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3 ways growing up in South Africa prepared me for being an expat

December 12, 2021 2 Comments

South Africa is the weirdest of places. Honestly in all my travels I have yet to come across somewhere so incredible- offering infrastructure on par with the world’s richest countries. But at the same time, the legacy of Apartheid left behind a depth of poverty and rampant crime, the extent of which often shocks visitors to the country.  It’s a country thats made huge steps in adopting the Western economic system, but taken from a social and cultural point of view is still in a stage of transition. It cannot be categorized easily and doesn’t fit most stereotypes.

As challenging as I’ve found expat life, I can definitely appreciate that growing up in South Africa prepared me for living abroad in the most insidious of ways. If you’re a South African expat, let see how many of these you can identify with: 

The diversity

Many of us grew up in the “rainbow nation” being both firmly aware of the different communities around us but also accepting this diversity as normal. It was quite normal for us to receive Mithai (sweets) on Diwali from our Hindu neighbours and also understand perfectly when our Shembe colleagues were off to the beach to complete their rituals.

It struck me as odd to find that many other expats grew up in a firmly homogenous society, having no awareness about any culture or religion that wasn’t their own.

This made culture shock and adjusting to a new society twice as difficult because they were simply not accustomed to embracing different ways of life without comparing it unfavourably to their own or being fearful of things they didn’t know. This manifests itself in observable ways like disparaging comments, a refusal to try new foods and thinking that things are ‘weird’ compared to the way you do them.   

But for us who grew up in South Africa, not understanding the language the person next to you might be speaking is absolutely normal in SA and no cause for alarm or fear. Having a conversation in 2 different languages is also normal as you can imagine in a country with 11 official languages. Tribes, clans, races & religions all live alongside each other in relative peace. Different is normal in South Africa.

Living in South Korea was a huge leap for me; I had never before lived in such a homogeneous society where everyone was the same ethnicity. I started to see the drawbacks of such a society (where fear and hatred of ‘others’ swiftly creeps in). I’ve always been grateful for the diversity I grew up with and the tolerance it has instilled in me. 

Having multiple identities

For most people in South Africa, we exist with a dual identity. South Africa- having been ruled by white supremacy for so long- runs on western ideals and Christian holidays. Despite the colonialism forced down the throats of South Africans for decades, other cultures have survived and thrived despite the obstacles they encountered. Being of Indian descent and of South African nationality has led to both confusion and greater understanding of how both identities make me who I am. I write more about this here if you’d like to read about it.

As an expat, there are some aspects of a new culture that you will wholeheartedly embraced and love, and there are others that you will struggle to see the logic of. When you decide to be an expat, you can never expect that the new country you live in won’t change you. It’s inevitable. While every expat’s identity gains and losses are different, they are sure to occur, especially the more your social life is rooted in new cultures rather than a community made up of people who share your nationality.

For an expat, an identity crisis can and often does occur after moving to a different location; feeling as if you don’t belong while also losing traits of your original nationality is disarming. Being adaptable, learning and exploring your new home abroad is important to understand a different culture and social norms. But trying to fit in can make you feel like you’re losing personality traits that gave you a sense of who you truly are. You have to make peace with who you were, who you are and who you may become.

Being an expat ensures that you exist with multiple identities everyday- being an expat is itself one identity and depending where you live, you may be constantly reminded of your ‘otherness’. Then of course you exist within your nationality, your ethnicity and whatever other elements make you who you are.

You exist here and there; both at home and abroad; but may never feel quite at ease anywhere.

All these identities can be confusing, but it’s all part of becoming a truly global citizen. For most of us who grew up in South Africa we have learnt to make our dual or multiple identities work for us, but I’ve noticed that many others struggle to make all these identities work for them. 

 Greater empathic awareness for society 

Like many African countries, South Africa’s emancipation from white tyranny has been quite recent. My parents were born during a time when segregation of racial groups was a norm and as a child of Post Apartheid South Africa, the South Africa I grew up in is not the South Africa that shaped their lives. As a result, Apartheid- despite it officially ending 30 years ago- has lingering results that have seeped into every aspect of South Africans’ lives and is most likely a big contributor to why many of us live abroad.  As a nation we have massive collective trauma. 

While that can be debilitating if it’s not managed effectively, as an expat I see the positives of it too. In my experience, South Africans definitely have a deeper sense of empathy and awareness when living abroad in countries we see working on themselves. We know what it’s like to undergo transformation and for progress to be slow & steady. Or in some cases- not at all.

Personal accounts and academic studies have both shown that such traumatic experiences may lead to increased empathy and compassion for fellow human beings who suffer similar circumstances. Most scholars hold the view that cases of collectively experienced trauma are likely to increase cooperation within society. Research has shown that people associated with intergenerational trauma carry a set of life stories that stimulate positive values and moral convictions (Avolio and Gardner, 2005; Shamir and Eilam, 2005).

When I see countries struggle with their issues- from xenophobia in South Korea to the invisible caste system here in the Gulf, I get it. I do not expect a utopia in any place that I live nor do I expect similarities to the place I grew up in. For most seasoned expats, we realize that no country is perfect – its all about what you can and are willing to put up with.

While South Africa and its struggles are unique, I can understand that each country has its own challenges and that I know that no country is flawless- not the one I come from and not the one I might find myself living in. 

For many expats, we go through periods where each day is a struggle. The struggles are different and sometimes unexpected but they exist. At first it can be the overwhelming loneliness and confusion that comes with moving to a new country; it later morphs into documentation dramas, housing debacles and the usual frustrations that are bound to occur when you live somewhere unfamiliar to you. Growing up in South Africa you too will go through long periods of struggle- will you have electricity today? Will you make it to the front of the queue to apply for your passport? How many crime prevention techniques will you follow just on your commute to your job? South Africa is the land of beauty and surprise challenges. You just never know what the day will bring. 

But, one thing I know about most South Africans is that they’re patriotic. But patriotism to us looks different than it does to other countries. It’s not waving around a flag chanting, “Make South Africa great again!”. It’s not saying a pledge every morning and loudly exclaiming to anyone who will hear that our country is perfect. (Show me any person from an African country who believes that, I would love to have a chat!)

Patriotism to us is the ability to acknowledge the past trauma that has molded us into who we are; it’s the freedom to clearly express how our political systems fail us; and the ability to admit that our country has so many flaws that my lifetime will pass before even half of them can be fixed.  

And in that way, I look at the many challenges and frustrations of living abroad in the same way I do when I consider the bureaucracy in South Africa- I have to find ways to work around it instead of just complaining and being miserable. 

Being South African means that we are also African. Our country is, after all, part of the continent. But what does it mean to be African?

It is not just about geography. The African identity is also about certain values. And at the heart of it is the idea that I am a person through and with other people. This view of life is known as ubuntu. When I see South Africans abroad, making a difference in their own lives, the lives of their loved ones and the lives of new communities, I know they are channeling their African-ness and understanding of Ubuntu, in ways others cannot comprehend. 

Despite the trauma, challenges & struggles, 
I am proud have grown up in South Africa
I am proud to be South African
I am grateful for the opportunities I was afforded to grow up in such a unique country which enables me to live the life I lead now. 

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How has where you grew up influenced your experience as an expat? Let me know in the comments below!!


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  • winteroseca December 12, 2021 at 8:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing your rich cultural experiences. South Africa ie one of those places I would love to visit someday 😊

  • C.W. December 12, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    My parents are immigrants but I was born in the states. It has helped me tremendously to have the perspective of making a new country that is unfamiliar to me home. My parents came to the states for a better life which is exactly why I live overseas, for a better life. Great post!

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