Expatriate awareness

September 8, 2012 at 1:03 am Leave a comment

By Roon Lewald

Roon Lewald

Roon Lewald

When I emigrated to Germany from South Africa in 1971,     there were hardly any other expatriates I could share my memories, thoughts and feelings with. South Africa wasn’t the sort of birthplace you bragged about in those days. Unlike the British, my new German fellow-citizens knew very little about the place other than the buzz-word Apartheid, while less sophisticated, politically disinterested people seemed incredibly ignorant about it. My first landlady actually asked me: “Südafrika? Is that in South America or something?” All that has changed completely now that the Mandela miracle has banished the evil reputation of my old home country. A flood of sun-seeking European tourists plus the achievements of South African sportsmen, film stars like Charlize Theron and opera singers like Deon van der Walt have magnified the Rainbow Country’s new international popularity and renown.

All this has allowed me to live comfortably at last with my South African roots, banished to the back of my mind during the Apartheid years by a shamefaced feeling of guilt by association. Now at last I can come to grips with the dislocation and nostalgia most people, however well acclimatized to their second homeland, experience after turning their back on the once beloved country where they were born. I discovered that my situation is not very different from that of emigrants from other countries. Since there is a large Australian diaspora in Europe and denizens of the Land of Oz have very comparable values to those of white South Africans, comparing notes with ex-Aussies here has been rewarding.

A case in point is a series of discussions I once had with Josie, a spunky Australian of Irish descent who was my best friend until she died a few years ago. The burden of our exchange was that we had both moved from what used to be the colonial “periphery” of western culture to its old European heartland, only to find ourselves tensed uneasily between the seemingly straightforward, positivist values of our origins and the seemingly over-complex, often pessimistic mindset of the central European society we now live in. Her increasing preoccupation with things Australian seemed to me to mirror the energy with which I was digging into my South African past after tackling a project to analyse my “roots”. Josie and I were obviously driven by more than just sentimental nostalgia for our childhood environment. Neither did we seem to be trying to wipe our slates clean of our decades of German experience in hopes of returning to the “simpler, better” culture of the young, sparsely populated societies we had come from.  We had after all lived the most formative years of our lives here, for better or for worse, and my daughter and hers were living products of an experience which we couldn’t simply “wipe away.”

In the context of her recurrent bouts of extreme homesickness, we discussed an Australian short story called “The Laughing Man” (I forget who wrote it) and her identification with the social norms it represents. It is a popularly written encapsulation of traditional (male) Australian virtues, values and customs in an archetypically Australian setting. The Laughing Man has suffered the double disaster of his only son’s accidental death and the resulting loss of his wife’s companionship, due to her retreat into a passive, uncommunicative state of psychic shock. Culturally conditioned to conceal even the highest levels of mental pain and loss behind an ostensibly normal, breezy exterior, the “laughing man” lacks and would presumably recoil in horror from all the channels to ventilate and overcome mental distress which less determinedly positivist societies offer.

Life itself is unbearable, but his own values force him to sublimate this knowledge and seek solace in the life-substitute arena of amateur cricket. An amateur cricket match can last four days or more. The two teams in their spotless white dress seem to sleep-walk through a stately, social ritual until galvanized by sudden flashes of quick-paced action. The spectators show little excitement throughout, apart from polite clapping and murmurs of “Oh, well played!” to signal their approval of a player’s cool mastery of arcane technical and social rules. Most foreigners find cricket an incomprehensible and incredibly boring game. Male Australians, like other Anglo-Saxons, see such critics as victims of a misapprehension, since they clearly don’t realize that cricket is not just a game. It is in fact a microcosm of life as these sportsmen would like it to be played: a team contest of skill and tactics between decent, companionable, and above all fair opponents, in which victory is so far from being the main object that gallant losers can earn more sympathy than boorish winners.

Although the relentless strain of the protagonist’s suppression of real-life conflicts has saddled him with a serious heart complaint, the idea of giving up cricket seems to him tantamount to abandoning life itself. So he ignores his pain, joshes with his mates and their wives, walks onto the pitch with his customary, ringing laugh and plays a magnificent game – only to collapse with a fatal heart attack immediately after racking up a mighty batting score of 100 runs. While alarmed spectators mill helplessly around, his wife emerges from her trance-like state long enough to press his cricket bat into his dead hands: now, he will be able to play cricket “up there” with their son, she announces.

