Meet the Parents; or My Unexpected Language Immersion Trip

This is my third time visiting South Africa and this time I wanted to see the other side of the country; see Johannesburg. We could’ve flown, but I like road trips, so we packed up the car and made the 15 hour drive. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help Efrem drive because I can’t drive a manual car and while I’ve asked him to teach me dozens of times, that request hasn’t been fulfilled. So he was on his own for that long drive. We planned 10 days between Joburg and Pretoria, where I could see where he spent much of his first years in SA, meet his friends, and meet his mom and sister. I was excited and nervous to meet people, but I think there were definitely some miscommunications, and for me, some unanticipated consequences of this meet and greet.

As soon as we arrived we went to one of his friend’s houses for dinner. This began my nonstop consumption of injera and my first taste of what was to be a long Amharic filled vacation. In the anticipation of this trip, someone failed to mention that the majority of the people spoke little to no English, and even if they could, they probably wouldn’t. I’ve traveled to a number of countries, and I’ve done language immersion programs before. I’m used to that discomfort of not understanding. However, I usually sign up for that discomfort; I have a chance to get prepared for it where I learn the fundamentals of the language beforehand and then go somewhere to further deepen my fluency. Here, I was neither expecting this nor prepared. And it’s not like French or Portuguese where there are enough similarities in sentence structure and words here and there that I can eventually catch on. Nope. Amharic is just a beast that sounds like strings of gibberish to the unacquainted. And while I’ve been to a country with a non-Latin based language (Taiwan), the level of interest to communicate even with the language barrier in Taiwan was much higher than what I was to encounter.

The trend throughout these 10 days was this: awkward hellos; only enough English to tell me where  I could sit, when I could eat, and to ask what I wanted to drink; consuming WAY too much injera and meat; consuming copious amounts of Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black (no complaints there); and long stretches of time spent either staring into space or watching Big Brother Africa. There was the occasional conversation in English that I could participate in, but after a few minutes they would very quickly they would dissolve back into being entirely in Amharic.

Joburg as a city wasn’t exactly what I was expecting; both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. It was pure chaos in the streets–people and taxis everywhere, but at the same time, there wasn’t much to see, not like in Cape Town. Needless to say, my first time in the city, I didn’t get the best first impression.

The third day we finally drove to Pretoria to meet the family. That thirty minute drive was a bit nerve racking, and further complicating the situation was that Efrem’s mom doesn’t really speak English either. But, everything turned out alright; I felt nothing but welcome and at home in their home, and his sister did a great job throughout the week playing  translator so that the language barrier didn’t feel as imposing. His mom owns a restaurant, so the insane consumption of injera continued–breakfast, lunch, and dinner: fir fir, enkulale basega, goat tibs , lamb tibs, gored gored (raw meat), kitfo (raw ground meat), shero, aybe, and more foods that i can’t name. I finally got an upset stomach, probably from eating so much meat, mostly raw, and eating so few raw or minimally cooked veggies. But while I felt comfortable in and included at his mom’s home in Pretoria, we still spent a great deal of time in Joburg with his friends and their extended network, and that comfort and inclusion didn’t always translate there.

Like I said, I’ve traveled to enough countries with different languages that I’m used to being in situations where I may only have 50% comprehension of what’s being said, or none at all. But, those were all trips for study purposes, and those situations were asked for and anticipated. This unanticipated lingual isolation during my vacation definitely was the source of much frustration, and made this trip somewhat disappointing. Adding to that was the disparate amount of time spent sitting in his friend’s house or in one of the 3000 shopping malls helping them run errands as opposed to actually getting to see the city, be a tourist, take lots of pictures, and relax. I had high expectations for this trip and in many ways it was disappointing. However, I guess I have to take it like anything else, as a learning experience. However, after just finishing a very time consuming internship and my degree, and then spending the last of my free money on a vacation, who wants that kind of learning experience?  But that’s what it was, a learning experience about making compromises in a relationship, which often dosent come out evenly and someone ends up disappointed. I’m sure that this will be a lifelong process and there will probably be many more disappointments experienced by both of us, but that’s life right?

But let me not paint this trip as purely disappointing, because there was enjoyment as well. We went to the union building at sunset and passed by the hospital where Mandela is staying and the press is camped outside of. Efrem’s mom was really great, and even though I’m not sure who could possibly eat as much food as she dished up, it always tasted amazing. She gave me a really beautiful traditional dress, some scarves, as well as a ‘welcome-to-the-family-present’ of some nice jewelry. I finally got a driving lesson in a manual car, although there need to be many more. I had lots of great coffee, dinner, conversation, and dog playing time with another of Efrem’s friends (who does speak English). And after some asserting and foot stomping, I finally got two days where I got sole decision making power of what we would do. So we went to Freedom Park and the Apartheid Museum. And then he took me to the “Top of Africa” where you go to the 50th floor of a building and get a 360 view of Joburg. We had some good food in Chinatown, which was an awesome sight, with all the Chinese signage you’d expect to see. Oh and then there was a very tasty braai (bbq) with a mixed crowd of interesting people where we watched Ethiopia beat SA in soccer–which I guess I’m supposed to be happy about, because Efrem is, though i’m not a big soccer fan, lol.

Also we decided to extend our trip to Durban for a day, and there’s still the drive home, just the two of us this time, so we can take our time and have fun. So overall I’d have to say this excursion was more fun than not, and I have many more Amharic words to add to my vocabulary. More posts to come on museums and Durban and the drive back…

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