My first term at the University of Oregon flew by faster than a long anticipated rollercoaster ride at a very expensive theme park. The Disney World kind, where strangers have unfamiliar accents and are attracted to bright, shiny things in the same way crows are. A strange world where people get excited about taking Saturday trips to IKEA or watching presidential candidates compete for being the most convincing (or most charming) hypocrite on national television.
I found myself in a world where the lines between privilege and injustice become more blurry every day. Where, like my South Africa’s yesterdays, the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ are used interchangeably, loaded, like ‘communism’. Where young people with good intentions struggle to come to terms with the prices their country has been willing to pay in the name of who-knows-what-anymore. I have learned that there’s something strikingly beautiful about the biggest critics of colonialism coming from within one of the biggest colonizers itself.
I handed in my final exam with a smile, proud of the fact that I’d finally remembered to use the US Letter page on MS Word and change all my s’s to z’s and ou’s to o’s. Three months of being thrown into the deep end of media theory and a radically new school system was finally paying off. I thought back on the countless hours spent using online dictionaries and whispering to friends in class “What’s Honey Boo Boo?” or “Who’s Hubert Humphrey?” Information overload is an understatement. Imagine watching Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States every single day for ten weeks. It is a pretty sight. To me, at least. I realized the best part of living in the USA is my inability to conform to the social norms because I’m still not sure what they are. For this reason, I had completed all my assignments with thought. And heart. Even though everything around me had changed and is still changing, I still have heart. That piece of me remains, no matter where I go.
I felt sad saying hurried goodbyes to the good friends I’d made in Eugene for winter break. The anticipation of a holiday in Texas with my South African childhood friends kept me going through many late nights of studying. After a week of fine-combing the streets of Portland, I finally boarded the eagle freeing me into the Dallas sunshine. Which is exactly what greeted me – a 75 degree high miracle. Mo, our Iranian taxi driver and friend, awaited me in Dallas with a minibus that looked surprisingly small among the gigantic Texan pick-up trucks.
As I admired the dry, open fields that remind me of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, I listened to Mo tell me about why Texas is the best state in the US. “The people here are friendly. The houses are big. You can live a good life here in Dallas.” I agreed. I wasn’t going to go into the details of what I consider to be a ‘good life’. “This is where Kennedy got shot, you know,” Mo said, his chest out in respect of the former president. “But Reagan, he’s the real hero in Texas.” He cleared his throat, and mumbled. “Me, I don’t really agree.” I just nodded and smiled. One does not simply talk about politics in the USA.
As far as I could tell, Mo hadn’t seen his children in 15 years. He can’t return to Iran because he’s considered a ‘traitor’. He told me his story twice and I still couldn’t quite understand why he’d been in the US Air Force. I sighed. There is no country without some kind of bloody history. I know, because when I got home I actually Googled it.
The best thing about spending the festive season with the kids that saw you grow from a cornrow-toothed booger eater to an out of hand teen to a very dynamic young lady, is that you can relive all those memories in your home language. You can crack a joke in Afrikaans. You can tell them how much you miss your family in Afrikaans. For a few weeks I could simply talk without thinking. We could laugh together about how weird it is that Americans destroy their bacon by making it crispy, how there’s almost always bottomless coffee or sodas in restaurants, how Walmart is both the most exciting and the most traumatic thing we’ve ever experienced. We can giggle about people laughing at us for constantly clutching our wallets in crime paranoia. We can mock each other for our poor attempts to drive on the right side of the street. And, for actually using the word ‘mock’ when no-one around us does anymore.
On Christmas Eve we tried our hand at Secret Santa. Of course, even before our tree went up, we’d already figured out who our Santas were. South Africans aren’t bribe shy. We awoke on Christmas Day to a White Christmas. No jokes, real snow in Dallas. The white layers of flurries hurt our eyes, but we couldn’t resist baring our teeth to something so magically unfamiliar. We built a snowman and gave him a Dallas Cowboys cap that we picked up in the street when the purple and white team had lost the day before. By the time we’d found it a reasonable length of tree branch arms, our hands and feet were numb and we warmed up with a glass of Malbec in front of the fireplace. “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…” I sang softly.
During the final two weeks of winter break, we decided to switch to tourist mode again. Our first stop: the Stockyards in Fort Worth where I think I had my first encounter with cowboys and a traditional Native American. In front of the countless curios stores selling leather boots and hats, the Native American charged $5 to take a picture of him. Passers-by whispered that “he didn’t even look real.” Of course I could not tell them that he was or was not, because culture in the modern day US confuses me as much as the next person. We walked past saloons and museums and the cowboys’ Hall of Fame. We watched a cattle run (which my friend referred to more likely being a ‘cattle crawl’) and stared in amazement at the enormous longhorn bulls roaming the streets. Fort Worth was buzzing with energy, locals and tourists experiencing a snippet of historical Texas together.
We visited a few museums and attended the Chinese Lantern Festival a few days later. The delightful lanterns were carefully crafted with anything from cotton materials to glass urns to porcelain plates. Lotuses bloomed in front of my very eyes, dragons slithered past me, and panda bears chewed on bamboo while carrying their babies on their backs. I imagined myself in a fairytale several times that night.
A highlight of the break was the three mile art walk in Downtown Dallas. Three miles of appreciating tall modern buildings, old European-like hotels, churches and historically significant structures gave us a real sense of the city of Dallas. A beautiful city, which I had surely underestimated. Our walk ended off with an hour long meditation inside the Crow Museum, which contains aisles and aisles of ancient Asian artifacts and ornaments.
As I mentally prepare myself for my trip back to Eugene and the start of a new term, I look back on the holiday with a smile. Benihanas and Chilis came close to being as good as the dark chocolate cake we baked for Christmas Eve. Our basketball outings were almost as good as watching the Ducks win the Fiesta bowl. And our line-dancing was almost as good as our wine-induced confessions on New Year’s Eve. Winter break – even though at times I wished I could’ve been with my family and friends in sunny South Africa –you were a team player. Thank you for showing me that I can do this, and that I’m ready to go back to Eugene to learn how to change the world.