apply my knowledge in a deeper and more theoretical manner. The sociology Race, Class and Gender course I took was known amongst local students as highly educational and beneficial. In fact, there was a significant amount of students who attended lecture and actively participated in discussions that were not even enrolled in the course. We learned how to analyze events through the intersection of race, class, and gender, and we had discussions and debates about many topics such as the perpetuation of stereotypes in Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off music video, race and poverty, and the societal dynamics of domestic workers. One of the quotes that really resonated with the class and stood out to many people was:
“We are constantly trying to raise our daughters more like our sons, but when are we ever going to raise our sons like we raise our daughters?”
This quote silenced the classroom and allowed us to think about how the movement for equal gender rights extends beyond women’s empowerment.
Many of my South African classmates were well versed about global affairs including the politics and current events in the United States. The same unfortunately could not be said about many American university students. My South African colleagues could converse about President Obama’s policies, but how many American students know who the president of South Africa is?
During my mid-semester break, I traveled to Johannesburg with a few friends and our resident advisor who was from that city. Before coming to South Africa, all that I had heard about Johannesburg was about its danger and violence, so being able to experience the city with a local person gave me a new narrative to share. I fell in love with Johannesburg’s warm and friendly people and hip and lively culture. This does not erase the reality of violence in this tough city, but I feel that many people only see South Africa as a place of underdevelopment, violence, and racism and many people view the African continent in a similarly oversimplified way.
When I first arrived in Cape Town, I did not feel like I was in a different country, as most of my immediate surroundings felt very westernized. In some areas, walking through downtown Cape Town felt like walking through Oakland or San Francisco. Most everyone spoke English and I had easy access to the same food and amenities as I did in the United States. As time went on, however, I slowly realized the subtle differences that the city and local culture provided. In the United States, I do not hear Xhosa, Afrikaans and other African languages spoken on a daily basis, I cannot ride overcrowded minibuses into the city, I am not surrounded by as many international classmates, I cannot gaze at the sunset gracing Devil’s Peak every evening, and I am not able to learn about South Africa and its surrounding countries in the same personal way.
As much as I want to break the stereotypical notion of studying abroad, am I feeding into it? When someone asks me, “how was South Africa,” the first words that reach my lips spurt out that it was “amazing,” and a “beautiful country that everyone should visit.” I want to extend the conversation and tell my peers and that my experience was more than a safari trip. Living as American students in a college environment for a temporary period of time is not the same as growing up and living in South Africa as a native. We may have driven past townships, feasted on delicious braai(barbeque) in Gugulethu, or volunteered in township community centers, but our closest understanding of township living was through stories. Even as international students, each person’s picture was painted with different colors depending on their race, their friends, and what they chose to do.
Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to take a journey of a lifetime, one that changed me in more ways than I thought it would. I am still the same person, but living and studying in a country with a political and racial history as such heightened my awareness about these themes tenfold. Not only did I learn about South Africa, but I also learned about the outsider’s perspective of America. Immersing myself in a new place was just as important of a chance to learn about my host country as it was to learn and reflect about my home country and myself.
Many will recall studying abroad as a dream and a relationship. The longer you spend in your city, and the more you understand it, the more comfortable you become, and the deeper in love you fall with this new place. By the time you reach the end of your semester, you are at the peak of your comfort with the culture, transportation, and day-to-day living. Right when you are at the climax of this self-discovery and self-acknowledgment, reality in the United States beckons you to return.
This exploration had its challenges and its highlights. Studying abroad has nurtured my personal growth and maturity, shaping my outlook about life and the world. It was difficult to say goodbye to a place that I was able to call my second home, but the bittersweet feeling is just a part of living and missing a place is just a sign of how deep a connection was formed.