Christmas in South Africa

by Taylor W.

It has been three months in South Africa, three months since my first 12-hour Intercape bus ride from Joberg to Upington as I pulled closer to my new home. As my wide eyes took in the muted browns and greens of that dusty landscape, I felt prepared for a new season of openness in my life. No matter what I was expecting or what advice I had been given, South Africa was going to reveal itself in ways that were completely beyond my preconceptions. The bus pulled into Upington’s Intercape station, and I stepped into a period of wide newness and great dependency.

I am convinced that three months is inherently a weird amount of time, but ask me what six months feels like, and I will surely be singing the same tune. And while I thought that me titling this first chapter Be Open on a clean page and closing the book for three months had settled it, I have come slowly to reexamine that first chapter, this time with a bit more honesty. Including the previously unwritten subtitle, this first part now reads Be Open; Do Everything Right, and the World Will Bend to Your Will. Now, it takes up so much more of the page. It’s very inconvenient.

I absolutely want to honor the opening that has happened in me since arriving in Upington. It takes some fortitude to have life made completely new just as it takes fortitude to have the American that you’re graciously hosting present you with a dinner of essentially raw chicken.* With all of the opening, however, was this lurking expectation that I was going to make this year happen for myself, and that while, inevitably, days would feel unsettled and free-floating, with some determination, all of that could be smoothed away. I would excel in Afrikaans if I studied hard enough, and I would find my place here if I made enough of an effort. By Christmas, I kept telling myself. Three months is enough to find your footing.

Well, Geseende Kerswees, Christmas has finally arrived, and I am far less functional in Afrikaans than I would like to be. I do a bit (‘n bietjie) of studying each day (elke dag), but whenever I am feeling over-confident, the fast-talking, Afrikaans soap opera, Binnelanders, reminds me that I am still completely dependent on subtitles, both when viewing that show and in most daily interactions. People are still graciously bringing me along in so many ways. Last night, Auntie Charmaine brought me along to her huge family’s Christmas Eve celebration, and among the decorations was a sign that said, “The miracle of Christmas: We are never alone”.

And I haven’t been.

All along, I was harboring this conviction that if anything decent was going to happen here, I must be the one to make it happen by trying hard enough and by being good enough—that the ultimate responsibility for this year rests with me. This Christmas season, I am reminded that the beautiful and the grace-filled has not happened because I have earned it. This year is South Africa, my YAGM year, but this, too, is life, and when before has everything in my life made sense by Christmas? God operates outside of my arbitrary timelines. I can do only what I am able and trust the rest to other hands. The world is not here to bend to my will, and I’m slowly realizing, neither was the world I came from—a place that felt deceivingly more manageable.

Yesterday afternoon, my host mom Sissy called me into the living room and surprised me with a 3-foot Christmas tree, leaning against the couch. “Will you decorate it for us?” she asked, and her 3-year-old son Stanton and I went through the universal struggles of uncooperative lights and an untrustworthy tree-stand, trying to make it perfect. She arranged for an Aunty to bring that tree over to our house so that I felt more grounded during this sunny Christmastime. That felt like really blessed timing.

 

* My host mom Sissy very politely asked me “Is this how you people eat it?”, and I kept replying “Yes!”, thinking that she was commenting on my great breading techniques. I finally looked over and saw her very concerned face and the blood squirting out from her fork.

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