The Joburg Zulu in South Africa vs in Japan (part 2)

Sometimes I miss driving to work but only because of this Summer view of a Joburg morning

Okay, I admit, going into this post I told myself that I would just borrow from the other week’s structure to write part two but, unfortunately, as the past week or so of agonising has shown me, the formulaic way of writing is not always the best or the easiest. I’ve since scrapped that idea and opted to go for what feels natural. So here we go, this week I’ll talk about how I’ve experienced life as a Joburg Zulu in my time abroad.

I’ve been interested in the elements that make up one’s identity for a long time. Perhaps my most memorable expressions of this were in my final project for my degree, where I chose to explore the topics of individuality and collectivism through art (check out my project here if you wanna know more about it). The main output from that project was my attempt at a visual representation of how society’s gaze on the individual would look – a futile exercise from the start because how does one index the unindexable? Man trying to string that sentence together was tough. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s cause I need to do some academic reading to bring my brain back from the dead yal.

Anyway, fast forward 5 or so years and here I am again, putting a magnifying glass once again on that. Last week I spoke about what I’ll call the “otherness” that I’ve felt throughout my life for being a certain brand of Zulu and how I came to feel this way. This history of feeling like an other was probably one of the main factors that convinced me that I would be okay with moving overseas to a country who has very little experience with diversity as far as demographics go. I mean, at least there I would have obvious physical attributes that made it immediately obvious that I was different and should, therefore, be treated differently. So now I guess the only question is, has life here lived up to my expectation of prejudice beliefs?

Well, kind of. Here, and by here I include even among the ex-pat community that I find myself safely lodged in now, I’ve found that nobody cares. Nobody cares about most of the things I’ve fought all my life to identify as. It’s kind of tricky and hard to explain (in my brain anyway) but I’ll try.

When I first crash-landed here, I realised almost immediately that I was no longer a Joburg Zulu of any kind. I was now fully and completely South African. There was a lot of loss that came with that realisation that I don’t think I’ve fully processed yet. The main loss being the loss of my language. I video call home without fail at least once a week. I say hello to everyone and catch up on the goings-on back home. I also fill them in, on my own life here in Japan. I enjoy these chats. They are one of the few times finally I get to use the language of my forefathers, expressing everything I feel using the words and phrases I’ve bottled up all week cause no one would understand them if I used them here. Unfortunately, with every call, I can feel my tongue straining further and further away from the language I’ve known all my life. 

Because I am learning Japanese right now, I often find myself finding many similarities in words between Zulu and Japanese. It’s in these instances where I usually get a tad too excited and I’m pushed to tell someone about this funny thing that’s happened. The first time I did this I was met with somewhat of a blank stare as I talked. There were no follow-up questions. No marvelling at how interesting it was that languages could have such similar words even across such vast distances. There was nothing, not even a flinch at the fact that there was this whole other language that had formed my world view before I ever came in contact with English. If I’m honest, it feels like a part of me has been placed in the cupboard under the stairs and told not to make any noise lest the guests hear it. 

I get it though. This is Japan. It’s unlikely anyone has heard of the 12 languages (shout outs to sign language who has finally made the list this year) that make up the fibre of South Africa. The only problem with being the boy under the stairs (if you haven’t picked up that this is a Harry Potter reference by now I can’t help you) is that now that everyone has boxed me into being just an English speaker, in a way they’ve also managed to strip away what makes me proudly South African – the richness of our diverse backgrounds as South African people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked these general questions (sometimes questions as simple as “how do you pronounce Tomato in South Africa”) that have been tough to answer with the quick response that the asker is usually looking for. 

I’ve had to speak on the school system, housing, recreational activities, family life, food, music, TV habits, workplace dynamics and so much more that has sometimes left me slightly overwhelmed. I know what you are thinking, all countries have differences Nonz. I don’t know much about the world but not differences like this, surely. There’s no comfortable average experience that I feel comfortable sharing because every time I share an experience I feel like I am not being true to the experience of the majority of South Africans. Why does this matter? Well, cause in my head I imagine that one day when the friends I tell about South African life decide to visit South Africa, they may take me for a lier since what I say and what is fact won’t line up. 

I still wanted to go on about other weird ideas people have about me as a South African here but I think I have the covered the main gist of the experience. Being a Joburg Zulu in Japan is not being a Joburg Zulu at all. Perhaps it has been at the times when I have remembered this fact that I have almost struggled with issues of identity again. Luckily, a few years ago, I decided to base my identity on who God says I am rather than who my lived experience would have me believe I am. It’s an identity more steadfast than any I have had my whole life and in the most challenging times, that’s the identity that has been enough for me.


I'm a writer with some stuff on my mind.

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