The Other Side of the Atlantic Pond

Pitzer College

Simphiwe Ngwane is currently an exchange student at Pitzer College for the spring 2010 semester and is from Pietermaritzburg in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is 21 years of age and studying towards a Bachelors of Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College campus with majors in History and Classical Civilization. He arrived in the U.S on the 12th of January 2010 and it has thus far “been a truly sublime experience filled with ups and downs as expected.”

After the excruciatingly long flight (16 hours 40 minutes!!!) from Durban International via O.R Thambo Airport (Johannesburg, South Africa), I finally arrived in the United States of America. But before my tale begins, I want to share something: the absolute worst thing about flying is that you can check on the GPS where exactly you’re flying over, and it’s just so disheartening when you’ve been flying for some hours to find out that you’re only over Windhoek in Namibia. Ok back to my tale…Atlanta airport was my first stop in the wee hours of Tuesday morning; I tried to portray a calm, cool and collected demeanor, got my South Africa swagger going and proceeded to customs. Everything was above board and in order, as it should have been, but one can’t shake off the fear of being questioned by US officials; I guess watching Gavin Hood’s Rendition a week before wasn’t a good idea.

Once through customs I proceeded to get my luggage and to go across to catch my next flight to LAX. On my arrival at the luggage area I encountered a whole regiment of US soldiers…Bollocks… it would seem I was living the edited scenes of Rendition. I ended up missing my connecting flight to LAX but was put on the night flight. It was also at Atlanta that my “confusion” began: at the check-in desk, an African American attendant was tending to my flight dilemma, for some odd reason I greeted her in isiZulu…I soon realized my error and switched back to English. I didn’t pay much thought to the error, I simply dismissed it as fatigue or something like that but this “situation” would in future weeks manifest itself.
I eventually arrived in LAX and finally in Claremont, picturesque as I’d imagined, truly sublime. Pity I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to take it all in on my first day though. Waking up in a new country, strange bed and to silence was umm…different to say the least. It was strange not waking up to the sound of hardidars and the screeching Indian Miners but at that very moment I didn’t miss them, I was in the US baby!!!

Anthropologists say to best understand another culture is to immerse oneself in it; I couldn’t agree more with them after spending four weeks in Pitzer College. True to form Pitzer College is eco-friendly and prides itself on reducing its carbon foot print but it’s also multicultural (to my great delight). Being South African one cannot help but be aware of different cultures and ethnic groups; it’s simply part and parcel of being a South African. Admittedly I’ve had my dosage of American films and sitcoms which had painted an interesting picture of American society. So with my preconceived ideas I set out to find out if they had any merit or were they simply stereotypes.

The Pitzer College Spring Semester International group composed of twenty-five students all came from different corners of the globe and were different in every way possible; we only had one common denominator, we were all foreigners. Within the group there were those that shared common interests, studies, languages and before long Cupid had intervened too for some. One generally tends to gravitate to people that share the same interests to their own and sometimes people of your own ilk. It is a natural occurrence I guess, one’s yearning to be among people of one’s ilk, since among one’s ilk you feel more comfortable and are able to express oneself. I’m very conscious of being the only black person in the international group. I guess that’s my racially conscious South African within seeping out. To overcome this “ethnic consciousness” I devised a plan: I’d combat it by gravitation to the closest people of my own ilk, African Americans.
This was a flawless plan I reckoned, easy peasy, it shouldn’t be much effort. Boy was I wrong. First of all I needed to hone my friend-making skills which I hadn’t used for quite some years (flip they might have expired…). Being an International student one has the allure of being “exotic” so I thought I’d use that to my benefit. Sadly as quick as the allure spark ignites, it fades just as quickly. There’s little you can entice the “locals” with since we’re so different. They have established friendships, engage in similar activities and some most probably attended the same high school. With that in mind I set out to befriend some locals, I adopted the seemingly textbook tactic #1 when walking towards someone who’s interesting: look up, try to make eye contact, smile and nod your head. Classic approach which I executed with much ease. I was quite chuffed with myself for a job well done.

I practiced the tactic for a week or two. Some encounters led up to conversations which normally went something like this: “Hi there, where you from? NICE, will you be home for the World Cup? Are you at Pitzer College? Me too, guess I’ll see you around then, bye.” As you notice the conversation starts off well, and being South African in 2010 has its perks, sadly the encounter never buds to anything more then a casual “Hi there” on campus. It was finally time to execute my newly honed skills on my target niche, African Americans. It really shouldn’t be that difficult, I’ve watched some Tyler Perry movies and I’ve also watched Don Reo and Damon Wayan’s My Family. What I’m essentially trying to say is that I have a vague notion of African American people, through the media. Well, I set off on my attempt and eureka it worked, ok… I got a smile and a polite nod nothing more. It’s a start I guess. As the days go by I truly want more, more than just a simple smile and head nod, I want to go beyond the textbook tactic. I guess my natural gravitation to people who are seemingly of my “own” ilk just isn’t natural after all… or was my assumption that we’re somewhat similarly warped? I guess I’ll just have to find that out during the remaining months of my exchange.

Walking up Yale Avenue with a vanilla latté in my hand whilst listening to Freshground (South African band) on my mp3 this all still seems so surreal. I’m finally getting used to seeing blue jays ducking in and out of the hedges, seeing squirrels in trees instead of vervet monkeys. Come May the 16th, I fly back to South Africa. What will I take back? Will I be a changed person? These and other philosophical questions will have to be answered as the semester wanes to an end, but for now I shall enjoy the beautiful game of beer pong and the $1.99 Californian zinfandel, cheers.