Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Going Home

Part 6: Arlene just spent a year living with a family in the American south. Little did she realize that going home required almost as much re-acclimation as going away did.

The first few months I was in Shelby, I was exceedingly homesick. Almost to the point of being depressed. I didn't make as many friends. All I wanted to do was come home and see if there was a letter for me. Especially from my boyfriend. I missed him. I remember sharing with my host family a little bit but mostly I just kept it to myself because I didn't want them to feel bad for me. In retrospect, I regretted that I was so upset those first few months because I felt like I wasted time.

Towards the second half of my year, I started socializing a lot more. I started acting more like an American teenager. I turned 18 while I was in Shelby and that made me legal to buy alcohol. So I would go to convenience stores and buy wine coolers. My friends and I would go where the school buses were, climb in one and drink. We were never caught and I don't think my host family knew. Or maybe they did but chose not to say anything. Regardless, we didn't go crazy, just mostly show up at church on Sunday with a hangover.

When I look back over my year, if I had to point to the best part of my experience, it was about the people that I met; my host family and my friends. I got to meet hundreds of people and was able to make a few really close friends. And the experiences that I had were so much fun; homecoming, the prom, band concerts, marching band competitions, going to the Biltmore Mansion in Ashville.

Leaving Shelby was hard. I had really connected with a lot of people and I had no idea if I would ever see any of them again. I spent my last few days in Shelby spending time as much time as I could with my friends.

Before we left the US, AFS took us on a two week tour of the East Coast. We made various stops on our way up to New York City. We would usually stay on college campuses but there was one stop where I stayed with an Orthodox Jewish family. While I was with them for only one night, they seemed like fun people and the father broke my stereotype of the stoic Jewish man in the black suit. But I definitely got a taste of the North-South dynamic with them. They made a few weird remarks about southerners which, while I don't remember exactly what they were, I do remember the comments being inaccurate. They also seemed very much against the white South African "regime" as they referred to it.

The tour ended in New York City on the Fourth of July. We spent the whole day there and in the evening saw the annual fireworks show. It was amazing. The next day, we departed from JFK for home.

I was depressed, depressed, depressed.  I was looking forward to seeing my family, but I wasn't ready to leave not knowing when I would see my American or AFS friends again.

I remember before I left South Africa for the US, a reporter from the Benoni City Times did an interview with me. He said he would give me like ten rand if I came back weighing the same. He said most girls who went to the United States put on a lot of weight. I came back the same weight, if not smaller. I think it was from all the marching. But when I got home, he was there, he did an interview and I got my money.

Ian, my South African boyfriend, and I were faithful to each other for the first six months that I was in America. Then we decided that was too hard to do, being so far apart.  I ended up going to the prom with somebody and then in May, before I returned to South Africa, I met the catcher of the baseball team, Brad. We spent a lovely summer together. But when I landed at Jan Smuts Airport, Ian was there. And the understanding was we would get back together, which we did.

The day I landed back home was crazy because my whole family was there. My friends had a huge "Welcome Home" banner outside of our house. It was early in the morning. When we got to my house, there was a huge breakfast of eggs, sausages and bacon. All my relatives were there. All my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. And I had an accent. I didn't realize it, but I picked up a bit of a Southern twang.

I missed my sisters like ridiculous when I was in the US. When I got home, all I wanted to do was talk with them, be with them, show them my pictures and tell them about stuff. Because my sisters and I grew up singing and playing music, I was quite excited to show them the new songs I had learned. I remember the day I got home, pretty much within an hour, I was at the piano teaching them some songs.

Re-acclimating to life in South Africa was hard because there were so few people who could relate to me. At first, I just corresponded with my other AFS friends because I had no idea how to explain to people what I had just been through. I mean I had a scrapbook and photos to show people, but my experience was more than that. And I had to be back at university very soon. I was very happy to be home and very grateful to see my family, but I now knew there was a big wide world out there. I wanted to go back to New York City.  It was like all of a sudden in my head, this big travel bug. I think I always had it, but my AFS year showed me that there was so much more to life than what was happening here and I wanted to experience that. But first, there was school work to be done.

read the whole story: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

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