Sunday, February 19, 2012

Back in the US of A

Part 9: For a girl who grew up strongly connected to her family and her roots, Arlene had a certain adventurousness that she couldn't deny. It first appeared when the AFS opportunity came up and again when her husband was offered a position in the US. Only this time, things were different going to America. South Africa was in the process of change, and change for the better; Mandela had been released, apartheid was dismantled and so there were no musicians singing about not playing Sun City. But all was not easy going in New York (after the fall of communism in the USSR, the movie villain of choice became South African). Never the less, Arlene expected great things upon her return to the US.

America. The first time I was in NYC was in 1985 at the end of my AFS year abroad. It was an amazing day; tons of sightseeing capped off with the Grucci's legendary Fourth of July fireworks display. I had fallen in love with New York and I told myself I was going to return to the US some day.

It was the summer of 1991 and I was excited to be back. I was excited to be married, to be married to a diplomat, and to be starting what promised to be an international adventure.

The first time I arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1985, I was taken to an AFS orientation program at C.W. Post campus on Long Island. For that week, the campus turned into a big international melting pot of Norwegians, Frenchmen and Swedes and we spent a few days learning about American culture and customs.

This time was different. Ian and I had to hit the ground running. Straight off the plane, we were met by our limousine driver and taken to our hotel; a nice one between Lexington and Park Avenue. We spent three months there while looking for an apartment and waiting for all of our stuff to arrive from South Africa.

Getting Settled

The apartment buildings we looked at were fancy with concierges and valets. They looked more like hotels. I could not believe my eyes. I mean, we didn't live in squalor in South Africa, but coming to New York was like coming to an island of opulence, and we didn’t pay for anything. As members of the diplomatic corp, everything we needed was purchased for us; furniture, crockery, cutlery, china. We even had a clothing allowance. And we had to buy good stuff. When we went shopping for porcelain, it had to be top quality, because when we had our dinners and cocktail parties, we were representing South Africa and South Africa wanted to look good. I was in awe of the daily amount of money that they spent on us, and we were junior diplomats.

We didn't have to look for a real estate agent ourselves because those big apartment buildings had rental agents, and as soon as the word went out, “there’s a diplomat looking for an apartment,” the agents contacted you to show you the building. Thankfully, we had our rent paid for us because I don't know how we could have afforded the $3,500 a month rent.

All the diplomats lived in very nice apartments. The Ambassador was driven around in a Lincoln Town car.  I remember feeling almost a sense of guilt because it was like we were living in a bubble. As South Africans, we put ourselves on the same level as all first world countries in terms of the opulence and the fanciness of every thing and I remember thinking, “This is crazy!” Was this representing the South Africa I knew? It seemed like the diplomats were representing an elite group and not the South Africa I knew. But I didn't complain.

At the UN

Working in and around the UN was like working in a different, very cosmopolitan world. It’s almost like it's not the United States.

It seemed to me that the whole South African diplomatic corp agenda was the agenda of the white regime, the National Party government. Part of Ian's job was public relations. I remember one of his tasks was lobbying other countries to replace the word "regime" with "government" in whatever documents and papers that referred to South Africa. The purpose of this was to gather credibility for the government under DeKlerk. So he had to lobby key countries to change words like "the apartheid regime" to "the apartheid government." Little things like that that meant a lot to the South African government.

Ours was an uphill battle. Though I felt like the relationship between the US and South Africa was better than it was when I was first here in 1985, there was still a sense of exclusion. For example, outside of the UN general assembly room, there was a hallway with larger-than-poster size black and white photographs of the unrest in South Africa, portraying the police in full gear, large protesting crowds, Nelson Mandela, poverty, etc. This hallway/exhibit was one of the stops on the UN tour that the public paid to take at that time. For the rest of us at the UN, it was a general walkway that delegates, spouses and other dignitaries passed through frequently. I never liked those pictures. Probably because it was just a harsh reality to face, but also because I felt it did not include pictures of the beautiful country I knew and loved. I thought it was a skewed portrayal; necessary perhaps, but it seemed like propaganda to me. Like my host family in North Carolina, people were always surprised to hear my stories of living a very 'normal' life in South Africa. The paintings and photos made it seem like all white South Africans were white supremacists, and this made me angry because the person portrayed on the wall did not represent me.

