Being an expat living in a major Chinese city of millions – with thousands of Westerners within the English-speaking foreigner scene – you never know who you will meet and what part of the world they may introduce you to… particularly when it comes to romance!
As I’ve written about extensively, it just never seemed to work out with me and Chinese girls. I haven’t followed up on those old blogs in a while, but know this of my present situation: I have not been lonely over the past year.
In the summer of ’14, I happened to fall for an artsy South African girl. Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say there were some interesting stories along the way. I’m not going to share all those personal stories at this time. Suffice to say it’s been serious, intense, and loving.
I am however happy to share the fact that last holiday (Moon Festival coinciding with National Day) she took me on a tour of her home country. An entire new continent I’ve never been to, a whole other land. I am still in awe of all I had seen.
I must admit, it was a challenge at times. Sad though it may be, at this late stage in my life this was actually the first time I had ever met a girlfriend’s parents! Wow. Really? Well, that’s me.
I was rather nervous. There was, in actuality, the issue of class. White South Africans tend to live in the suburbs, in gated communities, walled off by electric fences. I grew up a step below, and over the past half-decade gotten comfortable living in the lesser developed end of a developed city in developing country.
South Africa in actuality may be one of the most unequal countries in the world, but I’m not saying that my girlfriend’s family are that rich. Just normal middle class. Yet even that is tricky for me to be comfortable with. I liken myself to a starving artist-writer in China mind you, not some trader-businessman.
Really, it wasn’t that bad.
All that said, the country is full of beauty like no other… I can see what people love so much about Africa.
My lovely did an incredible job of planning this trip. (How could I plan? I followed her. And it worked out very well that I did.) Everyday, off to a new place. New sights to see. New wonders to behold.
Off we went.
We flew in from Hong Kong. Transferred at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the view from the aircraft of exquisite waterfalls and Mt. Kilimanjaro. My first time entering the Southern Hemisphere. Wish I could have explored Ethiopia more. Next time.
Though we were tired, I was determined to start exploring right after landing. Being picked up from the Johannesberg airport was almost a disappointment; I’d wanted to learn about trains right off the bat. But it was tiring after the second flight being over ten hours.
The driver took us to the guest house in Melville, the hip part of town. On the drive over I stared out the window and took pictures. The highway only showed what looked like middle-American suburbs. In fact, much of what I would see of the middle-class homes and shopping malls pretty much reminded me of American suburbs.
Melville was awesome. Full of vegetarian restaurants (we ate Mexican food the first night, yum!), used bookstores (I spent way too much money), and most importantly of all a comic book shop. Outer Limits: I got an old Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud I’d been wanting to reread and share for ages.
They didn’t have the latest One Piece manga volume, but later I did find it at a shop in Pretoria.
And Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture still hadn’t come out yet, always late.
By the second day my ears no longer popped and jetlag not too bad, we hung out some more in Melville and bought vintage clothes at this cool place made out of trucker containers called 27 Blocks. After some errands at the bank, I got a Sim card for my phone. Another highlight was simply going to a grocery store. Again, due to the western context, it was nice to simply be in a supermarket.
We checked out and took a tuk-tuk driver to downtown Pretoria, at the City Bowl area near the Gautrain station. There, although heavy with all the luggage, we went to yet another bookstore (found a used Warren Ellis graphic novel) to meet up with Eleni – blogger of Greek Meets Taiwan – who lives in the area. It was tricky to find the time, but small world that it is one might as well take advantage, and had coffee with her boyfriend and talked about education.
A lot of interesting talks showing me how it really is in South Africa…
Running a bit late, we took the Gautrain to Pretoria. This was the moment. My girlfriend’s dad, first time ever in my life to meet him. Although I did talk to him on Skype the week before. It was cool, no big deal at all. Nice man.
The dad and his wife – I would meet the mother later (now that I think about, perhaps divorced parents is one of the things that brings us together) – drove us out for dinner. We stopped by at a hoity-toity golf club where I did not feel comfortable at all. But it was interesting to see their scene. I was treated to an endless array of delicious meals, put on weight, and I’m very grateful he invited me into his home and was so kind.
The house in the suburbs was as suburban as ever. Except as said in South Africa they have electric fences. Stayed in our own guest bedrooms, watched cable TV, and caught up with my online life.
Already my third day in this land, and then sadly it started to get boring.
Don’t get me wrong. I always appreciate going to a new country. Hell, this was both a new continent AND a new hemisphere. Weird with the opposite weather, the whole thing.
But it was also about meeting family, and being that we are adults in our thirties, meeting older family members involves spending a lot of time hanging out with people in their sixties and up.
What can I say? It was a challenge. Not that I’m complaining now.
So on the third day the family went to a clubhouse to play bowls for about six hours. I mean, hours and hours. I wasn’t previously aware of the game, seems very Britishy-retirey somehow, and it was an interesting thing. Good way to go out and get some sun, I get it.
Lots of old people. And then the day kept going. I guess I just get bored easily.
Me and my lady did sneak away and take out the car for our own drive. That part of the day was great; we went to a mall, checked out her old childhood house, frolicked in the park, played pool, and frequented the Pretoria branch Outer Limits comic shop too.
That night was focused on the braai. That’s what it’s all about in South African culture, the slow-paced enjoyable lifestyle of barbecue (note I don’t eat meat) and drinking wine and staring off into the night sky.
To be perfectly honest, I cannot at all keep up with that level of drinking. It must be a British thing, or a European/Dutch thing. Or an African thing. In any case, there are certainly Americans who drink everyday but I am not one of them. Seems to be a bit of a social stigma in the States, right? You can drink beers and wine and liquor with every meal if you want, if you’re a fratboy or an alcoholic or something, but some people may wonder if you have a problem. Not so in South Africa where wine/spirits are expected to be the beverage at every single meal ever. Uch, it was getting to me after a while.
(I do have many vices, just not that vice.)
Still, good conversation. I learned a lot about demographics in South Africa… the Zulu and Xhosa tribes, and among the white people how it works with the English-language scene and more insular Afrikaans…
On the last day in Pretoria, we took advantage of the fact that it’s the capital and went to see the Union Buildings beneath the large Mandala statue.
Being the last chance to spend quality time with the dad’s side of the family, we bought souvenirs and ate ice cream and I learned more. It was a great place to go if you’re ever in Pretoria, and not crowded with tourists at all.
I may have not been getting the most out of all the experiences though, because I was too worried about getting online. My book was about to be published, there was a lot of work to do, okay! Sorry.
And yet all the while I was wishing the Wi-Fi wasn’t so slow.
Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi did not impress in South Africa. Low signals, off and on. Yet, perhaps I am too plugged in for my own good and I need to get out there and experience nature.
And experience nature I did.
The journey had only just begun, I was still on to camp out among the wild animals for days on end. Not to mention flying to another city.
To be continued in Part II: The Kruger Park; and Cape Town