For most South Africans, the world outside of our borders is largely constructed by the images we see in the media. From movies to global news stories, the reality for many of us remains within our geographical domestic boundaries. So, being able to board an aeroplane and cross country lines in order to visit and experience different people and cultures is a dream. If you’re like me, you have imagined college life at an Ivy League University, cycling in Amsterdam or shopping in Dubai – for these young women, they have not only visited the globe but they have decided to make homes in countries outside of their own. We connected with writer & strategist, Kendra Hunsley, photographer, Bobo Matyila and writer Jabu Sopete to find out what it’s really like on the other side.
What has been your experience living outside South Africa and Africa as a Black woman?
Kendra: My time living in South Korea as a Black woman was interesting. I was the only Black person living in my town at the time (Let that sink in). It’s funny because although living in Asia was a huge culture shock for me, I slowly got over it. But the one aspect of it that I didn’t quite become accustomed to was standing out in every way imaginable simply because of the way I looked. I was constantly stared at every time I left my house, people were fascinated by my hair, (Whether natural or in braids) and would tug at my hair unapologetically (I shamefully became somewhat grateful to those who were ever so kind to atleast have the decency to ask before they touched my hair). Living in an homogenous country comes with a lot of unfavorable experiences and micro-aggressions. I also realized that people have this warped idea of Africa and it’s people. It was very important to me to educate those who wanted to learn.
I don’t experience any of the things I’ve mentioned above now that I’m in the US specifically New York, which is very diverse. Although I’m around people who look like me, you can’t help but pick up on the differences in American and African culture. Immersing myself in cultures completely different from my own has really broadened my mind. Not only are you learning and experiencing a different culture but you get to impart knowledge of your own.
For me it has mostly been a journey of self-rediscovery and personal growth – learning about myself without any judgement or influence from my friends and family, but in a space with total strangers. Also, the immersion in a foreign country has broaden my thinking ability in so many ways. I have also learnt to be more open to new things, experiences, people, cultures and so on.
: I think it differs by country. In general, because I’ve been moving around my entire life, I’ve grown accustomed to feeling foreign all the time. I don’t think I fully became aware of my blackness until I moved to LA, and that’s because America’s entire structure is oriented around race.
I definitely struggled with self-esteem, until very recently, just from feeling inadequate or alien, in predominantly white spaces. I think self-confidence and self-esteem have been really great struggles for me because I’ve never experienced what it’s like to be part of a majority group (in a socio-cultural context). It’s only been in the past 2-3 years that I’ve started consciously decolonizing my mind from toxic ideas about womanhood, blackness and identity. Obviously I’m not fully self-actualized yet, but I think I’ve come quite far.
“Reverse culture shock is a real thing!” – Kendra Hunsley
In South Korea, technology is very vast so everything moves at a rapid pace. People are constantly on their phones (I know you’re probably thinking that’s everywhere but it’s on a different level in Korea). Koreans are also way more experimental and individualistic when it comes to fashion sense.
Jabu: Some of the major differences I have observed from living China specifically – is how advanced the tech space is and also in terms of how people travel, work and play. Everything is just so convenient – you can shop, pay bills, call a taxi, chat and do almost everything through your mobile phone app. People hardly carry hard cash around. In terms of entrepreneurship among young people; creatives are not scared to try and experiment with different business ideas until they find one that proves to be lucrative.
: I had always assumed that black people across the diaspora were culturally similar, but after moving to the US, I realized there’s actually a huge cultural divide between Africans and Black Americans. More specifically, America as a whole is very individualistic, and I find it interesting how black Americans look to ‘Africa’ for cultural influence, while Africans look to ‘America’ for cultural influence. Lastly, I also find that my blackness and womanhood is perceived differently across the globe. In America, I’m largely perceived as the ‘Respectable Negro,’ and somehow an ‘exceptional’ black, just because of how I speak, carry myself etc. whereas when I’m home, that’s not always the case. I think at home, I’m still perceived as foreign or “not a regular black,” and in Europe, I tend to be lumped into the overwhelming stereotype of blackness lol.
I don’t think I fully adjusted because after about 7 months of being back in South Africa, I left for the US. When I returned to South Africa from Asia, I spent 4 days in my home city of Durban and moved to Johannesburg. I didn’t give myself enough time to transition back into my ‘old life’ because I was already starting a new one. You go through reverse culture shock when you’ve been away for so long so it’s important to give yourself time and allow your body the opportunity to ease into your ‘new’ normal.
