Kate Thompson’s Tea and Biltong with the Queen:
Leaving home is a virtually universal experience, whether it’s a minor move from your folks’ home to your own place just down the road, or a major one like emigrating – it can be a heady mix of emotions, simultaneously exciting and terrifying. When I first moved away to university I had a small taste of this, but it didn’t compare to the experience of moving overseas.
I thought I’d minimised the shock by picking a country with similarities to my own, and at least one I knew a little about.
Speak the same language – check!
Have family to house me for the first little while – check!
Familiarity with the culture? Well, let’s see: Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, an obsession with horses and dogs –check, check, check!
Well, the thought process wasn’t quite as naïve and clichéd as that, but I did think I’d thought it out and was prepared, but the truth is I hadn’t a clue. Culturally, despite being brought up in an English speaking family in an ex-British colony, it turns out (insert sigh of relief here) we have nothing in common.
It is so hard to pin down what South African culture is. Maybe we could venture a guess at some familiar pillars of Xhosa culture, of Ndebele or Afrikaans or English South Africans – but we’d be hard pressed to narrow it down in any meaningful way. And that’s not nearly as hard as describing South African culture, with tons of languages, peoples, and influences. I’m not a sociologist or an ethnographer, and I doubt even their ability to do that, – but, here’s the kicker, it doesn’t matter!
You don’t have to pin down the culture of your home to know that it exists. It’s something so ingrained, so subtly learnt that you don’t know that you’ve learnt to read the signs or even that there are any signs for you to read, until the signs change (when you wake up on another continent, for example).
This may contain a few overused examples, (we all know why something becomes a cliché, after all), but below is a list of some good South African words, phrases and understandings:
1. “Now” – this is great word. It can be used to mean this minute, or in an hour or two. Combined with “just” or repeated as in “just now” and “now now”, this tiny simple word can mean virtually any time without ever being specific.
2. “Howzit, how are you?” – no, I haven’t just repeated myself. One is a greeting and one is question – obviously!
3. “Ja no” – another absolutely nonsense phrase which adds little of worth to a sentence, except for what it adds in colour. Can be used instead of “um”, as in “Do you have the keys? Ja no, I last saw them in the kitchen”.
4. Bilingual and Creative swearing – most South Africans speak at least two languages, and even those we don’t speak we hear often enough to learn the fun and useful bits. I love swearing in Afrikaans and Xhosa round the office and getting away with it, while the office manager has a go at other staff for saying innocuous things like “Damn”. Oh, and South Africans love a good euphemism. My personal favourite is “Ooooh, veldskoen!”
5. The Metric System – the simple decimal system that the two most powerful nations in the world can’t wrap their simple heads around. It’s just easier folks!
6. “Robot” – traffic lights are robots. Sure it’s a little old fashioned sounding, but they’ll never be anything else to me. Oh, and this applies to “packet” too. I get blank looks when I ask for one here because in the UK they’re simply “bags”.
7. “Pavement special” – don’t make the mistake of referring to a cute mix breed dog as this. People in England take pedigree seriously, far too seriously. Maybe that’s why they still have a royal family?!
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