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“Do I really look that American?” This was the only question I wanted an answer to before my roommate and I boarded our flight to Cape Town, South Africa. It’s quite interesting, before I left I was most concerned about “fitting in” and not looking like a tourist. However, by my sixth week in this new place, I had finally found comfort in my foreignness. I had never felt like such an outsider my entire life. But, as strange as it may sound these were the times where I became most vulnerable and I was able to truly open my eyes and ears and experience South Africa for all that it has to offer. While there were many things to do in this beautiful place: hike Table Mountain, shark cage diving, experience authentic South African cuisine, jump from the world’s highest bungee, this list could go on forever. What I enjoyed most about my time here was interacting with the people. Not just the local people who’d been in South Africa all their lives and knew so much about its profound history, but also the Stanford faculty and staff, the children at the orphanage where I volunteered, the taxi drivers who’d seen and heard it all, and most of all, the other Stanford students who had embarked on this journey with me. It was only through these relationships that I was somehow able to piece together my thoughts about what it truly means to be a Capetonian. Most importantly, I learned that while South Africa is greatly influenced by its history, it is certainly not defined by it.
I have never been the type of person that kept a journal or diary. But, before leaving to study abroad, my family made me promise to keep up a blog for them to follow along. By the time I left Cape Town, this blog was my life. Not because it helped me remember the many things we did, but it allowed me to be more critical and reflective than I had ever been in my life, about my own experiences, judgments, and intentions. For example, at Stanford, I always considered myself to be a student devoted to public service. But after a few weeks in my class, “Service Learning and Social Change,” my professor Janice helped me realize how one-sided my definition of service had been. I had never considered public service to be an exchange. I simply saw myself as “giving” to others. But, after my first week with the amazing children at my service-learning placement, Linawo Children’s Home, I knew they were the ones who were in fact doing the giving. They opened their hearts to me and every day I spent with them and got to know some of their painful pasts, I was able to learn how crucial reciprocity is to meaningful service. These children, like many other South Africans, are the definition of resilient. Each day they use their agency to come out of the victim status and for teaching me that, I will always have a warm spot in my heart for the people of Cape Town.
As one student in my group pointed out, “The Cape Town Program truly does attract a certain type of person.” There is so much to be gained by those who are willing to put their expectations and preconceptions to the back of their mind and just take in what the city has to offer. There are so many challenging social issues that Cape Town forces students to tackle all at once, but I think that was key for bringing my group closer. Together we tried to answer why so many disparities exist between the rich and poor in South Africa, why some children find life on the streets to be more promising than living at home with parents, and how some South Africans could feel life during apartheid was actually better than their current living conditions. Through answering these questions, in fact, by accepting that we were unable to answer them, we as students were able to take away so much more from our time in Cape Town. We were able to draw connections between South Africa and many other countries to learn, simply put, we all have our imperfections. The students in my group really helped shape my time in Cape Town.
As Stanford students, it’s so easy to get caught up in academics and extra-curricular activities and forget there are larger problems people have to deal with. I think back to the students in townships like Khayelitsha and Guguletu that have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and some who have to leave home at 5:00am to even make it to school on time, not to mention walking outside of your home to reach a toilet or clean water source. Seeing all of these things provided teachings we never would have gotten out of a classroom at Stanford. So when the taxi driver revealed that his nickname for our Stanford group was the “good hearted people,” I knew I was so honored to have been in Cape Town with some of the most beautiful, talented, service-oriented students that Stanford could find.
There is no simple way for me to tell people, what I did while abroad. I could focus on interactions with people, activities I did, classes I took, lessons I learned, or I can honestly just say I had the best 3 months of my life. I hiked one of the world’s seven natural wonders, ziplined through waterfalls, rode an elephant, had a braai (barbeque) with baboons, visited Nelson Mandela’s cell at Robben Island, all of these things plus so much more. However, these are all things that can be forgotten over time. But, what I will never be able to forget are the feelings I had to deal with each and every day I spent so far away from home. I learned more about myself, other cultures, and how I perceive the world in that short time than I had in all of my 21 years of life. I can’t even describe how much I miss Mama Z, Chai milkshakes from Mimi’s, our tour guide Colleen, my kids at Linawo, and late nights on Long Street. I don’t know where this journey called life is going to take me, but I do know I will one day return to the place that finally started to feel like home, Cape Town.