[I appreciate] our music! House music to be specific. – Bobo Matjila
Jabu: I think I am lucky because all of my friends keep me updated about everything that is happening in their lives, milestones, etc. – and I also take the initiative to read up about the country’s pop culture trends, news relating to the economy – and so when I come back I already know what to expect and what’s making headlines during that particular period.
: I think I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I’m a constant foreigner, so I’ve re-conceptualised my ideas about ‘home,’ ‘culture’ and ‘identity,’ because at the end of the day, all three of those concepts are socially constructed, so it’s up to us to decide how much weight they carry in our lives.
Jabu: Thanks to technology, I never feel like an outsider when I come home because I keep contact with all my close friends and family while I’m abroad and I always make it a point that I visit home every 6 – 8 months. I never want to lose the connection and genuine relationships I have formed here before moving abroad. I believe that these are the people who know the real me and have been with me through it all and have my best interests at heart. Also, even though I live abroad, I still read current news about South Africa and follow the same publications I used to read and occasionally check trending topics on social media.
Is there a different kind of blackness and treatment you have experienced whilst living abroad?
Kendra: Yes. In South Korea black women are somewhat fetishized. The influence of hip hop culture in South Korea is evident in their music, fashion, as well as the way they see and view Black women.
Jabu: I would say that most of the people I have met and connected with abroad (who also come from other countries) have not particularly treated me in a significantly different way, however in China specifically we do experience some kind of prejudice purely based on the color of our skin, but this does not hurt of affect me that much as it would if I were to experience it in South Africa. I feel that it has no roots and is not that deep, it’s just hate based on your skin. i.e they would make comments like “Oh you’re black, but your accent and pronunciation is very good”
Bobo: Definitely. In Europe, I felt a sort of fascination stemming around my blackness. Especially romantically, I think a lot of guys saw me as a tropical fruit, as opposed to a 3-dimensional woman with nuance. Whereas in America, I find that there tend to be a lot of Black Americans who are fascinated by the idea of me being an ‘African Woman,’ and in their eyes that puts me on some sort of pedestal, or it makes me completely sub-par. The overarching theme that I experience throughout the world is feeling invisible because it’s hard for a lot of people to separate the ideas surrounding my identity and ancestry, versus me as an actual human being.
Kendra: East Asia prides themselves on efficiency. Even though I lived in an homogeneous country among people who spoke little to no English, I seldom found myself in situations where I was helpless and didn’t have services and resources to help. I don’t remember a time where I had any major difficulties or inconveniences with tasks, Whether it was within the transportation system or the service industry. South Korea is specifically known for their Bali Bali (hurry hurry) culture which is said to be the result of ‘rapid rebuilding and industrialization of Korea after the Korean war. They’re always moving and believe in getting things done quickly. Countries like Japan and China are no different which continues to have a great effect on their industries. Korea also has the fastest internet connection in the world, which has a positive ripple effect across industries. South Africa could learn a thing or two from these countries, although one cannot turn a blind-eye to the many obstacles South Africa has faced and continues to face.
I think South Africa could learn to be more independent and embrace everything that is produced locally and refrain from always copying other countries. The world is obsessed with South Africa. Also I think South Africa needs to exploit the technology space and improve the way people transact and travel and live.
I have learnt that the world is actually obsessed with black women, especially South African women. – Jabu Sopete
The grass is not greener on the other side, the grass is greener where you water it. I actually think everyone can learn that from just travelling, because I think it’s important to know that you can never escape your blackness and you can never access whiteness (unless you move to a whole other planet or dimension honestly).
I remember food being my greatest struggle living in Asia. I also have to say, the people. I really don’t get a sense of ‘Ubuntu’ anywhere else.
Every single person that I’ve come into contact with who has visited South Africa says the same thing to me: What a beautiful country South Africa is, how friendly and hospitable we are and how their experience was completely different from what they thought it would be.
People always used to say “You have to leave South Africa to appreciate it”, and that statement has proven to be true. Everything that you take for granted in your home country, you learn to appreciate it when you’re abroad. Things like food, music, driving /commuting by public transport , familiar noises, the weather , black hair salons, watching random people dancing in the streets and laughing and just speaking your home language with your friends and regular entertainment activities that you usually do with your friends.