Thursday, August 23, 2007

These memories can't wait.



You ever have one of those days where you have a flood of random memories?

Here's one of those posts that just sort of created itself, based on what I was thinking about.

I'm not sure what prompted me to write this post... maybe I've gotten a little weary of attempting to amuse you greedy lot (I kid out of love. Out of love!). I suppose I started thinking about this over the weekend, when a friend came to visit. We were sitting in my backyard, drinking a couple of beers, and he asked how long I was planning on staying in my house. My immediate response? As long as possible. I love my house. But sometimes I wonder - do I love my house because it is an awesome house, or do I love my house because it's my house*? And then... well, then a whole cascade of thoughts and memories began to creep up on me. I thought about moving, and not only how much I hated it, but how often I've done it. I've moved probably more than anyone I know, in fact. And each time I've done it, there's been difficulty that followed shortly after (except for the last couple, probably because I was an adult and the situations were very different). But what I've really been thinking about is culture shock. And how it took Mrs. TK and I some time to adjust to the fact that we are, in fact, suburbanites. Moving to a place as different as the Mayberry-like little 'burb that we're in took a great deal of adjustment... though you'd think I'd be used to it. So here's my little tale about culture shock.

I was born 32 years ago in Cape Town, South Africa. As you hopefully know, that was when South Africa was in even more turmoil than it is now. Apartheid was moving along at a steady clip. My parents did their best to shelter us from it, but since my father was half black, half Indian, and my mother was also a murky mix of ethnicities, it was probably a challenge for them.

We moved to the U.S. when I was two years old. Obviously, I remember little about this. Hell, I barely remember yesterday. But we moved to Cambridge, MA, and I went to a cute little "Alternative Public School", run by hippies and liberal philosopher-poets. But it was great. My dad studied at MIT, and my mom worked as an accountant. We lived in an apartment above one of my teachers, and she bred butterflies, which was fun as well. We made it through the blizzard of '78 and had fun doing it.

And then, in around 1981-1982, INS discovered that our visas had expired, and booted us out of the country. My father packed us into his rusted green wood-paneled station wagon, and drove us off to the airport. He left the car in the lot with the keys in the ignition, took off the plates and threw them in a trash can. Oddly, this would become a trend in my family - abandoning cars when we moved.

The move back to South Africa was a strange one. I had been too young to remember anything about it from before we left. In fact, I barely remembered any of my relatives. And I had a lot of relatives. All of a sudden, I had grandparents, more than a dozen aunts and uncles, and more than 30 cousins. Most of which remembered me. And I felt like a total stranger among them, with my funny American accent and incessant need to match all my clothes. Shut up. I was an unusual child. We moved into my grandmother's house, and my family embraced me. Once I learned all their names, it felt like some crazy tribe of really fun drunks had adopted me.

And then I started going to school. You want to talk about culture shock? When I left the US, I had just finished either Kindergarten or first grade (I forget which). In my hippy alternative public school, with teachers who wore beards and braids and I think they were made out of hemp as well. We called them by their first names and listened to "Free To Be, You And Me" and held hands a lot.

In South Africa, I went to Catholic school, because the public schools were AWFUL. I mean... really awful. The kind of awful that doesn't exist here. Catholic school wasn't so hot either. We played soccer on sand. The classrooms were small and overcrowded and stuffy. We had sixth or seventh generation books, that we frequently had to share. I remember there being 52 kids in my math class. Try organizing 52 8 year olds into any semblance of a learning unit. But my biggest shock, of course, came the first time I did something bad... and got caned for it. Yes, I said caned. As in hit with a lang, bamboo cane. On the hand for minor offenses, on the butt for bigger ones. Some teachers had temper problems and would just go after kids, and the blows landed where they landed. That, my friends, is culture shock. God, I remember telling my mother about it, and her telling me to be grateful that they no longer soak the canes in salt water, like they did when she was a kid. No outrage, no anger, just a sad acceptance - and telling me it could be much worse.

