Lately I’ve given a lot of thought to the notion of whether it is possible to truly love someone who is from an entirely different cultural background, ethnic make up, country, belief system, continent… All you uber optimists are already answering in annoyingly high-pitched happy voices “Of course you can! Love knows no boarders.” That’s all well and dandy and quite frankly I want to believe the same thing, and I do to some extent. But hear me out.
So I’m here in the States, South African, mixed race, multi-lingual- THE WORKS! (haha) And I have made some very strong bonds with people. I’ve also made some bonds that are worse than that really cheap glue stick stuff that starts peeling the moment it dries (I digress). However, even with the strongest bonds I’ve made here there’s always a moment when I’m explaining a scenario from Shirley village, Xigodini and as much as I know I’m being heard and listened to, there’s a limit to how much I’m understood. And quite obviously so! I mean if I grew up in Boston my whole life, how could I begin to relate to a story of being pushed down a dusty hill in a wheel barrow in Shirley village? Or relate to a story of dropping a precious, brand new white sandal into a pit toilet?
I so often feel like people rather than listen to the human element of my story are too busy marveling at all the details that seem so far-fetched when sitting in South Hadley Massachusetts. “Wow! You need to go all the way outside to use the rest room?” Um, yes but fuck I was pissed about my damn sandal! It was brand new! “Wait so you mean it really doesn’t flush?” No! Gravity is our flush! But dude, I had no idea what I would tell my mum. How could I go home with one less shoe? The other girls laughed at me when they heard and I think I cried on my way home.
If I was overly dramatic I might compare the sensation to Sarah Baartman who rather than be viewed as a person with feelings and ideas was viewed as an exhibition, something to marvel at. I’m not upset about it or mad at the people who do not understand me. My closest friends try to understand and do a good job for as far as their minds’ eyes can see. Still, I’ve cut so many stories short when I wasn’t in the mood to explain sewage systems or so as not to bore anyone with fairytale-sounding stories of sitting around fires or nights under the stars. Who would be interested in hearing my favourite songs when “Maya I don’t understand anything she’s saying! But the clicking sounds so cool!” My favourite childhood games, my favourite sayings, food, memories, smells and sounds are all “fascinating!! Really? That’s sooo cool!” And yet I can relate to stories of kissing under street lights and of getting my first cellphone and of skipping class and going to the nearest store even with no money in hand.
I know that everything I’ve seen has influenced who I’ve become. If someone cannot fully understand my experiences could they fully understand me? And if not could they claim to love me? The philosopher in me asks: is it possible to love something you do not fully understand? Someone you don’t fully understand.
If I were to answer yes, my dad would perhaps be my most compelling evidence. He, although born in South Africa, spent most of his childhood in Europe and moved back to South Africa as a young adult. He is happily married now to an older African American woman who grew up in a small town in Southern USA and who had never planned for her stay in South Africa to be quite as long as it became after they met. I firmly believe that he loves her and that she loves him. I don’t know if either of them can fully relate to the other’s past but that doesn’t seem to be an issue. Or perhaps it’s that they have learnt to see each other as humans with human emotions. And perhaps only then do the gritty details of place and time matter less.