As I become accustomed to living in Cape Town, and begin to think of this place as my home, I am continually surprised by my own adaptability. My thoughts, my habits, the spaces that I spend my time, and even the people I spend my time with are constantly shifting as I settle into this new city and this new school. It feels like the person I am today is so different from who I was when I arrived in Cape Town, and yet I know that who I am now is not who I will be by the end of this experience.
I’m constantly trying to remind myself to be present in every moment of being here, and to intentionally make this experience meaningful for myself. And, more than making my time here mean something, I also want to make my choice to come here meaningful. I want to give meaning to what I sacrificed and what my family sacrificed in order for me to come study here for this semester.
I have often felt challenged in attempting to understand my place here in Cape Town. I am a white American student who consciously made the choice to come here, to an incredibly racially charged society distinctly characterized by acute inequality. I could have easily chosen to study somewhere else that may have been ‘easier’, in a sense, but I didn’t. I chose to come here, and I have to face what that means.
But I don’t think I completely understand what my choice to come here means yet. And maybe that is why I am struggling. Nearly everything I have learned from my classes and from my experiences here has reflected an omnipresent acknowledgement of the implications and the consequences of Western colonialism and the resulting apartheid system. And despite the fact that I have never felt particularly privileged at home in the United States, I am obligated to recognize my privilege here. I am obligated to take a hard look at where I come from and ask myself what it means for me to choose to come here and engage with people who have suffered, for decades, at the hands of systems of oppression that I indisputably benefit from.
In coming here, I know that I expected to learn about South Africa, and about its political and cultural history. But what has been the most striking to me is that I feel that I have learned as much about the United States and Western institutions and systems of oppression as I have about South Africa. And although this new perspective has challenged me, I feel that it has given me valuable insight regarding my place in this world.
So as I continue learning and engaging here, how do I give meaning to this experience? How do I conduct myself in a society that is permanently branded by oppression and discrimination and pain perpetuated by people who look like I do? How do I reconcile with the fact that I am attending class alongside students that may not be able to afford to eat breakfast? How do I come to terms with the routine experience of passing people sleeping on the street as I walk to class or to the grocery store?
I don’t know yet. All I know is that I have to give everything I have in my time left here to engage authentically, and to ask questions, and to listen, and to try my hardest not to take up space in conversations that I do not deserve to have a place in. And maybe, along the way, I will begin to understand what my choice to come here means.