And so, for two or three years, we lived there once again. And I grew to love it. I loved the giant network of family. I loved that my uncle would take us hiking on Table Mountain every weekend, or camping. I loved the giant, raucous family gatherings, full of drinking and guitar playing and dancing and laughing. We moved out of my grandma's house, and I loved our new house. It was small, but it had trees for climbing and my dad built a fishpond out of an old cast iron tub. Over the course of those two years we had dogs and cats and chickens and frogs and turtles and ducks. My dad got a good job as an urban planner, my mom did well as an accountant. We were decidedly middle class, maybe even upper middle class. For our race, of course.

Because there was always that dark side... the side I never thought about because I was too young to really fully realize the truth about this beautiful country that I lived in. And that truth was that it was rotting, and vile, and corrupt. The truth was that the reason we never went to the nice beaches was because of the color of our skin. And that my parents had to carry "ID Books" around, which said what our racial mix was. And my father's white friends would hide their friendship with us from their families. I didn't have any white friends, because we didn't live near any white people. You didn't make eye contact with whites. You moved out of their way when they were on the sidewalk. You used different bathrooms, different water fountains.

My dad still has a sign that he stole from a beach that says "Whites Only" on one side and "Non-Whites Only" on the other. It was a singularly strange existence for a child. I remember seeing a black man get hit by a car, a brown Mercedes, and the driver (a white man) sped away. The man died, and the police barely seemed to care. The crime and poverty rates were nothing short of staggering. Almost daily, homeless people would ring the doorbell and ask if we had any bread to spare, or if they could eat the peaches that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. My dad, being my dad, would give them leftovers, and tell them to pick the ripe ones. I remember him piling me and my cousin into the car to take us to the movies, only to have a man, covered in blood and naked and wrapped in a plastic sheet, come staggering out of the bushes. He worked at the shop up the street, and three men had come in with machetes to rob the place. They'd slashed him up, tortured him, and killed his co-worker. And I remember how long it took for the police to arrive.

Things were hard for my father, being that he was a radical activist with ties to both the Communist Party (illegal) and the African National Congress (also illegal). And eventually I think he just got tired of worrying about us so much. So...

We moved again. My mom got a company in Boston to sponsor us, and at 10 or 11 years old, we came back to the U.S. And lived in probably the whitest. suburb. in. America. Culture shock again. All of a sudden I had only white friends, and only white people around me. But more so, I was old enough to realize the difference this time. And I'll never forget the cunning smile that must have been on my face when I realized that the worst thing that would happen in school would be getting sent to the principals office. I thought "I'm going to get away with murder here", and proceeded to become an absolutely awful child. Of course, when things got to the point where the school called my parents... well... if you've read this post, you can probably figure out what happened. Let's just say my behavior improved.

We moved again, to a different house in the same city. I went to junior high and high school and blah blah blah. I went to Wisconsin for college, and thought "Jesus, could it get any fucking blonder around here?" Weird state, man. Fun school. Weird state. My parents moved back to Cape Town. I moved back to the town I grew up in, and lived in a friend's basement for a few months. Then I moved to Allston, then Cambridge, then Allston again. Then Philly, and two more apartments and a new set of friends. Then back to Mass., to another apartment. Then to this house.

So yeah. Culture shock. Cape Town. Boston. Cambridge. Madison. Philadelphia. I'll never say my life's been boring.

One final note on this rambling, pointless post - several years ago, we went to Cape Town to visit my parents. It was my first or second time being back since Apartheid had collapsed due to international pressure, economics, and from feeding on it's own bloated, rotted corpse. It was fascinating seeing what had changed (and, unfortunately still, what had not changed.). But my favorite moment was my entire gigantic, coloured family going to a formerly-white beach, getting nothing but dirty looks from the old-schoolers who hadn't caught up with the new era, and having the time of our lives. How's THAT for culture shock.


*the answer, I've concluded, is both.



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Listening to: Moby - God Moving Over The Face Of The World

18 comments:

Maxine Dangerous said...

That was an amazing post, TK. Please write more like it! I enjoy the similarities in our lives (race problems, culture shock) but also the amazing differences (despite also being born in Africa, I never lived there when I was old enough to comprehend anything other than 'cry now, for diaper is soiled').

