Culture Between Culture

“What is South Africa like?”

This is a question I get asked often. The most recent occurrence was when I made the acquaintance of an economist from Spain a few weeks ago. He had recently become my student, and he was interested to know more about me and my origins.

Upon hearing the question I leaned back in my chair and looked wistfully at the wall, which was sadly lacking a window, and pretended to conjure up happy childhood memories. Ideally I would have lit up a cigarette just then, but I don’t smoke and we were in a sealed, windowless room. After a pause I took a breath in preparation for the speech I always give on such occasions.

Smoking
South Africa? Yeah, I could tell you stories about South Africa.

“South Africa is beautiful,” I said, oozing smugness. “If you get the opportunity you should absolutely go there.” For lack of a cigarette I tented my fingertips in front of my lips and continued. “South Africa has everything. Everything. My home country has some of the best beaches in the world. We have deserts, and forests, and farmland, and some mountains. We have cage diving, and horse racing, and safaris. We’ve got trekking, and cycling, and one of the biggest running cultures on earth.”

I paused, as scripted, and turned to lock eyes with my student. “Does it rain, in Spain?” I asked, pointing an accusing finger.

“Yes,” said he, almost cowering, “but mainly on the-”

“I’d wager you’ve never felt anything like a Highveld storm,” I interjected. “Those summer torments will roll through your core. The thunder cracks will shake you to your very bones!” If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.

“And what is the capital of South Africa?” asked my eager student.

“A fine question,” I replied, going off script. “See, unlike your country, South Africa has, in fact, three capitals.”

My student leaned forward, intrigued. “Three capitals…” he whispered.

“Yes. Pretoria, Cape Town, and… and a third one!”

“But why would a country need three? What is the purpose?”

I shook my head in mock pity, but it was mostly to buy time to think. “My dear fellow, each capital serves a very special purpose. You see you have Pretoria, which is the capital of… law, and then you have Cape Town, which is the… the political capital. And then you have the third one, which is the capital of… diamonds! We have diamonds, you know.”

I had hoped that the mention of diamonds would continue to mesmerize, but I suspected the spell was breaking.

“What is the population of South Africa?” queried the man.

“Millions,” I said. “Absolutely millions. Did you hear what I said about the storms, though?”

“And the GDP. What is the GDP of your country?”

“Oh, you know, the… usual.” I was losing ground fast. “But perhaps we could talk about South Africa another day. Right now I want to talk about gerunds and-”

“Sorry, one last question-”

“Darn!”

“-but what percentage of the country is made up of white South Africans?”

“Yes I’d love to answer but I think we’re out of time. The first class is only eight minutes, after all…”

Leo Angry
What’s with all the questions anyway?!

The truth is, Dear Reader, that there’s an awful lot I don’t know about my own country. I haven’t properly lived there for some time, and now it feels as if South Africa is in red shift, moving further and further away from me into the void of memory. I am more in touch with the news in Chile and the United States than I am with what’s going on in South Africa, and when it comes to geography, you can just forget about it. At times, I will meet another South African, and inevitably I will ask them where they’re from. If they say something like Ellisras I will draw an immediate blank and change the subject. I know nothing about South African geography.

On the other hand, if I meet someone from the United States I will inevitably ask them where they’re from and if they say something like Missouri I will say “Oh that’s the ‘Show me’ state, right?” I know more about North America than I do my own country.

General knowledge aside, there’s also my general outward behaviour. More recently I have noticed a certain inter-nationality in my personality. My accent has certainly changed. I say “Yeah” a lot, and I notice that I say words like “job” and “hot dog” with an American accent. I forget how South Africans spell things like tyre, cosy, and specialise (although as I write this, these words are underlined in red, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track). These days, when I say “braai” I am conscious that it is an affectation, because my first impulse is to say “barbecue” or “asado.” When I accidentally bump into someone, my first reflex is to say “Ay perdón!” I’m trying to hold onto “Shame,” though, mostly because no other word quite fills that gap. But I am aware of when I do say it, because non-native English speakers might become self-conscious if they think I’m literally shaming them.

So I fear that I may be slowly oozing out of the mould of a South African, and I might not be able to slot right back into place when I return. But if I’m changing away from South African, then what am I becoming?

Snow
Here’s me in snow. That’s not very South African at all.

I’m certainly not Chilean. Gosh no. I battle enough with just the language, let alone the popular culture and the politics. I am friends with expats who have lived here for years, and they still haven’t been able to craft a comfortable expat-shaped hole for themselves. Sure, they’ve got comfortable lives, but some of these friends have told me that they don’t quite feel as if they have been accepted by the culture. I have many friends from the United States, but I don’t believe the US is a place that I could call home. For one thing, my accent sticks out. They all think I’m British.

So I’m starting to think that I don’t fit in anywhere, and funnily enough, many of my friends feel the same way. Those of us who have chosen to live outside of their home countries tend to agree that going back home is not easy, and neither is forging a new life in their new environment. But where we do fit in perfectly is among each other. I tend to get along well with other expats. The jokes are similar, as are our perspectives. I also have a pretty good idea of our collective population and per capita income.

