Outside of our DukeEngage-Durban group, we have only encountered one other person from the United States. The Wentworth area and Durban as a whole is not a huge tourist attraction for Americans, and our difference is readily apparent in the community. The unfamiliarity with my home environment has presented its challenges, yet created different opportunities to relate to and engage with people in the community.
My first day of work was long, and I began to miss home a little bit. When I came home, my host family introduced me to our next door neighbor, and we began chatting. It was like every other introduction I had with someone here, being questioned: ‘Where in the US are you from?’ ‘Are you Christian?’ ‘What are you doing here?’ I was ready to wrap up the conversation and retreat back into my room, until he asked, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I was telling him how I like to play videogames and FIFA with my brother and he said, ‘I have it inside if you want to play.’ It was as if I had said the magic word. I love playing FIFA and enjoy every game I play with my brother and friends back at school. I was fully prepared to completely unplug and go two months without playing, though I could not deny this opportunity. I enjoyed having a shared passion with someone from another country. Finding this commonality with my new neighbor reminded me of home, and I enjoyed my time with my new friend.
While this experience was pleasant, many experiences not have been as amiable. A lot of the times when I start speaking to someone, they react funnily to my American accent. Every single time I go to the grocery store to buy something, the cashiers will snicker as they try to hold back a laugh at my word pronunciations. To be honest, it does not feel great, but as a foreigner in their country I’ve learned to accept it. However, some people are actually enamored with American heritage. I have been most surprised by the precedence ‘American’ takes in the community. Many will ask what the US is like or express their desires to travel there someday. And as an American, with many new encounters, someone will ask me to take a selfie with them. The other week, I was lucky to catch a glimpse of one individual’s phone and saw the picture we had just taken in a text message with who I assumed to be his friend. While I was immediately unenthused to see my picture with a stranger being circulated with another stranger, I could not be angry or really form much of a reaction to it. After a different picture with a different guy, he exclaimed, “My friends are never going to believe I met an American!” I have never been treated so much like a celebrity before, albeit in an uncomfortable manner. I did not want where I came from to predominate his perception of me. Rather, I sought to demonstrate despite him being from South Africa and I from America, we are both just people. Through conversation, we were able to discuss similarities and find common ground through a shared taste in his favorite music artists Ayo & Teo and Nasty C.
Finding a common ground has proved to be the best trick to communicating with people and came handy on our hike in the Drakensberg Mountains. Hannah and I fell behind the rest of the group during our first hike of the weekend, but as we trailed, we were joined by about 30 young school children, no older than seven. Very apparent by their whispering to one another, they knew we were not from the area. We would say ‘Hi’ or ‘What is your name?’ but met with silence and quickly realized they did not know any English. I do not know any sign language, but showed them Star Trek’s ‘Vulcan Salute’, and they tried to mimic it. None of them had seen it before and giggled as they struggled to replicate it. As some of them got it, I showed them a couple other finger tricks and signs and we all ended up laughing together at the amusement of the foreign hand tricks. While no words were exchanged during the whole 30-minute interaction, the ability to communicate through signs and shared emotion became our common ground.
While varying in language and having differing perceptions of one another, finding a common ground with people has been the biggest skill I have learned since being here. I have enjoyed the variety of ways of connecting with people in Durban, and learned people truly do bond through a shared laugh, smile or emotion.