As you can read in my recent posts, I have become much more aware of the nature of reality and less bedazzled by the promises of benefits in “fitting in”.
To recap: It was the project my father place on my shoulders, when I first alighted from the plane as a new migrant. Your task is to “fit in” and to show delight and approval at anything you see, because that’s what people want to hear from you.
So, I was led to understand that I could not express my genuine reactions to anything, because that would jeopardize the all-important, overarching project, which was to appear to conform with everybody else. Note that I never had an emotional need to “fit in”. I always strove for independence. However, I believed I ought to obey the advice entailed in my father’s stratagem. I’m not sure why I took his advice so literally to heart, but probably it was due to the absence of other forms of advice, and probably because I am my father’s daughter, and neither of us would bother to fit in too much, unless we were commanded.
City culture had no appeal to me — especially the culture of the eighties. I didn’t strive to fit in for the first ten years after my arrival. Instead I often pursued an avoidance strategy. I tried to grasp little moments of country atmosphere as much as possible, and sought — and failed — to find excitement in art. (Even art had been tamed into “graphic design” in my new social setting.)
I constantly pursued those things I had already known from my African experience, and tried to expand on those — first by running around the oval field twice a day, then horse-riding, then SCUBA diving. Martial arts, belatedly came next, and then sky diving. All this time, I was trying to recapture my earlier relationship with nature as a source of danger and adventure.
The idea that I ought to “fit in” had not yet become a serious project. That only took on a life of its own after I came to the shocking and traumatic conclusion that the language I’d been speaking to those in the workplace had a different meaning in their ears to the ones I had expected and intended. I realized I’d better learn to understand how others understood me, otherwise I’d face a tremendous amount of aggression for the rest of my life, and I’d never understand why.
I must say, the sense of humor I still have today is not all that peculiarly African. At the gym today, I washed my hands, as usual, after training, since we must shake hands with everybody in the class, and this is how colds and ‘flus are spread. There’s another guy from the class, who always meets me at the basin. We know we look a little bit aloof, washing our hands, after shaking them with everyone, so we make jokes acknowledging this fact. “Gotta get those germs off!” we say glibly. We imply, with our sly smiles, that others are the carriers of all sorts of diseases we don’t want. After today’s class, this guy smiled and said we had to “remove the gangrene”. “Yes,” I said. “We don’t want that slime!”
So it goes, every week. It’s easy to joke around with someone with whom you have exchanged some sparring blows and demonstrated stoicism and restraint. These kinds of experiences build trust and an underlying understanding. By contrast, joking around when one still has the status of “a foreigner”, moreover from a politically dubious country, leads to different effects. Then, one is retained in quarantine and has to continue to show restraint and seriousness for many years. Trust has to be earned, my masters taught me, and it doesn’t come that easily.
Along with ongoing trial and error, I learned never to relax and take it easy. My status was always probationary, and tenuous trust would be withdrawn at a moments’ notice, on the basis of just one error of judgement — for instance, being humorous when seriousness was implicitly required.
Walking on eggshells doesn’t begin to describe my sensations. I was deeply traumatized by my inability to find a situation where I could simply let down my guard, be myself and expect reciprocal trust.
Then there was the aspect of those who wanted to “shape” me for the kind of clerical position I had entered. I’ve since understood that “to shape” means to break down somebody’s character, in order to form it differently in a way that is more subservient to the structure of the organization one has entered. I understand implicitly these days what “more training” means, especially when the goals of such training are not overtly or clearly stated: someone requires and expects the restructuring of your character, and this is not achievable without first breaking down the character in order to make it different.
I’ve studied very hard this sado-masochistic dynamic of contemporary culture, and although I believe I understand it theoretically, I could never find a way to bypass it, to get around it adequately, in order to “fit in”.
Therefore, I’m giving up the project after twenty years, and casting caution to the winds. I can’t make sense of all these barriers, but that’s because I’m not supposed to. Or, it doesn’t matter. Or, my life simply consists upon a different plane. In any case I won’t be “fitting in”.