South Park Self

I’m floating in a most peculiar way

Today I unearthed unexpectedly, from the clutter in my drawer, my Zimbabwean post office book. At the time I last used it, which was in 1996, its charmingly analogue columns attested to my ownership of Z$529.23.



This would have been the residue of all the saving I did from vac jobs when I was at school or in my first few years at university, less whatever I drew out for self-indulgence (usually books or fabric). If it's still there, and hasn't been closed down or whatever, it might have picked up a bit of interest in the intervening fifteen years. But let's take it from the actual depicted amount. It's currently worth a fraction over 10 South African rand, or approximatly 0.89 British pounds.

My mother has an older sister who is still in Zim - she's mentally disabled and lives in a retirement home. My grandparents left a trust fund for her when they died, which was designed to provide for her for the rest of her life. After Zim's economic collapse, my mother drew the entirety of the trust fund out of the bank, and used it to buy a milkshake and a toasted cheese sandwich at a local fast food joint.

I spent the first 20 years of my life in Zimbabwe. I don't know if it's possible to get across to someone who hasn't had their national identity whisked out from under them like a rug, exactly how odd it feels: your whole childhood, the validity of a whole nation's operation, taken away from you. The first twenty years of my life is unreal to the point where it may as well have been a fantasy, one which has been replaced with a reality which is horribly Kafkaesque. My stupid post office book is a ridiculous microcosm of the feeling my parents must have had, watching their entire working lives, plans, investments, gurgle down the drain in a matter of months. There are still people in Zim, and a government of sorts, and if you work in US$ apparently you can make a living there, but there is no coherent sense of stability or continuity such as would make a sense of identity feel legitimate.

They say you can't go home again, and in this particular case they're horribly right. I have enormous emotional attachment to Zimbabwe's landscapes, which at times I still miss with an almost physical ache, but the place is no longer the locus of any sense of a working country. I can't think of myself as a Zimbabwean any more, because Zimbabwe doesn't viably exist. But I still can't think of myself as a South African. At best, I'm a Capetonian. At worst, I know I'm not anything. There's not anything to be from. It does some very odd things to one's psyche.
I have always wondered how you felt, nomadic and not having a home country anymore. Thank you for sharing.
I'm hardly nomadic, I'm fairly rooted here! - but yes, it still doesn't feel like somewhere I can unhesitatingly call "home". Paradoxically, that's probably why I'm so reluctant to leave it.
I suspect nomadic is not the word but I can not think of the right one. I understand the whole where is home bit. It makes life ... interesting.
I often seek out, and frequently prefer to date other immigrants...there is so often just a need to spend time with a people that understands the complexity of choosing to leave your home...that wrenching feeling of having to pick whether you are a here or a there. I still hesitate to call myself australian...mostly due to an underlying sense of insecurity that it will get taken away (I had 6 years of waiting and hoping I could stay, with my life kind of on hold and trying not to get to comfortable because staying was not guaranteed) . The immigration process to me seemed akin to putting your entire self on paper and being judged if you are worthy. The process of immigration and of being an immigrant is complex, emotional and traumatic at times it must be even more acute/painful when the place you came from has ceased to exist in any form that is viable. It really messes with ones sense of self! My commiserations...and solidarity in alien-ness.
I hear you. I'm eligible for US citizenship now. I'm planning on going through the process, because the US has gradually become home over the last 12+ years and it makes practical sense. I still miss SA, landscape and people, but I also realise that what I miss is the SA of 12+ years ago. What I wish I could visit doesn't really exist any more. It's hard, and weird.
Yes, but something exists - there is still a version of South Africa here, and it's even a nice place to visit, populated by friends and family which have some vague connection to the ones you knew. I don't underestimate your sense of loss at absence over time, and change while you're away - of course that's hard, but it's not quite the same as the sense of catastrophic absence which is Zimbabwe in its current state. I don't think I articulated that very well in my post. Updates to follow :>.
Really interesting, thank you. And I love the trust fund story.

