I have made a commitment to be as transparent as possible about my experiences in hopes that my experiences may be beneficial to others. I was surprised by my internal response to a situation that occurred while traveling and I would like to share it with you.
I have spent several months preparing for a trip to Africa, even though I did not know how or when it may happen. My preparation for my first international trip included purchasing a passport, studying the demographics and geography of the continent, and speaking with Africans born on the continent about their experiences in Africa (something I had never done before). I also visited African restaurants and stores and engaged the owners about their cultures.
Once I made the decision to visit South Africa, I began listening to a radio station – Ukhozi FM – and learning (or should I say familiarizing myself with) the Zulu language because it is spoken or understood by many people in the areas I planned to visit.
I even knew that it was summertime in South Africa, but was below freezing in Chicago so I dressed accordingly. (Gene was less than flattered by my travel outfit… hehehe)
I also viewed (and re-viewed) African films and particularly films about South Africa and its history. Because much of its political change has occurred within my lifetime, I have always considered where I had been and my age during some of the political uprising.
In the U.S., there is about half a century, some 50 years, between Americans and overtly racist political schemes that were upheld by written laws. My parents and other family members have shared stories, but I never personally had those experiences with segregation or being excluded because of skin color. In South Africa, 2014 marked 20 years since the end of apartheid. I married in 1994, so for me considering the experiences were very real.
One thing that I understood was that when I traveled to South Africa, their would be many instances where no one would know I was a foreign national until I opened my mouth to speak. That is a strange notion to me, but one I understand if I consider the number of times I have noticed that happen with white foreign nationals in the U.S. I have made assumptions about them before I heard them speak.
So back to my experience… I was boarding the plane in Atlanta for Johannesburg and heard several languages being spoken by various groups of people. One of the languages I recognized more than others because of my studies in preparation for the trip to South Africa. It sounds very German to me which is one reason I find it easier to identify along with other European languages I have heard spoken throughout my life.
When I looked around to see who was speaking I saw a group of white gentlemen speaking and when I saw the South African flag embroidered on one of their sleeves, I was certain that the gentlemen were Afrikaans. It was confirmed when the gentleman asked a women who was laughing with them about something they were saying, “Jy Afrikaans?” And she nodded in affirmation.
I had not expected my first encounter with South Africa to be related to historical contexts that were still so recent and in my lifetime that I still felt uncomfortable about them. I quickly got over that, however, when I remembered how massively large this plane was… I chose to see it as a reminder of where I was going and nothing more. I had checked my flight and according to the flight itinerary and seat assignments, I had an empty seat beside me.
I boarded the plane and proceeded to my row. 44… 45… I heard the laughing and that familiar language again… 46… It got louder… 47… 48… Oh my God, NO! I arrived at row 48. The aisle seat and the middle seat were both occupied. I smiled at the two Afrikaans gentlemen and said, “Excuse me… I am in the window seat.”