Culture can be a difficult thing to pin down. Not everyone can be classified according to their country of origin. Look closely at any society and you will find running through it a shadow culture. A culture that flows between the rocks of nationality and race. A group of people who find familiarity within each other, but who have trouble defining who they are. I don’t have a name for it, but I guess this is the group that I’m a part of. So I’ll never stop telling people that I’m a South African, but at least for the time being I’m happy being a part of the culture between cultures.

Corner Shop
Life in another language.

 

Breaking the Bond

I’ve always admired James Bond. He’s everything I aspire to be: Smart, athletic, Sean Connery, witty. Sure, the face of James Bond has changed over the years, but there are some traits that have persisted in every iteration of the man, and which have come to embody the heart of manliness: Never show weakness, get the girl, be the alpha male.

James Bond is the ideal man, the man’s man, and in my quest to be like him I have fallen far, far short. I have failed to capture the spirit of masculinity that the man’s man encapsulates, and I think the reason for that is because I’ve started to realise that being James Bond isn’t very fun at all. In fact, unless you really are doing Her Majesty a secret service, I think we could do with far fewer James Bonds in the world. It strikes me that being a man’s man must be quite restrictive. It is my recommendation, then, that men should have a go at stepping out of their masculinity, at slackening their grip on the idea of what it means to be a “real man.” And here I make my case in a list entitled:

Six Reasons to Step Out of Your Masculinity

1.) It’ll make you more creative

A man’s man has always got to be thinking on his feet, but he can’t allow his thoughts to wander into the realm of whimsy. When a man’s man encounters a problem, he thinks about how a real man will overcome it. He shies away from ideas that could challenge his manhood.

But allow the masculine mind to journey into non-masculine territory, and suddenly the mental walls begin to soften. Previously-uncomfortable thoughts are given the freedom to clash and merge and produce brand new and interesting ideas.

Picture the scene: The man’s man is running late to a dinner party, yet his tuxedo is covered in blood, and he lost his backup blazer when he unexpectedly had to jump from an aircraft to avoid certain death. What can he do?

Well, the man’s man would surely sneak up on another dinner guest on the way to the party, pacify him with the butt of a revolver (or a well-timed judo chop to the trapezius), and steal his clothes. While this is effective, it’s unnecessarily aggressive for a dinner engagement.

But a man who is comfortable enough to relax his masculinity might fashion a toga out of a table cloth instead, arrive on time with a grin on his face, and regale the other dinner guests with the hilarious tale of how your tuxedo got ruined while you were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to make beetroot salad. Oh dear. How embarrassing. You’re not the deft gent everyone thought you were, but now you’re the life of the party and everyone likes you, and no one gets their vertebrae damaged.

Indiana Jones
“Did you… did you just take a swing at me? Also, why is there blood on your clothes?”

 

2.) It makes you more empathetic

James Bond is famous for always following the A, B, Cs: Always Be Cmanly. A man’s man always needs to dominate the room. He is the alpha, and he cannot afford to slip up lest he loses his social standing. One misstep, one wrong word, and his peers will judge him poorly. His mind is always at work, and with any social interaction he must be aware of his manliness at all times. But as soon as the effort of Always Being Cmanly is relaxed, the preoccupation with oneself is no longer of tantamount importance, and a man can start to mould himself into his surroundings.

Picture the scene: The man’s man is attending a dinner party to gain intelligence on a wealthy Middle Eastern oil baron. He has brought along a woman to act as his cover. Not only is she a highly trained assassin, but she is also a former supermodel. Normally she laughs at our man’s quips, but tonight something is off. She’s not talkative, and she seems moody. When she doesn’t touch her pâté de fois grois, man’s man asks her what her problem is. She mumbles something about stomach cramps. The man’s man knows what to do, and he springs into action. Unnoticed by the oil baron, our man of action leans over and whispers into her ear: “Just man up, okay?” The assassin-model clenches her jaw and flawlessly completes her part of the mission. The plans for the nuclear bomb are obtained, and a few anonymous guards have had their lives silently cut short. After completion of the mission, the assassin-model is oddly cold towards the man’s man, despite his helpful advice.

However, a man who is less concerned with his own social position, and more interested in the lives of others, might have taken a different course of action. He might have approached the oil baron’s wife and surreptitiously beseeched her for some chocolate and a copy of her favourite magazine. The wife would quickly cotton on and lead the assassin-model into her private room for better care, which is exactly where the plans to the nuclear bomb are kept. The mission is a success, the assassin-model has made a friend for life in the oil baron’s wife, and no one lost their lives. All thanks to empathy.

Shaving Legs
Shaving your legs helps you understand other people who shave their legs.

4.) It makes you a better conversationalist

Mr Bond is a master of persuasion. He can keep any villain talking while he manages to pick the lock on his handcuffs and swiftly incapacitate the guard holding a gun to his head. It’s pretty impressive stuff. Yet in the real world, a real man’s ability to talk about imminent death has only limited usefulness.

