Sunday, August 15, 2010

Breakfast in America

Part 5: Arlene had the chance to spend a year in the United States as an AFS exchange student. This proved to be quite an experience for someone growing up in a sheltered manner in South Africa. Here’s Arlene discussing her year in Shelby, North Carolina.

The big day finally arrived. My flight to the US was an early morning flight. I was happy about that because an early flight meant I could just wake up and go to the airport, no waiting around all day.

I think it was a Sunday morning when we went to the Jan Smuts Airport (today it’s the Johannesburg International Airport). My parents and sisters were there, as well as my friend Laetitia and my boyfriend Ian. My mom was crying but I don't remember being sad. My sisters looked dazed and bewildered. I don't think any of us really understood what was happening. I was just so excited. I'd never left the country, none of us had ever been on an airplane, not even locally. I started taking pictures before the airplane took off.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for a father of a seventeen year old daughter? To put her on a plane and say I'll see you in a year?  Whatever their concerns were at the time, all I ever heard from my parents was, “We're so proud of you. Go.” I only know now from stories they told me how worried they were and how much they missed me. And my sisters too. They told me later how much they cried that year. I was so caught up in the excitement and stuff that I didn't realize until I got to the US what a sacrifice my family made for me.

There were twenty of us South African exchange students on the plane. We all sat together and the moment felt exactly how I had imagined it would be. We flew from Johannesburg to Dakar, Senegal (on the west coast of Africa) to refuel and then straight to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Oddly enough, by the time we landed at JFK, I remember being very concerned with what time it was. I was starting to miss my boyfriend. I was also anxious to get to North Carolina. I guess I already considered it my home away from home.

My first few days in the States was spent in an orientation program with all the other AFS exchange students from around the world. It was like one big fat melting pot. We stayed at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, just outside of New York City. It was summertime and we took over the whole campus for the four days of orientation. I was a rather quiet person, so I stuck mostly to myself while a lot of the other kids would stay up at night talking. One evening I was lying in bed and there was a Supertramp song playing from where the other kids were partying. My boyfriend's favorite band at the time was Supertramp. I started crying my eyes out. I was so sad. Yet I never questioned my decision. I didn't want to turn back or anything, but the realization started to grow that there was a long road ahead of me.

Every day we had group meetings where they taught us about the currency and US traditions. I also remember them telling us to make sure that we girls shave our legs and armpits. On the fourth day, each of us got a piece of paper that said, at this time the next day, be at the bus which would take us to the airport. I remember it was early in the morning again when I departed for North Carolina.

I was met in Charlotte, North Carolina by my host mother, Jessi Ogburn. She was by herself because she didn't want me to feel overwhelmed meeting the whole family at once. She said she was looking forward to spending the hour drive from the airport to the house just chatting with me. That was perfect in my book because I was so nervous. I remember the luxury of air conditioning in the car, and how polite Jessi was about making sure I was cool enough. At home in South Africa, if you were hot in the car, you rolled down the windows! It was very strange sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road.

The Ogburns were wonderful people. The mom was a teacher, the dad an accountant and they had three kids; two girls and a boy. And their home! It was this beautiful old southern home with a big porch. Coming from a small three bed, one level brick ranch in Benoni, I was amazed by the Ogburn’s house. Even now, I get chills thinking about it. I had my own bedroom, my own bathroom, closets, beautiful windows and this carpet that you could bounce on.

Another difference was the way the houses looked driving down the street; rolling lawns from one home to the next. I would wonder where does one yard end and the other begin? Everyone I knew in South Africa had a fence around their property. They started as decorative fences but as the troubles grew, they became solid walls and then high walls, some with electric fencing on top. I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of fences in America, just endless rolling lawns.

The Ogburns led busy lives; they were always taking lessons in this, that or the next thing. Carolyn, their oldest, was all ready at college. Katherine, their second child was gifted in a lot of areas; she was a talented pianist and very smart, and their son was involved in a lot of sports. Yet there was a definite unified family feeling with the Ogburns. They were a close knit family like mine back home.

The first thing I did that summer in Shelby was go to band camp with the high school marching band playing the tri-toms. Tri-toms are three drums that hang from a metal harness. I had already been in the pipe band at Benoni High School for four years (South African champions, by the way) playing the tenor drum so I guess I had drumming on the brain. Band camp was awesome. A lot of our practices were from three in the afternoon until six at night and it was kind of beautiful with the sunset and all. And crazy doing all this marching.

My first day of school was nerve wracking. All I had ever known in South Africa was uniforms so the idea of picking what to wear to school was stressful. And I knew nobody. My host brother was too young to be in high school. My host sister was in the grade below me so all I knew were the few people I had met in marching band camp.

Yet from the day I got there, I was like a celebrity. On my AFS application, one of the questions was if I had a nickname. I wrote down Linky (as in Lynx), but I didn't think anyone would call me that. Little did I know I was going to be introduced to Shelby High School as Linky Dickinson, and not as Arlene. "This is Linky Dickinson from Africa" they'd say. To this day, anyone I'm still in touch with from Shelby calls me Linky.