I also don't really have a national identity. About the closest I can get is "Londoner". I'm happy with that and with the country of my past existing only in memories. But then I didn't have it wrenched away suddenly; I got to see it gradually evolve away (no bad thing in the macro context) and I imagine that's a key difference.

After I willingly uprooted myself, I think I understood that whether or not I returned to Cape Town, I would never again live in my old home town.

Edited at 2011-08-21 12:46 pm (UTC)
On paper, I've got two national identities. Neither of which are for the country where I live. I don't really believe that national identities apply to me.
My parents are British, my dad coming out here to SA as an adult, my mother as a teenager. I was brought up to think of myself as British. The rejection of South African identity was explicit and deliberate. But how could I be British, I grew up in Goodwood, for goodness sake. That overt shunning of SA identity during my childhood has had a sort of rebound effect, where I feel passionately South African now. I respect and acknowledge my British heritage and do indeed feel more at home in England than in Jo'burg, oddly enough, but I am South African and, specifically, Capetonian to my core.

I have always felt that the lack of roots I felt, that I was forced to feel, while growing up and as a young adult has contributed to the almost-desperation in my clutching onto SA identity now.

For good or ill, I am South African and feel like I would shrivel and die if that were ever forcefully removed from me.
Homeward bounders
I dread emigration. I hope we don't ever have to do it. Even just moving house / city leaves me feeling rootless, drifting and alone. Also, at best Capetonian is a pretty damn good At Best. Really.
Almost stateless ...
I'm currently waiting for the results of my British citizenship application. Apparently you have to apply to keep your South African passport before you apply for the British one, which I didn't, so maybe I'm a stateless person at the moment.

Also, serving in a foreign military. Awkward. I've been getting into France, Cyprus and Poland with a combination of SA passport, British military ID and NATO papers, but it's rather odd. As you approach the desk with a wodge of documents rather than just one passport you can feel the eyes of border guards and other passengers on you.

At the moment I'm South African, Y is Korean and V is British. Nationality is hard to pin down for this family :)
Re: Almost stateless ...
I applied to keep my ZAR one before I got my Australian one...you probably still have time at least until you actually get your British one. I had to fill in a dumb form saying why I wanted to keep it and they sent me a certificate...they only actually revoke your ZAR one when you get the other citizenship (although I'm not sure how and you are always entitled to get it back again if you were born there--until they change the rules!)

M M-M currently holds Australian and ZAR citizenship and if she applies for British before she is 18 she can supposedly hold all 3 without getting permission (that’s a lot of passports!). This was pointed out to me by the border security guard who was giving me a grilling at Luton when I flew back in on my own from Italy hopped up on pseudo-ephedrine and covered in a faint sheen of sweat (looking like a regte drug smuggler!).
Thank you for sharing with such precision. Like egadfly, I particularly liked the trust fund story.

Your experience seems to be an enhanced version of what I've gone through. And from the other comments it seems that it's not an uncommon experience.

Although I hold only two passports, I could theoretically hold a small conspiracy of them through a combination of heritage and life experience. Yet each is a coat of variously ill-cut cloth. The best-fitting are South African and British.

Like wolverine_nun I was brought up to feel British (for 1950s values of England), but the infrequent visits there as a child never felt anything like going home. I've lived there a couple of times in the last 15 years (each time for less than the 3 years that would allow me to pass on my citizenship) and wouldn't mind living there again: it's comfortable enough. But I'm not certain I want to grow old there (and that's really the key question to sort out belonging).

Although I grew up in South Africa, my parents' conscious foreignness and the political environment meant that never had any sort of feeling of being South African. That changed in 1994 (I can date it rather precisely to the strange and numinous feeling of an added level of belonging being dropped into place on Cape Town's Grand Parade). Still, my memories and connections are mostly with people (many of whom no longer live in Cape Town) and with the Mountain (tm), rather than with South Africa as a place or national culture.

It doesn't help that I've always found the idea of a nationality - in the sense of a nation-state - vaguely ridiculous.

The best I can do, I guess, is to feel simultaneously European and Capetonian. All of which makes people much more important than place to a contemporary globaliser like myself.