Although I found the ending a bit mawkish,  the story is otherwise a well written, successful evocation of traditional male Australian self-reliance, reticence about emotional problems, male bonding, social separation between males and females, and cricket both as a prime national sport and a microcosm of the Aussie way of life, i.e. as an archetypally “fair” contest between equals who generously praise their opponents, rib each other in a manly, unaggressive way and never indulge in displays of problematical emotion. On the surface, the protagonist is portrayed as a heroic martyr to social conventions whose validity is never explicitly questioned. Consequently, the Laughing Man’s self-sacrifice is rewarded by packing him off – cricket bat in hand – to meet his dead son in a heaven that is forever cricket.

Implicitly, however, the author questions and demonstrates the limits of values like self-reliance, emotional reticence, avoidance of unpleasantly problematical issues etc. I told Josie that those values were fine in a pioneer environment where you had to be self-reliant and could rely on friendly neighbours for practical help in an emergency. Population density and therefore social tension were low, but anybody venting unconventional views or intense emotions would probably have been scorned as a poofter or a looney.  These settler virtues and values remain very attractive and valid today — but not beyond the point where a stiff upper lip becomes a harmfully or even suicidally phony pose. In a modern society, where shrinks sort out our complexes and we can let the rest hang out among like-minded friends if we need to, I kept wanting to tell the Laughing Man to go get some psychosomatic treatment  and send his wife to a clinic to get her grief blockage sorted out.

To me, there seemed a gap between Josie’s identification with that story and her true values, which were actually far more contemporary. That sort of confusion happens to me too. I’ll feel an absolute sense of sentimental identification with some simple Boer pioneer farmer I’m reading about in one of Charles Bosman’s tales, knowing full well that his often questionable values represent a place and a time that I (or my mother) came from, but certainly not the standards that guide me today. It is in this sense that we were both tensed between the “periphery” and the heartland of western culture, Josie and I agreed.

Unlike her, I’m half-German by upbringing and blood, and I consciously burned my South African bridges behind me for political reasons when I emigrated in 1971. This gave me a much more powerful incentive to fit into my final German abode as well as possible, i.e. to integrate whatever specifically German values I find good into my own cosmopolitan value system. In Josie’s case, however, only she could decide whether her stake in Germany (through her marriage to her German ex-husband, her daughter, her many friends and long residence) was strong enough to want to follow that kind of line in resolving her cultural tensions, or go back to Australia and end up in a seaside cottage to watch the waves roll in at Sorrento Bay.

But that’s not the point anyway, since western culture is now globally intermeshed and you can be just as cosmopolitan (or German, or Greek, or Finnish) in Bonn as in Melbourne or anywhere else in the world. There IS no geographic periphery, no geographic centre anymore. In a production of an Australian play by our amateur theatre group, Josie played the role of “Meg”, an authoress who has returned to Oz after living many years in London. Meg is writing a book in which she examines her roots and ends up identifying herself more closely with them. But, with her London-sharpened vision, she simultaneously places herself at a critical distance from them. Or, to paraphrase her T.S. Eliott quotation: you leave one place for another and circle back after a long time to the old one, only to find that it that it has slipped away from you forever. I find that so true. The places we knew at specific times under specific circumstances are all gone, but the experiences we gained in them will live with us until the day we die.

At our very deepest levels, an expatriate forever remains Australian, South African or whatever. But in another sense, those aboriginal personae are no more than the rootstock onto which we have grafted other roses, other features that were bred of more recent experiences in foreign places. It is not only how well we have tended our roots, but also how well we have bonded, pruned and sprayed the subsequent grafts which determines the health, colour and beauty of the blooms we display. Next to the ungrafted Aussie or Japie bushes we left behind, culturally transplanted people are exotic blooms everywhere, even if our original stock often yearns to feel the native soil of our mother cultures around its roots again.

My solution is to try to see myself as ME — i.e. not as “a” South African, “a” German or whatever, but as my entirety: a composite of various cultures. That makes me wish to reach out impartially to people of all nationalities and all races, but also allows me to respond with a personal loyalty to the positive virtues of the specific cultures and places which have made me what I am. I don’t want to have different cultural personae warring in my mind, of course. I want to be a single, integrated personality. But I also want to identify so personally with this or that aspect of my heritage that I can feel one with the people I relate to at any one moment: “Right now, I AM South African/English/Afrikaans/German”. You can only achieve that kind of integrative self-awareness if you examine all your cultural roots very thoroughly and frankly and re-assemble them in a more sensible order. I suppose each of us exiles is tackling that job in his or her way. Is this line of thinking a shoe you other expatriates out there can wear?

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Entry filed under: van pletzen.

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