Picture the scene: The alpha male attends a barbecue with his new girlfriend. The girlfriend’s kid brother goes over to talk to him. The brother is in art school, and he’s talking about a musical called Hamilton which he wants to see. While the kid’s words wash over the man of action, he is scanning the area for potential threats. When he notices a lull in the conversation, he looks the kid dead in the eye and tells him about the gun that he’s got strapped to his leg. The girlfriend’s family kindly ask the man’s man to leave.

But had the man’s man been less shy about engaging in new and unusual experiences, he might have spoken at length about the musical, as well as it’s socio-political significance in contemporary society, or about musicals in general. The conversation continues, and suddenly he’s bought tickets for himself and the kid brother, and then before he knows it the girlfriend is asking him if he wants to spend Christmas with her.

Departed
“Excuse me sir, they’re singing about the founding of America. Could you please stop yelling ‘I’ll never fall for your tricks’?”

 

5.) You cry, and it feels wonderful

Real men don’t cry. They only seek vengeance. A real man feels only two emotions – anger and justice. When a man’s man becomes overwhelmed, he crushes bad guys and pounds his emotions down, down, down into a dark place inside himself where emotions go to die. And if that doesn’t work, he turns to expensive scotch and disposable women. It’s a dark spiral of self-destruction which might add an element of drama to an action film, but it does not do any favours to the man’s man in everyday life.

Here is a true secret about myself: My favourite thing to do on a Sunday is to curl up on the couch and watch movies with emotional triggers, and then cry. It’s terrifically cathartic. I become weepy at the drop of a hat. Even a well-made commercial can set me off, or a 40-second dog video. But by the time I slide into bed at night I feel fantastically refreshed and I sleep like a baby. I don’t claim to be particularly adept at talking about my feelings, but it’s something I’m working on. And allowing myself to cry on occasion is a big help when it comes to introspection.

127 Hours
This scene, at the end of 127 Hours, absolutely finished me.

 

6.) Your confidence skyrockets

You will hardly find a more confident man in popular culture than in James Bond himself. The man is so self-assured. He always knows what to say, who to talk to, and where to go. He never simply throws up his hands and says “I just don’t know.” It’s one of the many characteristics that makes Bond so attractive.

But it occurs to me that James Bond hardly ever finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Even when he’s at the mercy of his nemesis, on the brink of being dropped into a shark tank, he is still firmly within the realm of espionage and intrigue. This is a language that Bond speaks fluently.

But picture the scene: Bond is off duty, and has developed a budding romance with a school teacher. Not his usual type, but she’s attractive and he wants to see where this will go. One day, Bond tracks her down at the school where she works. It’s an elementary school with crayon drawings on the noticeboards. Bond steps into the classroom and greets the small patch of 6-year-olds who are all seated quietly on the floor while the teacher-girlfriend reads them a story. Bond leans down and whispers something profoundly smooth into the teacher’s ear. Something like, “I got us a reservation at El Bistro Sophistique at six o’ clock.”

The teacher flushes, and swoons, and needs to leave the room to splash some water onto her face, leaving Bond alone with the small patch of 6-year-olds. As soon as she’s gone, one child steps up and violently blows his nose directly into the fabric of Bond’s very expensive tuxedo jacket. I don’t know why he’s wearing a tuxedo jacket to an elementary school, but now he is totally flummoxed. He can’t very well strike a child. And besides, the damage is done. More children begin to fling paint onto him, and Bond finds himself completely out of his element. He’s angry but doesn’t know how to handle his emotions because he taught himself never to cry. He wants to break things but he doesn’t want to look weak in front of his new girlfriend. He wants to impress her with the way he handles children, but he doesn’t know how, and his life has suddenly become a shambles.

I’m not saying that stepping out of your masculinity will give you an instinct for handling absurdly naughty children, but it will definitely make you feel comfortable in every new environment. When you stop trying to conform to the idea of a real man’s man, you become open to experiences outside of your comfort zone, and you learn to handle them with grace. Having the courage to look vulnerable is admirable, and, (to me at least), it can be seen as a form of confidence.

Purple Dress
Also, you get the best stories when you drop your agenda.

 

The benefits of moving away from conventional ideas of masculinity are numerous. This list is hardly comprehensive, but it is highly subjective. To me, the idea of conforming to society’s expectations of manliness is claustrophobic. It’s like squeezing myself into a coffin. But when I act outside of these expectations I feel marvelously free. Also, people tend to like me, so I think I’m heading in the right direction.

I think that jealously clinging to conventional ideas of masculinity carries with it a certain level of fear. The fear of stepping outside the oppressive coffin of masculinity is dangerous, and not just to the manly men within it. June is LGBT Pride month, which means that celebrations and marches are happening all over the world. In a lot of progressive countries, these events are celebrations of pride and diversity. But, sadly, in most other countries, these are marches for basic human rights. Now, I don’t belong to the LGBT community, so I’ve got no place speaking on their behalf, but I do think it’s important to at least extend a hand across the divide. If one side stops being scared, then the other side won’t need to be.

James Bond Drag
It’s important to remember that James Bond is played by an actor who went to drama school, and who makes a living by dressing up and being silly.