And that was another peculiar point. I had to explain a million times that South Africa was the name of my country, and not just the southern portion of the African continent. Then the kids would ask me to say something in Afrikaans. I think I spent most of the year saying, "Something."

My celebrity status never seem to wear off. Maybe because I was the only exchange student in my town. Or maybe because I wasn't from someplace more familiar like France. I was a white African. Some people told me they didn't know there were white people in Africa. 

For the most part, I didn’t have any problems with culture shock or anything like that. The southern accent took a little getting use to. Sometimes my host dad and I would just completely misunderstand each other because of our accents. American cuisine was really no trouble for me. I had ambrosia for the first time and I thought it was delicious. Breakfasts were a little unfamiliar to me. Grits, eggs, bacon and sausage would be piled high on a single plate. Not the simple eggs and bacon with the toast on the side plate like I was use to. And the syrup! People in Shelby seem to put syrup on everything. Syrup at breakfast was unheard of in South Africa. I love the fact that we had donuts though. We used to heat them up in the oven and, let me tell you, they were divine.

While AFS provided us with some pocket money, I got a few jobs babysitting to earn some extra money. This was a new concept for me. In South Africa, the maids were the babysitter. In the US, if you needed someone to look after the children, a person was hired just for that. And, more notably, the babysitters were considered a social equal and not “just the maid.”

Once a month there were AFS weekends. They would gather all the local exchange students and have some activities for us. We'd also get a chance to give presentations about ourselves and where we were from. There was a whole mix of us from many different countries. It was at these weekends that I made some really, really good friends. Some kids seemed to have trouble adjusting to their life in the US or to their host families. It seemed to me that it was more an issue of personality clashes or that the kids were more interested in parties than the cultural experience. But I came from a conservative home. I was familiar with rules and church every Sunday, respecting your parents and all that stuff, so I was quite content in my host family.

Being an exchange student, I was asked to speak in front of other groups about my country. Before I left South Africa, we were told that we would be giving presentations about ourselves and our countries. So I took photographs and made them into slides. I had huge anxieties about public speaking. I figured if I had a slide show, I could stand in the back and speak from behind the people. Despite what was going on in my country at the time, very few people asked me about politics or Apartheid. I remember at first correcting people on the pronunciation of Apartheid, but later gave up on that. Politics didn’t seem to come up; to them, I was just an interesting South African kid.

One thing that stuck in my mind about Americans was their patriotism. I’d frequently see American flags on homes, on cars and even clothing. In South Africa, there would be flags on schools and public buildings but to see one on a private home was very unusual. In the 80’s, the  South African flag started to become less a symbol of South Africa and more of a symbol of Apartheid. But Americans seemed proud of their country and not afraid to show it. At times, I was almost envious of the sense of patriotism Americans had because I just didn’t feel that way about my own country. It hurt to see what the South African government was doing to it’s own people.

Rarely did any of my peers ask me about political stuff. Some of them didn't even know what was going on. Like I mentioned before, very few even knew there were white people in South Africa, much less that there was a distinction between the English and the Afrikaner. I was mostly asked what the drinking age was in South Africa, how fast you could go on the highway, what we did for fun. Some people would approach the subject of politics but on a very superficial level. I do remember one guy, though. 

Aaron was a senior in my class. He was African-American and we became very good friends. He was the only one with whom I had real, deep conversations about what was going on in South Africa. He knew a lot about the situation and the key players in it like Mandela, Buthelezi, and deKlerk. He would ask me my opinion about events and I think he was surprised by my responses. I told him that I didn’t like how the black South Africans were being treated either. I told him that quite a lot of white South Africans were trying to do the right thing. Yet, he challenged me to take more of a stand, and conversations with him really made me think.

Nelson Mandela
Mangosuthu Buthelezi
F.W. deKlerk

Since phone calls were expensive, I hardly ever called home. Instead, my family and I exchanged a ton of letters. My parents never expressed to me if they were worried or heartbroken. They just kept me updated on family news. Anything I knew about the political situation in South Africa really came from my host parents. My host mom and dad were very well informed. They were huge newspaper readers, huge news watchers, CNN was on every morning. They were up on what was going on, and I learned from them. But they didn't push it on me. We had a lot of conversations about South Africa and what it was like growing up there. But what was shown on TV about South Africa made me angry. It was always just the riots and the bombs and the craziness and the fires. They never showed the beauty of the land itself, or how we were living or how we were trying to uplift ourselves, trying to help each other out and all of this other stuff. I used to say to the Ogburns, “I promise you, it's not like that everywhere. There are normal lives going on, business as usual.” What occurred to me in hindsight was that while we had normal lives with activities like trips to the seaside for vacation, ‘normal’ also included bomb threats, security walls, and people being oppressed.

miss the first parts? click on part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4