One of the things I have loved most about living overseas again is meeting such a huge range of people from all over the world. When you move somewhere, you expect to meet people from the host country – in my case, South Africa. But what you sometimes forget about is how enriched your life will become by being surrounded by people from so many different cultures and backgrounds.Here in Pretoria, we are especially lucky as the city is home to more embassies than any other capital in the world bar Washington. South Africa is also used as a regional base for many organisations – aid agencies, not-for-profit groups, large companies, charities – you name it, they are here. This is because Africa is a huge market in so many different areas, whether tackling poverty or selling telecommunications. And South Africa not only has the best air links on the continent, it’s also probably the nicest place for most “westerners” to live.
So we are surrounded by people from all over the world. My children go to an American International school, which has children from more than 100 countries attending. There would be more but there are also French, German and Chinese schools in Pretoria (and very likely others – I think, for example, there is a small Russian school here). We have friends from Sweden, Belgium, Australia, the US, Germany, Italy, Holland, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Switzerland, China… if you look at a map of the world, what you will notice is really how central we are. It takes 11/12 hours to fly to Europe, a similar amount of time to the west coast of Australia and the same again to Brazil. In other words, there is no “dominant” expat community here.
This all means that in the past few months I have gained as much of an understanding about life around the world as in South Africa. I know that the Swedes celebrate St Lucia in mid-December. I understand that Flemish is not a Dutch dialect, but that neither of them are that dissimilar to Afrikaans (although the Dutch have a very distinctive way of pronunciation, and neither of them make that throat-clearing noise when they say words that begin with G like the Afrikaaners). That the Americans like their bacon crispy. And that Australians don’t like dressing up for dinner.
What I have liked most of all is that I feel at home. Having travelled on and off all my life and lived all over the world, I love the fact that I am surrounded by people who have done the same. Some won’t have lived in more than one or two countries, but almost everyone you meet has some love of travel at the very least. And many have even lived in some of the more, should I say, “interesting” countries of the world. It’s nice not to have eyebrows raised when you say you took your children to live in Islamabad. When you have friends who raised their kids in Tehran you know you are in good company.
But the other thing I love about being surrounded by people from so many different places is how it makes you realise we are all basically the same. I spend many lunchtimes sitting and talking to my South African domestic helper, Sanna. She talks about her children and grandchild, about politics and why she isn’t voting in the next election. We discuss the weather and my parents and Pretoria shops. We couldn’t be more different she and I, and yet we have so much in common. The same is true of many of the other people I have met here – my South African cousins down in Cape Town, the Chinese mum of one of my daughter’s classmates, my new Swedish friends, the Israeli couple on our compound who invited us to their newborn son’s circumcision ceremony… yes, we all have a lot of our own customs and celebrations and ways of doing things, but we also have a huge amount in common.
As expats I think we have a duty to pass on what we learn about multiculturalism when we return to our home nations. There is so much misunderstanding in the world at the moment, so much downright nastiness to those whom we don’t perceive as being “like us”. It’s only when you meet people from other countries, talk to them, get to know them, that you realise actually we have more in common than we think.
Hopefully as more and more people move around the world to work, and bring their experiences home with them, then this view that there is a “them” and an “us” will start to diminish. I know this is probably wishful thinking – but for now I am going to go on wishing for it. And in the meantime, we’re off to see Belgian friends for dinner this Saturday. I wonder if they’ll serve mussels and frites, done on the braai!