Election Day(s)

The freedom and ease with which Americans vote is completely taken for granted. After the release of Nelson Mandela, there were four years of talks between interested parties about what the new government would look like. As if having discussions between former enemies was not hard enough, they were sprinkled with violence by groups that felt left out and smaller parties interested in continuing the only thing they knew: armed struggle. As the author David Horowitz noted, "When you went into combat, it was only natural to put your trust in warriors who were prepared to be ruthless and brutal. But these characteristics of the revolutionary vanguard were not traits of good rulers, in whom judiciousness, moral scruple and caution would be obvious virtues. Yet how could the conquerors be persuaded to step down?"[1]

Given the enormity of the occasion and the number of candidates and voters involved, the elections were slated to take place over four days: April 26-29, 1994. There was mayhem in South Africa leading up to the voting. There was no registry of voters so the interim government had no idea how many people were eligible to vote. Millions lacked identity documents and many were illiterate or in areas so remote, they were unreachable by roads. Only 5 of the 28 campaigning parties had any electioneering experience. And there was to be more violence before "peace broke out." On April 24, a car bomb went off at the headquarters of the ANC and the PAC, two of the campaigning parties. Six more polling stations were bombed on that day and the next, including a bomb at Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg. But South Africans were determined and the vote took place. In those four days in April, black South Africans learned what whites knew: how to vote, and white South Africans learned what blacks knew: how to wait. Despite the confusion and the seemingly endless lines, an election was held, history was made, and the world rejoiced with South Africa.

I remember that day in April 1994 when we voted for South Africa's first democratically elected president. We stood in long lines to vote, and there was huge media coverage. We voted right at the consulate, on 38th Street. When we walked into the polling place there was the old South African flag, and when we walked out, there was our new flag. It was so symbolic, and the party that night was unbelievable.

The South African vote that day was very much supported by other African countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Angola. I remember dignitaries from those countries present everywhere that day, and being part of the party afterwards. It was like a big celebration not just for South Africa the country, but for all of Southern Africa.

In July 1992, Mandela came to the UN and it was insane. Security people were everywhere. As the wife of a diplomat, I had a pass to go anywhere in the UN complex. So I was in the general assembly when Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party spoke on the same day. Afterwards the consulate had a huge reception for Mandela. The moment was huge. I was so happy. The party was an interesting reflection of South Africa at the time. I mean, most of the South African delegates were white, but a lot of the black Africans at the party were from Nigeria, Ghana, and other African countries. I remember they were all in their native African dress. And they were ecstatic.

The Reality
Before we arrived in New York, I had plans for what I wanted to do in the US. As a diplomat's spouse, I wasn't allowed to work but I thought I would do some studying while I was here. Apparently, matriculating in a school wasn't allowed either.

It almost seemed like the men were here to be political and work but the wives were here merely to socialize. So most of what I did was socialize with the other wives. I thought what the men were doing was awesome. Especially leading up to the election, they did a lot building up in promoting the new government, and creating credibility. The South African Tourism Association was involved as well, promoting South Africa as a destination, "a world in one country", "the rainbow nation." But I was beginning to feel like just decoration.

So I decided to join the UN Local Expatriate Spouse Association (UNLESA) or what I called the UN wives' club.

The UN Wives' Club
Joining the wives' club was not as easy as I thought it would be. Remember the UN hallway I spoke of with the posters of South Africa? That's what the other wives thought I was, part of the "old regime" It was hard to get people to understand that I was just Arlene from South Africa, I wasn't from this crazy place portrayed in the news. However, some of the other black African spouses didn't want me to join because I was a white South African. I remember particularly a Sudanese lady who caused a big stink about my membership. It actually became an issue and I had to meet with the South African ambassador and explain what was going on. I had to advocate for myself and eventually I was made a member of the club.