Stunning.

Manny said...

Awesome post, bud.

girl with curious hair said...

How sad, yet beautiful. Not to compare culture shocks and childhoods, but you reminded me of my own experiences. It's strange how painful it can all be at one point, and is just 'life' as time passes.

slouchmonkey said...

I studied with some radical people that started the first mixed theatre company in SA. The Space Theatre. Fucking awesome people! I've a romanticized vision of SA and would very much like to visit. I see the economic boom that's occured over the years, but am afraid I'd be let down by the disbursement of wealth. Same everywhere, I guess?

Great post!

Bella said...

Wow. I really enjoyed reading this post. I travelled a lot growing up to and can tell you that the whole experience in itself made me a much better person for it. As an adult now, I have lived in the SAME place for over 20 years. It's nice in a way (stability) but at the same time, it's driving me INSANE because I know for a fact that there is soooo much more out there...

country roads said...

so very interesting...I'm glad you've made a home.

MelodyLane said...

Fantastic post.

TK said...

Thanks to all. It's always interesting to see how many people have comparable experiences. And Slouch - I can't recommend a visit highly enough. The country is absolutely beautiful and fascinating... albeit still depressed and pretty volatile. But Cape Town is (as the picture that I added late shows) hands down the most beautiful place I've ever been.

Yes, even more beautiful than Madison, Wisconsin.

Mortarbored said...

I actually mean this when I say: You should write a book. It'd blow Obama's crap right out of the water.

Jez said...

Wow. Awesome. I also read the 2 posts linked that I hadn't read before and those were insightful as well.

All I want to know is how did you get into the Drive-By Truckers and Uncle Tupelo with that sort of background.

Oh, and your blog is EXACTLY why I like reading blogs. Great stories that are slices of life.

TK said...

Mortarbored - I think I probably lack the focus for that.

Jez - Thanks. As for UT and DBT... it's all about the friends you make. I got into Tupelo from a college friend, and DBT - I have a friend here who's from Nebraska and he introduced me to them.

Vermillion said...

Woo, great read there. It is amazing how much can change over what seemed like such a short time, and yet so much didn't.

First Manny, now you. Seems like there is a bit of a trend going for serious, meaningful posts. Now that the gauntlet has been thrown, I will have to catch up.

Oh well, back to action figures and irrational crushes on women I will never meet.

Anonymous said...

Excellent write, TK. It might even encourage me to write about my expierences as a young german boy trying to grow up in the middle of anti-german Maine.

Well, maybe not. Still, a most excellent post on your end.

Hellafied said...

Almost all the photos you've posted on your site scare the shit out of me. Except for that adorable beagle on the left navi bar. I have a beagle--well, she's with my sister now, but when they howl, it melts my heart.

We're alright now. It was iffy for a moment because of the pics, but that beagle saved you. Blog on!

elyse the portuguese said...

That was great. Definitely not "pointless." How old were you when your parents moved back to Cape Town?? and did they move back before or after the apartheid collapsed?

TK said...

Vermillion - hey, it's not all dick jokes and alcoholism around here, you know.

Anon- thanks.

Hell.A.FIED! - Thanks for reading. The howling is cute... unless it's at 5AM.

Elyse - I was 21 when my parents moved back (1996), so it was after the fall of Apartheid. It's amazing to keep going back for visits and see it change, bit by bit. Thanks for visiting.

Jayne said...

I meant to comment days ago when I first read this, but Chez was logged in and it was too much of a hassle... but I loved this! I'm a month away from my visit to south africa, and I cannot wait. I'll be thinking of you!

A Lover and a Fighter said...

TK- I missed this initially because it went up while I was at camp. I'm just now caught up. I really admire your ability to so matter of factly (read: sans melodrama) recount the very interesting stories from your childhood. I, too, am struck by the similarities between our childhoods (though not the racial/culturey things, as I am the whitest thing you ever did see) but definitely crazy families and tumultuous natures. You're so versatile, my friend!