Joy and I have been friends since 2010. She is the quintessential success story of a small city African girl who has hit the big time as she flounces around Los Angeles eating brunches with kale and enjoying bottomless mimosas. Lets just say that I always knew she was destined for great things! However, as I know all too well, the transition from third world to first world is not always as rosy as it seems. Here is her story…
I am a proud South African; born in Durban (just like Panda) and moved to Johannesburg, where I started my career as a consulting organizational psychologist right after I completed my Masters Degree in Durban.
For those of you who haven’t yet been to South Africa, let me shed some light on the nuances of these two cities:
Durban is a beach city, largely populated by the zulu tribe (#mypeople), and has a laid back, ‘small town’ vibe to it. When I moved to Johannesburg, I was blown away by it’s very cosmopolitan, diverse, and ‘concrete jungle’ vibe. I am sure you have two cities like this where you are from so you know what I mean.
It was while I working in Johannesburg that I met some mentors that ignited a dream of mine to travel to California as a Fulbright Scholar and pursue my PhD. Well, five years after putting that on my vision board, here I am, a Fulbright Scholar at Pepperdine University in Southern California, studying a doctorate in Organizational Leadership. Yass!
And that was how I made the move from the the third world to the first world. And what a transition it was!
After three months of living in the U.S.A. (when it hit me that I’m actually not on holiday), I realized that this dream was not as dreamy as how I saw it on my vision board a few years ago. This month, July 2017, I am celebrating 1 year and 11 months of living in Los Angeles. In this piece, I will attempt to take you through three themes that describe some of the aspects that stand out to me about my experience of living in L.A as a South African.
Culture Shock Alert !!
People have this misconception that when you move to a developed country, especially one where they speak a language you understand, you won’t experience any culture shock. That is NOT the case.
At first, L.A reminded me of Durban. I live by the beach, and people are generally laid back. It felt good to feel the sea breeze after the hustle and bustle of inland Johannesburg. The problems began when I started to open my mouth. The locals couldn’t hear what I was saying, I’d often get those head-tilted-what-language-are-you-speaking looks when I was speaking good old English. And to be honest, I’d struggle to hear them too through the very Kourtney Kardashian twang and lots of “Totally” and “OMG” (which regrettably I’ve caught myself saying at times, don’t judge me).
You know that stereotype about how everyone that lives in California is gorgeous? Well it is true. I mean we have beautiful people in South Africa but this is different. LA people are soooo beautiful and lean. It seems like Hollywood has drawn a lot of actors, musicians, and artsy group of people that really put a lot of attention on how they look. I constantly see people who look like they just stepped off a fashion shoot for Vogue when they are just buying groceries. And then there is me 😀
Something I didn’t experience in South Africa was the times where LA can come across really shallow. However I’ve come to respect how ingenious and at the edge of innovation LA actually is. Name any crazy idea, someone in LA has tried it and made heaps of money doing it – Stretching in a heated room (i.e Bikram Yoga), green doctors (i.e marijuana for ‘medicinal purposes’), and just a lot of out of the box stuff. This of course is quite different from Durban which is not known for it’s contemporary innovative activity.
Relatedly, another key culture shock was how high the cost of living is in LA. If you want to have a meal, and two cocktails, you’ll split with at least $50 (around ZAR 630) which includes a strongly recommended 18% tip. This does not happen in South Africa, unless you go to a super expensive restaurant, a comparable outing in South Africa would perhaps cost ZAR 350 (around $30). And gratuity in SA is usually rounding up your bill to the nearest 10 or if a waiter does an extremely good job (including a bit of flattery), you’ll give about 10%. This might come across as frugal for your LA American, but did I mention that I am a full-time, unemployed student living off a not so great stipend in one of the most expensive cities to live in the world?
Honestly, at times I feel like a ‘low income’ person as I am systemically excluded from things that LA has to offer. I mean who doesn’t want to rent a yacht on a Sunday and go play with the other cool kids? But more realistically, who wants to feel bad every time they give a lower tip when splitting the bill with your working, or not-as-poor-as-you LA acquaintances? Notice how I used the term ‘acquaintances’ and not friends? We’ll get into that later on.
The grass isn’t always greener in fact it is somewhat… sobering
I cannot stress how extremely privileged I am to be a Fulbright Scholar and trying to live my best life. I have to mention however, that after experiencing the ‘adult making money’ life, to being a full time doctoral student, I’ve had moments where I’ve come to a conclusion that I had a pretty good life in South Africa especially when I lived, worked and earned in The City of Gold- Johannesburg.
