Ambivalence. What's good is bad

As one of those seriously unresolved South Africans who longs for “home”, I always promised myself that by the time I’d been in Australia half my life, I would know what I was doing. I’d commit. Having reached that point, I haven’t exactly done so, but a combination of inertia, real estate and an appreciation of the mundane, among others, keeps us here. Mostly, though it’s because my teenage son is an Aussie who deeply loves his school, home, street and suburb and cares about his football club.

What’s it like? For me, it’s a statement of the obvious: it’s great, if innocuous. I’m lucky, I live with my front door unlocked, my teenager can walk around relatively confidently, I don’t clutch my handbag at all times (though I lose more things out of it than when in Cape Town where I hold on tight) and we don’t get approached by hungry people in the parking lot when shopping for our expensive organic food.

But what’s good is bad: life here lacks edge and interest. It’s like a bubble, especially in the eastern suburbs of Sydney where I live – as do many other South Africans. You won’t find us out in the sticks among the bogans – def: “an uncouth or unsophisticated person”; example: “Some bogans yelled at us from their cars”.

Sydney's Bondi Junction transport interchange

We don’t have mountains, but it’s hilly and there are beautiful coastal walks with wild waves. We have, in the eastern suburbs, many more expensive private high schools than public ones – among them, the South African import Reddam, which loudly proclaims itself number 8 in the High School Certificate results for New South Wales.

When I arrived here in the ’80s, free comprehensive co-education was all the go, but now group hysteria is such that anyone with money sends their child to a private school (what costs money must be better). I was warned I’d have to hold my nerve if I chose the state system for my son. I did, and the demographic is much like Cape Town High in my day; a mix of comfortable and not-so-comfortable (there are housing commission homes nearby), clever and not-so-clever: as close to a melting pot as you can get in this rarefied bit of the world.

While everyone seems to know a good South African or two – the medical specialists are particularly liked for their bedside manner – they have fun imitating our “South Efrican” accents and demeanour. And there’s a lot to imitate. The other morning, while driving along in a broiling heat wave, I roll down the window and what do I hear?

“Stobbit, stobbit”, says a man to his dog. Just the one compound word was all it took. And taking the air on the Bondi Promenade, blonde-streaked women in hot pink and lycra, big square diamonds all the rage, walk in energetic twos or threes chatting animatedly behind their men.

Moving along, it’s Saturday and I’m off to the mini-city of Bondi Junction. In the supermarket I pick out biltong, dried sausage, Mrs Ball’s blatjang, rusks and Pronutro (I’m not exaggerating). I finally make it to the front of the line. My cashier is halfway through ringing up my purchases, my limited free-parking time is ticking, and I hear, “Scuse me, scuse me” in the familiar accent. A woman clutching a packet of yellow kitchen sponges looks at me and says, “Two secs,” and accosts the cashier, desperately, with something along the lines of: “I got the last ones, and now they’ve run out. I need more! More! Where do I get them?”

Just two secs? What this would involve is my cashier dumping me, disappearing across the huge store, to the storeroom perhaps…

The cashier looks at my nemesis blankly while I give her the death stare. “Oh ma Gawd,” she says, “it was just two secs” and retreats in fury.

I am horribly self-conscious sometimes. In the 2011 census, there were over 145,000 South African-born people in Australia, and the accent that once seemed a bit exotic is now instantly recognisable by all. So I tone myself down, down, down, am extra polite in shops and to service staff, self-effacing, even obsequious.

The cringe factor is huge. I’ve stopped asking for “very hot” coffee, because I’m told by my Melbourne sister-in-law that that’s particularly South African. The joke: the waiter comes over and says “Is anything all right?”.

In a way, it’s a good thing being elsewhere, being an outsider, re-defining. It’s humbling to have to check yourself. But I think of Cape Town every single day.   

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