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I'm an alien

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

I put an offer in on a home last week which was accepted today. If all goes well, I'll be the owner of a very small property in the UK, in the coming months. I also gave instructions to sell my beautiful little home in Joburg recently which has made me feel quite sad. Like I’ve left my life behind. Become a different person. Lost a piece of my identity. Despite being terribly excited, I feel confused. Lost. Deracinated.  

Accepting that I’ve moved to a new country – two and a half years into my adventures in the land of 'pints up the pub' – is sobering. I will always be an outsider. Should I stay for another five years, or for eternity, as long as I live here I will always be 'not from here'. I will never just fit in. Though I look like I could be from here, I have a different accent, different life experiences and a different perspective. I’m new to the tasty delights of clotted cream, Yorkshire puddings and Viennese swirls. I’m still learning some of the road signs, how to be assertive without sounding rude, and that it’s important to choose my words carefully when mentioning a night in watching Netflix.   

I was seven when Sting first sang "I'm an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York." I used to imagine him wandering around Manhattan in alien fancy dress. You know, like in a green onesie with giant almond-shaped black eyes over his face. The song made absolutely no sense to me then. But it makes all the sense now. I’m an alien too. And sometimes I feel as though I might as well be wondering around in awkward fancy dress. When people ask me where I’m from, I have no idea how to answer the question. Do they mean where I live now? Where I grew up? Or which country I’m originally from? Or are they asking me something more meaningful - like where do I think I belong? Though innocent, it’s a loaded question. And I get it a lot.

In some ways it’s great being the outlier – I’m automatically interesting. There's an instant talking point – which means I can have lovely conversations with strangers about things other than the weather. But sometimes I deeply miss speaking my own language. Because not all English is, well, English. Mine is blended with a mixture of about four other languages. It’s filled with ‘howzit’ 'now now' 'just now' ‘lekker’ ‘just nje’ and the odd ‘angazi’ when I don’t know what the hell is going on. When I see something heart-warming, I'm tempted to sigh 'oulik' (drawing out the hard 'k'). But in my current home I need to edit my words, and occasionally my pronunciation, to ensure that I’m speaking English English. To ensure I'm being understood. Because that's the point of communication.

Here I don't blend languages and I don’t blend in. I get mistaken as Australian, Kiwi and, surprising frequently, as American. Every now and then a tourist thinks I’m local, but it’s usually very short lived. Every now and then, I get the right nationality first time and I feel a rush of pride and warmth that I sound like where I’m from. Every now and then. This is usually followed by “how do you manage living with this weather?”  

Sometimes I just want to fit, like a snug pair of slippers. I want to speak my English and be understood. Visit the bar where everyone knows my name. Bump into people I was in crèche with and laugh about how chubby we are now. Instead, I’m explaining how there's more to life than sunshine and beautiful mountains. That first world lessons are worth leaving the opportunities and quirks of developing world experiences (for now). That I miss my family and friends more than I can make sense of. It also means I get asked if I know Bob from Nigeria, or Mark who's Australian but lives in Cape Town. Or if my home was a war zone, and that’s why I left. (For the record: South Africa is not a war zone).

At parties or on first dates when people talk about the craziest thing they've ever experienced. Theirs are tattoos in Thailand that are meant to be meaningful but actually spell out expletives. Self-inflicted, mild brain-damage in Amsterdam. A year of adventures in Australia. Mine are surviving five guns pointed to my head during an armed robbery. Smuggling R100 (about £5) in my sock into a men’s prison to save an inmate’s life. Being in an interracial relationship in post-apartheid South Africa. I'll always be the stand-out one. The person who shares a truth that few people believe is real. I've been through many things that could have killed me. I've been broken. I've been healed. I've been outright defeated. I've survived - sometimes only just. Here I am. Proud of who I am. And yet I'm still just a simple alien learning to live and speak English English.

First published on 15 February 2016, on Used with permission.

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