Ashley and I have been in South Africa for a full two weeks now, and I can't believe how quickly it's going by. We've been busier than a springbok in summer (is that a South African saying? I don't know I just made it up.)
Thankfully, we both agreed to prioritize taking time to process everything we've experienced. For example, after a hefty few days of deep conversations, reading, and museums, we took a beach day!
Although, if I'm really honest, today I'm feeling... lost. I don't fully recognize the brands in my cupboards, there are mysterious sounds happening in and outside our building, and the 10 other languages and accents are so foreign to me.
What's going on!?
I keep thinking that I should know what I'm doing here in South Africa, but I really don't. Sure, I'm learning, but I don't see an end goal. I've always been a goal-oriented person. When I was a kid, I always needed to know what we were doing next. If I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I can get through 4 years of college and come out the other side with a Bachelor degree in theater and memories of acting like an ostrich.
But on this adventure, there is no degree to earn, no achievements to unlock, no money to gain, no measurable marks of growth. It's just the constant question: "Am I listening?"
JOSH sits at a glass dinner table while ASHLEY stares at him. Two empty water bottles, half a steak, and a bowl of steamed vegetables rest between them. He throws his hands to the side in frustration.
For the first two weeks, I felt like I was fully activated. Being in a foreign place means you can't make assumptions about what anything means; the signage is different, the air is different, the slang is different, the laws are different. My brain felt like everywhere I went, I was constantly on alert. Granted, that's also because the messaging I've received about South Africa is that it's dangerous and you need to be careful everywhere you go and never walk alone and especially not at night.
It was actually really exciting! There were a few days where I felt so CONFIDENT and ALIVE and AWARE. It was the equivalent of hearing applause at the end of a successful performance. After all the hard work, we're enjoying the bliss of a successful venture. There's this rush of adrenaline that comes from entering a sort of "flow" state after you deliberately put yourself in an unfamiliar environment and realize you're still alive.
But then, just the past few days, it faded. I was no longer excited by the discomfort; I became fearful and cautious and even reserved. Yes, ME = RESERVED? WHAT!? I wasn't ready to play because I wasn't feeling safe.
I was suddenly feeling like I really lived in South Africa. Like I suddenly was a resident. We had developed a bit of a routine in our apartment (the place we've begun to call "Our American Haven") and life was starting to feel real. The idealism was gone. The alertness of danger and the potentially imminent collapse of the government that our Uber drivers, radio shows, and friends had talked about felt palpable and normal.
Ashley and I agreed that this is why people get addicted to travel. You experience a dopamine high that excites you and gets you going... and when it fades, you just want it again. Perhaps some people do it to escape that feeling of normalcy.
So, why was I reeling? What happened to me?
Am I just uncomfortable? After all, it's not every day you're in an entirely new country surrounded by completely foreign cultures, languages, and information. But here, now, it is every day.
Or, maybe it was because I grew up in an area that was around 95% white people (I Wikipedia'd the statistics again) and now I'm in an area of 80% black people. Is my sense of caution activated because I'm now the minority?
Instead of just feeling like a total hurricane here, let me tell you a few stories.
The Third Option
I've been reading this book called The Third Option which talks about an alternative to the "us vs. them" mentality that so easily pervades our thoughts when it comes to racism. The third option presents itself when we remember that while we may look different on the outside, the heart of all people is the same (both literally and metaphorically). According to this book, 99.5% of human DNA is the same, no matter who you are. That means we have more in common than we have different. It means that ALL of the differences we see between people come from 0.5% differentiation. We all have the same needs for shelter, food, love, and water; and we're all looking to answer the same ridiculous question of "what is my purpose" in life.
Choosing the "third option" means to respect and value the inherent value inside of everyone you meet, regardless of your differences.
In order to do that, I'm having to face my own preferences and biases... and I don't like the answer I'm finding. Turns out (no surprise here) I have a tendency to surround myself with my racial in-group of white people. I need to turn my attention towards my own blind spots and start to treat my out-group just as honorably as anyone else. I can only do that if I continue to listen and learn.
The Mamelani Project
The other day, we were invited by one of our new friends (what up, Gerald?) to attend an event put on by the non-profit he works for called The Mamelani Project. They developed a Youth Development Program to provide learning opportunities for young people coming out of foster care and residential services in South Africa. "Mamelani" comes from an isiXhosa phrase that means "we must listen to each other." The event was meant to be a conversation between young adults (a group of "Changemakers") who graduated from the foster program and childcare workers. For us, it was an opportunity to listen and learn. Which is great because, like I said, that's literally all we're doing.
We met in a big empty work room in a community center. There were about 20 people there, and we started with an icebreaker where we had to find someone who had the same size ears as us. Then, we had to tell the other person "an exposable secret" and turn their secret into an action we can share with the whole group. For some, it was uncomfortable. For me, it was like being back in a theater workshop, and I LOVED IT.
Afterwards, the Changemakers took the floor and talked to us about how they're working to change a policy in a government law that would require the Child and Youth Care Centers to provide transitional services for youth to help them successfully make the transition into independent adulthood. It was so phenomenal to listen to passionate people talk about their stories, how they've grown, and how they can make a difference for other people like them. It motivated me to bring home this desire to listen and learn from people in communities unlike my own and advocate for their empowerment.
One Final Story
JOSH, ASHLEY, and SOUTH AFRICAN FRIENDS were walking alongside a scenic canal near this great big mall called "Canal Walk." They stumble upon an amphitheater built into the side of the canal. ASHLEY pushes JOSH.
This silly little moment re-invigorated my love for performing live theater again. I'd forgotten how much I love it because it's been so long. It brought us all joy and reminded me how free I feel when I perform; free from the trappings of my own mind.
Purpose is something elusive. It's not something I will wake up one day with and then be posting on social media all like "WOOHOO, LOOK, I HAVE IT! SEE?! BOOYAAH." However, the past few weeks have given me clarity on what my process needs to look like. I need to explore, I need to listen, I need to talk, I need to write, and I need to express. I've taken to journaling my feelings regularly and engaging in conversations with people IN PERSON again (despite my COVID-caused social anxiety). Whatever happens next, I want to boldly have the courage to explore, be curious, and play.
Anyway, that's where I'm at. Until next time.
With gladness and confidence,