For a young, black, educated, and ambitious young professional in South Africa, there are many opportunities for growth and prosperity with the country developing as a booming emerging economy. So I am going to say it again, I had a pretty good life in South Africa! This is important to note because people always assume that if you’re from the third world, your life was awful or you were poverty stricken- this was not the case for me.
The transition to becoming a full time student with a one evening a week class schedule, no clients, and little opportunity to earn a living, makes it hard to be motivated to wake up in the morning- even today. During my first year as a student, I would go through extreme guilt of not being useful to society in the traditional 8 – 5 working sense. I applied for jobs and wasn’t successful because I would either be overqualified for student/internship jobs or could not get proper jobs due to J VISA restrictions which only allows me to work 20 hours a week (after extensive paperwork). However, as I struggled with ‘the system isn’t for me’ syndrome, I slowly moved to a more empowered state of creating my own spaces for working. I’d scrape money together for international and local conferences which created more global exposure and nuance to my different worlds journey.
After 9 months of working on my own projects, I am excited to be launching my website turned full blown organization, that I have founded to support the growth of global emerging leaders like myself.
Building and maintaining relationships across and within borders is hard but deeply fulfilling
No man is an island, so let me end with the topic that raises the importance of relationships. I’d describe myself as introverted, so naturally I never feel like I need more friends than the handful that I have. But for social support when living abroad, it’s generally advisable for one to build supportive, and dependable relationships. Man, was it difficult to make friends in LA! I learnt three rules very quickly:
- Don’t expect people to really care about how you are doing when they ask you how you are doing.
- Don’t call someone unless you have texted them first to ask to call them and they’ve agreed.
- Don’t expect an invitation to someone’s home or them to come to yours.
Now as a South African brought up with the philosophy of ubuntu (a person is a person through other people), having humanistic relationships with people around you is an important element of society.
And even though it’s not friendship in the deep sense, there is usually an extension of neighbourliness where I come from. For instance, it is not unfamiliar for your neighbour to knock on your door and ask for sugar or money or some sort of help, and for you to help out in the way that you can. The struggle was real guys, but I am proud to announce that I now have a handful of real (I’m talking invite to my wedding) American friendships that I cherish deeply. As my friendships grow deeper it’s been so interesting how people from completely different worlds have remarkable similarities. Either through a commonality of the same faith, being consultants, being psychologists, being international students, or being scholars, there is something that’s keeping the dialogue going between us.
Another important aspect of relationships when abroad is sustaining long distant relationships. And for me, it’s been with my family, friends and boyfriend back at home. It was important to me to maintain those relationships in light of a 9 hours time zone difference and expensive communication technologies. I’d like to take a moment to thank the inventors of Facebook, Instagram, FaceTime, and Viber for keeping my international relationships alive, and for taking about 40% of my time. With my boyfriend for instance, we FaceTime twice a day for an average of about 120 minutes a day. And although he has never complained about spending so much money on the internet, data is extremely expensive in South Africa. I have almost taken for granted that it is a true first world privilege to have access to high speed, unlimited internet at a relatively affordable price even for a financially struggling student like myself.
The timezones and the internet costs are only the few surface level dynamics of maintaining an international relationship; beneath the surface you also get to play the balancing act of time spent on the phone, with immersing yourself to your new culture, the arguments after an “I’ll call you in a bit” turning to the next day because one person gets caught up with getting ready for work and the other with sleep. And as I continue growing my relationships, I’m asking myself existential questions like, what does ubuntu look like across international borders, a question I am still trying to answer.
Essentially, I am convinced that when you are following your dreams from an authentic place, no experience is a bad experience. There is always something to learn – whether from the third world or first world and hey, sometimes my learning is somewhere in between. In 28 years of my life between these two worlds (developing and developed) I’ve played many roles:
I am a Durbanite Zulu, a Jozi bred consultant, a girlfriend in a long distance relationship, a Fulbright Scholar, a Pepperdine doctoral candidate, a Cali (brief crossfit) – mimosa loving girl, a South African friend to my fellow Americans, and many other roles to be.
As a result of my ‘third world’ and ‘first world’ experiences, I’d advise people to not hold themselves hostage to who they were and gravitate towards the pull of a changing concept of self. Instead of trying to balance your old self, new self, and becoming self, try to integrate it. I believe that 20 years from now, the idea of distinct identity will become an elusive and obsolete term.
For more of her insightful wanderings, you can find Joy on Instagram: @thezuluacademic
Have you ever moved from the third to the first world? Was it the utopia you expected or did you end up spiralling through vortex of conflicting transitions? Comment below to let us know!