I was happy to be part of the organization. Rather than just go to lunches and have parties, I was now able to do something significant. Among other things, the wives' club did some fundraisers for UNICEF. I remember one time we had a massive raffle where the first prize was actually two tickets to South Africa. The second prize was some hand painted piece of art, and third prize was a smaller piece. I won third prize. I still have the piece.

Unmet Expectations
The crazy part was, all this made me depressed.

On a typical morning, I'd get up, make Ian breakfast, and he would leave for work. I was then left in this unbelievably beautiful apartment; two bedrooms with big sliding doors, big floor to ceiling windows with a spectacular view of Manhattan's Upper East Side.

And I would lie on the couch and watch one talk show after the next; "Montel Williams" and "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee." At three o'clock in the afternoon I was still on the couch. I put on so much weight that year because I was eating M & M's like they were going out of fashion.

I didn't realize at the time that I was depressed. I just thought I was being lazy. Whatever was going on, one thing I knew was I was not happy because the truth was I didn't like the lifestyle. I thought it was fake. There was so much going on in the world at that time, so much going on in our own country, so many people who needed help and it seemed like most of these diplomatic spouses were only concerned with the quality of your porcelain or how you made your spinach salad. The other wives were into their art and their painting and shopping here and there, but I was 24 and I just couldn't relate to that at all.

To make things worse, very soon after our arrival in New York, Ian told me that he felt like he made a mistake in marrying me.

I was shocked. I really didn't know what to do. When we left South Africa, we were like the golden couple; young and with boundless potential. We had been together all through high school and college. At Rhodes, we had problems I should have noticed, but as a young girl, I didn't. It's always easy to see those things in hindsight, isn't it? With everyone pulling for us, I didn't want them to know that there was trouble in paradise.

When we were in Benoni, we were members of the church I grew up in, and we went regularly. Once we got to New York, we just stopped going to church. I wanted to go, but Ian didn’t. A couple of times I went down to the Times Square church with Pastor Wilkerson, the one who wrote “The Cross and the Switchblade.” I also went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle a couple of times. But for the most part, Ian and I weren’t plugged in spiritually. We weren’t going go church. When I look back, I see that as part of the problem.

Even being a part of the UN wives' club, I didn't really connect with the other UN spouses, and so I spent a lot of time on my own, exploring New York City. Eventually, I took a volunteer job proofreading and editing at an advertising agency run by two South African men. There was a man  there named Carl, an American proofreader. We started talking and eventually became friends. I confided in him. I think the mistake was that I started talking to him about everything that was going on between Ian and me.

After a couple of these deep conversations with Carl, I went back to Ian and I told him that I thought my conversations with Carl were not a good sign. I told Ian I wanted to recognize the trouble between us and figure out what to do. It was then he confided in me that he had begun an extramarital relationship six months after we arrived in New York.

I was devastated. Apparently, when I had been in Texas for ten days with my mom, something had started up between him and another woman. Even after she went back to South Africa, they still corresponded for awhile.

However, it was news of my relationship with Carl that got relayed to the South African Ambassador. Apparently I was considered a security threat because I was having an affair. I was called in to meet with the deputy Ambassador who wanted to question me about everything. I was terrified. None the less, I met with the deputy and I told him that no state secrets were being revealed and that my personal life was my own business. He was quite nice about the situation. He told me that he cared about Ian and me, and he wanted to see our marriage work.

Eventually though, Ian's family found out about our situation. His mother in particular, whom I never really got along with, was extremely angry. I think it was because she felt that Ian and I were splitting up because I was having an affair.

So as Ian's three year UN assignment was concluding, our marriage was failing. The last few months in New York felt like chaos. Actually, it was chaos. Not only did we have to pack up all of our belongings to go overseas again, but also simultaneously divide our stuff because once we got back to South Africa, we would be divorcing.

We flew back home and while our families were there to greet us, there was no fanfare like last time.  From the airport, Ian and I left in different cars and went to different places. And that is how my New York adventure ended.

1. Horowitz, David. Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997. p. 273.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How Much is a Bo Hunkmeister Worth?

