I don’t know the roads or landmarks and can’t give you directions. As soon as I even reply, my accent probably gives me away. I am an American who is new to South Africa.
My first interaction on South African soil seriously put me on edge, as I hopped into the right-sided driver’s seat and set off trying to convince myself to drive on the left side of the road against my previous instincts.
It felt unnatural but I got used to it quickly. But that wasn’t the only thing I’ve had to adjust to.
One thing, even after getting accustomed to the road, that I cannot get used to is taking the process of “stay left, pass right” outside of the roadways.
On multiple occasions, I’ve reached an impasse with an oncoming pedestrian – me trying to walk on my right, them on their left – and I audibly exclaim as I remember my transgression, “oh, it’s stay left, not right” as the local shakes their head as I assume they later mutter, “tourist” under their breath.
I learned of some local vernacular before arriving. I was still caught off guard hearing “robot” instead of “traffic light,” even when I knew it was coming. I didn’t appreciate learning that the good name of tomato sauce was sullied by labelling it with what I know as “ketchup.”
One great thing I quickly learned about South Africa is how well it has appropriated American culture, I assume to make me specifically feel more at home. McDonald’s, the iPhone, the automobile, corrupt politicians, Mexican food: it seems South Africa has done a terrific job at taking all the things that make America great and orienting it into society.
South Africa does some things better than America as well (is that treasonous to say?).
Eating out at restaurants is a much more relaxing, and affordable experience. In America, the waiter staff make the majority of their wages on tips. So, making money for them is a matter of quantity over quality, usually.
The more customers they can cycle through their assigned tables, the more money they make.
If you were to find yourself eating at an American establishment, you’d notice your server indiscreetly dropping your bill on the table in an effort to guilt you into leaving, and if they were bold enough, might even start cleaning your table while you are still seated.
The wine here is also tremendous and affordable. It also helps that South Africa has a signature wine, like many great wine countries.
South Africa has pinotage, Italy has chianti, France has champagne, Portugal has port, but the United States doesn’t have a wine to call its own.
The US might be the fourth-biggest distributor of wine, but it isn’t special enough to be able to say, “this here, this is our wine, we created it”.
Sure, we like to use “z” – it’s pronounced “zee” – over “s” in words like organize and decriminalize, but that’s not exactly a culture shock and I can’t say I’ve even had an official culture shock.
All-in-all there are many similarities between our two cultures, perhaps more than I realised.