A few years ago, I lived in Cape Town for some time with my partner and our then two-year-old daughter. The former was collaborating with the university there, through his PhD project, while the latter was … well, doing her best at being two. As for me, coming from Sweden with the luxury of sharing 480 days of paid parental leave between me and my partner (and that is why I love paying Swedish taxes), I spent my days changing diapers, tending to fever highs, coordinating life and public transportation with a two-year-old, and being intellectually starved—counting the days until the kid would be old enough to offer some social stimuli worth the name.
Life in Cape Town was good. Sure, I had my pocket picked. My partner had his credit card stolen and his bank account drained within minutes. And good friends of ours were subjected to burglary when they came to visit us. But overall, days passed by as days tend to pass by, and we were not particularly worried or overly cautious. After all, I had had worse things happening to me both living in Sweden (someone tried to burn the building down that I lived in, anonymous death threats at work) and during my year and a half in California (creationists, NRA).
Thus, during our half-year stay, we never avoided going where we needed to go. We never felt restrained from doing what we wanted to do. On the contrary, I might have gotten a tad overconfident—and, in hindsight, extremely stupid—when I parked the stroller with my bag containing everything I owned, in the corner of a park to run around and play with the two-year-old. That eventually resulted in me running down the street, wearing flip-flops no less, to chase down the car in which, according to witnesses of the snatch-and-run, the guy who had taken my bag had jumped. Because running after a car with possibly armed men, is the sensible thing to do … (believe me, when your credit cards, driver’s license, and travel documents are in the bag, and you know what it is like to deal with South African red-tape, it is the ONLY sensible thing to do).
On the other hand, leaving your two-year-old with a total stranger in a park to rescue a bag made about as much sense as having to repeatedly respond to questions and comments about how risky it must have been to move to South Africa with a toddler. I mean, as much as I sympathize with the concern, the last time I checked, there are plenty of toddlers in South Africa, and they seem to be doing just fine. And yes, that is quite an arrogant answer. But I have very little patience with entitled, privileged ignorance—which is why I have struggled so hard, during the past week, to balance my urge to speak up and the delicacy to shut up.
Revisiting South Africa last week—this time for my own PhD and a few days of lectures and seminars at Rhodes University in Makhanda—I was introduced to a number of concerns and a daily portion of fear. There were moments when I did not know what was more frightening, the dark alley that I stayed away from late at night or our small group of intellectuals.
During the past seven days, I have been told never to walk around by myself, but to make sure to always go as a group. During the past week, I have been told not to move beyond the vicinity of the hotel and campus. I have been warned not to drink tap water, because I can get sick. I have been advised not even to brush my teeth with tap water. I have listened to the concerns and reasoning of someone who would rather wait outside a room for two hours with nothing to do, than to explore Makhanda on their own, because they were scared something bad would happen to them.
Do not get me wrong. I am pointing no fingers here. Each to their own, and I want to be respectful of people’s concerns. My intention is not to turn this into a rant in which I hackle the narrow horizon of the entitled, privileged intellectual. I want to be understanding of people’s fears of the unknown, because we all have them—if different. But I also know that the only way to overcome that fear is to expose yourself to the very reason to it. Maybe it helps to have played the part of the Other for four decades, always being the weird-looking, funny-acting Asian to whom you do not know whether to expose yourself. Maybe that constant awareness of being beyond people’s safety zone makes it easier for me to push myself out of my own. Or I am simply too obstinate to do as I am told.
In any case, I spent the week walking by myself—at times—beyond the safe zone comprised of the hotel and campus. I defiantly brushed my teeth with tap water. I even drank it. If it is good enough for the kitchen staff to mix with concentrate for my breakfast juice, it should be good enough without concentrate. None of the above makes me a better person in any way. But it does make my horizon a little broader, my collected experiences a little richer, and my world a little larger.
I have, however, consistently avoided that dark alley down the street late at night, and I cannot help but wonder why. Am I being street smart? Am I being cautious? Or is it me holding on to my ignorance? During the past seven days, we have spent so much scheduled time reflecting—over the lectures, each other’s papers, and over our own process and development. But not once were we asked to reflect over our intellectual and bodily reactions in encountering life outside our comfort zone. I find that disturbing. I find that problematic.
We cannot spend all that time in lecture halls and classrooms theorizing about abstractions of agency and the impediments of being othered, and then go from those intellectual spaces straight to our isolated, safe bubbles in which we never have to engage in de-alienating anyone or anything. Why are we spending all that time explaining to colleagues, journals, and research funding bodies what our contribution is to our research field, when what we should be doing is to explain to ourselves what our contribution is to the community and the next person we meet?
It worries me when we, as representatives of what is supposed to be the beacon of knowledge and enlightenment, will not challenge what we already know, to probe what we have yet to learn—about others as well as about ourselves. We can pride ourselves on how, with globalization and the Internet, we have made the world smaller, but we should never pride ourselves on making it narrower. In that perspective, I have some introspection and thinking to do after the past seven days. We all do.
Spoke Wintersparv likes words. Writing them, stretching them, translating them, lining them up to form tiny pieces of life. In song lyrics. In children’s books. A novel. An Arthur Miller play. Short stories. Published. Self-published. Unpublished. He is currently doing his PhD in Educational Research, exploring the ways teachers teach literature. And while work is in Sweden, home is in Oregon, where he lives with his husband and their daughter. He enjoys a good conversation about things that matter. Find him on Twitter (@wintersparv) and join the discussion!