Hey gang, as per my last post, you probably know that I decided to fly out to South Africa to enjoy my December break in true South African style, with family, friends and my people (i.e. all of South Africa – KFC wedding was lit yal). I’m sitting in the airport in Shanghai right now waiting for my final flight to Japan and as exhausted as I am, I can feel some words itching to get out of me so here we are.
Reverse culture shock is a topic you hear about often from those living abroad. As the name suggests, reverse culture shock is exactly like culture shock, but for the things you associate with home. An example would be how some people will marvel at the products and services that they have forgotten that their home countries sell whilst others break into anxiety attacks when a luxury they had come to enjoy in their new country is not available back home. It might sound strange but people do find themselves dealing with a reality where the familiar becomes strange to them once they’ve spent enough time surrounded by the unfamiliar. People are suffering yal.
So because this is such a hot topic, I figured, even before I boarded my first ChinaAir flight to Joburg, that I would be extra vigilant to this thing called reverse culture shock so that I could share my experiences. I looked for reverse culture shock everywhere I went and in every experience I had. I was in SA almost a full two weeks from the 20th of December to the 3rd of January but I couldn’t find it.
Having taken a 5 month break from the road, I drove my sister’s car on occasion while I was home and I expected to freak out and feel the shock then but nada! I went to malls and shopping centres the likes of which I can only dream of having in Omura City and I couldn’t find it there either. I hung out with my friends expecting to be shocked at all the none-japanesy mannerisms they had or topics they engaged in and still zero. I even spent 10 days having to interact with the South African health care system and still zilch. Where was this reverse culture shock I had heard so much about? Why wasn’t I feeling it?
I’ve been asking myself this question every day for the past couple of weeks. At some point, I made peace with the fact that maybe I just haven’t been away long enough to experience it. My measly 5 months in Japan still counts as vacation time. My brain isn’t going to let me freak out over vacation time right? This was the conclusion I held on to until today when I found myself back in the foreign land that is China, making my way back to Japan.
Guys! China is a lot. When I say a lot, I mean in all regards, when I first came through this route (Osaka to Beijing to Shenzhen to Johannesburg), I was traumatised. Having come from the tranquil peace that has become my life in Japan, I can confidently say that I was not ready for all the tom-fuckery. I had a hectic case of culture shock, from the people, the staff, the transport system, the interpersonal space situation, just everything and by the time I reached Joburg, after hours of holding back tears from the experience, I was relieved to be home. I told myself the flight back would be better, that at least now I knew what to expect, and I even had an airport buddy to look forward to seeing again (I love meeting new people yal, I’ll tell you all about it one day). Boy was I wrong.
Today was another day in China! But to be fair, my experiences this time around have been more positive. I am finding myself marvelling at all that China has to offer, over and above Japan and South Africa. I’ve spent around 10 hours in total today as part of my layovers here and it’s given me a chance to slow down and take everything in. I can’t describe it clearly right now, but everything about the Shenzhen and Pu Dong airports shows off how China is competing to be a big player in a world that is globalising. The international airport actually feels like international space. They’re using the latest tech to make sure their citizens get through the airport quickly, leaving the airport with more human resources to deal with foreigners filtering through the system.
Anyway, I think I went a bit off track. So you see, I have experienced the mind-numbing wonders of culture shock. The ones that leave you broken inside and almost unable to function in an environment. There was none of that in Johannesburg though. What I did get surprised me though. I had a new sense of pride and appreciation for my nation, cracks and all. Instead of being overwhelmed by having to drive on the big open highways or even the big open streets in my neighbourhood, I found myself rejoicing. When I tapped my bank card on the Point of Sale terminal to pay for my groceries, my heart did a two-step and skip from joy. Load shedding? Oh, you mean family bonding time? Loved it! Walking the lanes of the grocery store to find rows and rows of options for every single item felt right! This is the capitalism I’ve grown to love. Everything was so easy. Everything made sense for the year of our Lord 2019.
But was this because of vacation mode? I doubt it. Today, the conclusion I have come to is that as a South African, multiplicity is a state of being. I say this because as a South African, you tend to live in two, three, six or even more very distinct realities. These realities find themselves colliding regularly. The realities of having and not having. Whether you are born with a golden spoon in your mouth, or a copper one or no spoon at all, you are always living on the edge of all realities. As much as we knew the luxury of having a car at home, we also knew the struggle of having to use public transport to get around. As much as we knew the luxury of having money for lunch at school, we also knew the struggle of having to carry a dry ass polony sandwich for lunch every day for what could be weeks. Others had less than us and we were not shielded from their lived experience, neither were we shielded from those who had much more than us. It’s this multiplex of realities that I believe has prepared the majority of South Africans for most types of living situations abroad. Whichever side of the fence you are from, you know how to deal with all types of “yards” because you have come into contact with how the “other side” lives at least once in your life.
So when you move to another place and you find that they still use fax machines and hard cash for transactions or reams and reams of paper as if the Amazon is not in danger, you shrug your shoulders and accept it. Or even if you find that they use their phones to transact and transport is a few taps of an app away or having no less than 3 mega malls in a town is a norm you shrug your shoulders again and accept it because you’ve seen this somewhere back home before. But if I’m this super South African, how did China break me then, you may ask? Well, a commonality with all the places I have enjoyed visiting abroad (I know I just had a short layover in China but oh man that was enough), has been the spirit of the people. In Zulu, I would say they had ubuntu regardless of skin and language differences, and that’s just something I didn’t feel during my layover. Does this mean I would suffer reverse culture shock if I moved between that environment and home? I don’t think so. Even though there are many people we may come across in this world that do us wrong, I don’t ever believe that they could ever normalise unkindness to the point where I would be shocked to be received by the kindness that overflows in my beautiful South Africa.