A column about little things that are deceptively similar, yet decisively different. Read and be prepared.
“You’ll never really fit in there”, he told me. Now Patrick was a friend from my old high school in P.E. We were paddling out for a sunset surf at J-Bay when I told him I’m heading off to Australia. He tells me I will need a support system of friends and it will be ex -South Africans that will provide that. He knows because he tried it himself and went back. The Jeffreys Bay Boardriders Club logo on my surfboard is all that now reminds me of those prophetic words. My family and I have been here six years. We greet the neighbours and sometimes invite them over for dinner. The conversations usually get started with the same three questions: “Do you like it here?” (of course we do); “Why did you leave South Africa?” (responses become more philosophical as time goes by); and “What’s up with Mugabe?” (I still haven’t got used to the way SA is confused with Zim, but hats off to them for trying).
I am pleased to be able to report that in six years we have actually made a few Aussie friends. Nevertheless, it is our handful of faithful ex -South Africans that are always there to share the ups and down that come with the territory when you arrive in a new country; displaced, dispossessed, cash-strapped, net-worth-diminished, and ‘network-less’.
Now, because it’s important to get a new network, one needs to actively engage in an Australian practice called, appropriately, ‘networking’. To this end there are numerous ‘networking events’ and often ordinary events can turn into ‘networking opportunities’. These frequently take place over a meal. Common practice is for each person to introduce themselves. So you half listen to what the others say, while half preparing what you will say. As others unabashedly promote themselves with the confidence of world renowned statesmen, you realise that no amount of preparation’s going to give you the credibility of an Aussie accent. Like me, you may be torn between telling too much, thereby inviting criticism for having ‘banged-on’ or , worse, being a ‘tall poppy’ (which is a cardinal sin here) and the opposite: failing to make a good impression at all.
Once the introductions out of the way, you all tuck into the cuisine of the day, usually delivered as an ‘alternate drop’. Luckily I learnt how to eat really fast at boarding school because what follows is non-stop talking, accompanied by much exchanging of business cards. In my first few years here, I participated in many of these so-called ‘networking events’. I quickly amassed a stack of business cards, without very much direct benefit, other than just generally acclimatizing and habituating (which of course is both necessary and useful, and probably the more realistic outcome of ‘networking’ activities). I’ never quite managed to condense my thirty-three years work experience into a two minute introduction, but fortunately it doesn’t matter anymore, ‘cos I’m Aussie now. Though I’m still wondering whether Patrick was right about ever really ‘fitting in’ here.