This article about how much a mom would make if she were paid made the rounds of Crackbook recently. I see these kind of articles every year or so. I’m not sure what the point is of these articles. Are we trying to validate moms? Is it a slow news day? Have the Kardashians not done anything outrageous lately? Oddly enough, I never see one about how much husbands/fathers are worth. So being the servant of the public good that I am, I took it upon myself to try and figure this out. Please be aware that I’m basing this article on Bo Hunkmeister and what he does around our house. In light of how fabulous he is, I would suggest a 20% reduction in the final salary for the average American Dad (excluding my own dad, of course)

Ok, let’s get started:

1. Driver
    When Bo’s at work, I drive the kids to where ever they need to go, but when Bo is home, he does all the driving and I pretend like I’m Miss Daisy. Why, I’d sit in the back sipping tea if it wasn’t for all those kids taking up the seats. Seeing as how he’s at work most of the time, I’ll use the Yahoo article number reduced by 50%.

2. Animal Control Officer
    As much as Bo and I try to keep a calm and peaceful household, periodically the cup doth runneth over. Every once in a while when things get a little too hairy here, and I get to my wit’s end, Bo takes charge and restores order. Additionally, as I explained before, one of my boys’ favorite pastimes is wrestling. Being the delicate flower that I am, I leave this activity to Bo as well. For these tasks, I’d use the phrase “Child Care Provider” but let’s be real here. With four young lively boys I think my term is more accurate. Given that one of them is still toilet training, I’m going to toss in an extra 20% hazard pay.

3. Therapist
    After a trying day, Ive been known to look at Bo and ask, “Are you the only other non-idiot besides me?” To this, he gently replies, “Tell me about your day, sweetie,” and then I vent on him like a F-15 fighter jet. After composing myself, we discuss things, he gets me to put the explosives away and life is good again. Or there are times when my children and I have lost the ability to speak the truth in love to each other. Bo is able to calm everyone down, get to the root of the problem and speak to everyone in ways we chose not to previously. I’d lend Bo out to the UN, but he’s got his hand full here at home.

4. Massage Therapist
    For fear of going into TMI territory, I’ll just leave this one short and sweet. I like frequent foot rubs and/or back rubs. Were I to purchase these services, not only would I have to put my coffee down and go some where, but I’d be out $37,000/year.

5. Accountant
    Running a family such as ours on one income is no small feat. In order to keep the Domestic Goddess in the lifestyle according to which she has become accustomed to, we have a budget. Making sure we stay on that budget is the kind but firm Bo Hunkmeister. He diligently tracks our spending, records our transactions, and balances the check-book so I have enough money for more books and Dunkin Donuts coffee food and clothing. Due to his efforts, we manage to make things work in a state where the governor is so hard pressed for cash, he wants to tax soda. Yes, soda. To pay a professional and, most likely, a less handsome man to do this accounting, would set me back about $60,000/year.

6. Handyman
    We own a house and have six kids so as you might guess, in addition to the typical homeowner maintenance like sinks exploding, things break frequently around here and when they do, we turn to Bo. I’ll cook, stitch or knit something together, but everything else lands on his work bench; broken furniture, broken toys, broken children, etc. With a mix of duct tape, gorilla glue and a few power tools, Bo repairs that which would have headed out to the junk heap (excluding the children, of course)

7. Stylist, Travel Agent, Errand Boy/Personal Assistant, Cheer-Leader, Cabana Boy
    Honestly, I don’t know how I got into art school. Maybe I was part of their affirmative action plan for Long Island mall chicks. But for the life of me, I am lacking in the fashion areas. I have frequently asked Bo to dress me as I’m at a loss for what to wear or what goes with what. 
   Then there are all those smaller but no less important things Bo does around here. He arranges the travel and accomodations when we take trips, he goes to the store to fetch things for me, he’s my biggest cheerleader when it comes to encouraging me in my various projects and I’ll leave the cabana boy part to your imagination. I’d google the salary for stylist/personal assistant/cabana boy, but I’m a bit scared at what hits I would get so I’ll just make up a number

So my grand total for what I’d have to pay someone to replace Bo should he run off and join “Stars on Ice” is $292,724. That’s really a lot more money than I’d make blogging here. Seeing as how I can’t earn the cash to pay Bo what he deserves, maybe I’ll make him one of these.