Middle School Nostalgia as a Foreigner


Coming from a small town, being on display is nothing new to me.

It seems that everyone else is secure in who they are to the outside world. They know their place, where they are, and what it means to be South African. I’m still discovering what it means to be American, and yet I’m not just on display, but I’m also a window into the USA.

One time, my friend’s mom received a phone call from the cops saying she saw us in a parked vehicle outside the local six-screen movie theater with the windows fogged, music playing, and us laughing rowdily. My friend’s mom proceeded to call our phones until one of us picked up, assuring her that we were just waiting for the rest of our parents to arrive in a warm car rather than out in the cold, and no, we were not doing drugs or being trouble makers.

But this kind of display is different, being a foreigner. The eyes that watch me are out of curiosity and a kind of knowing humor that I’m not from here. Whether the eyes are glaring at me for stalling in the middle of an intersection for two rounds of lights, or a checker who asks me if I want a plastic and I have to ask a few times to understand that they’re asking me if I want a plastic bag, not if I’m paying with credit or debit.

This display makes me more self-conscious than flippant towards what people think. At home, it was better to just be me and not listen to the voices telling me to be something. But now, I strain my ears to listen to foreign languages, to music playing, and to the sounds of children playing outside my apartment. My eyes search for clothing styles and how modestly everyone is dressing, they search for safe places to walk, they look up to meet eyes of strangers with a small smile to follow out of politeness.

This strain to fit in is exhausting. This is why everyone hates middle school, I think.

But there is something really beautiful about being a foreigner. I can admire the beauty and complexity around me while knowing that I can never be a part of it. I am forced to be a fly on the wall of this culture. I will do my best to fit in, but I will never be South African. I can never claim this country as truly my home.

Those moments when I am completely embarrassed or exposed just strengthen the lines between me and them. Yet, I marvel at their conversations and opinions like pieces of artwork. The complexity of their country creates a masterpiece of dynamics that only intensifies as I learn more. The line that separates me from South Africans is not a true division, but a window. I have the gift of seeing a different world, and at the end of the day it is up to me to record what I see.

This is also a heavy burden because I am also a window into America. Some of them insist that America is better than South Africa, with all of its jobs and opportunity. Some of them say how lucky I am, and how much they want to move to America. They ask why I wanted to come to South Africa, and my answer surprises them. I came to learn from them. I came to live with them, and even though it’s a two-year commitment, I hope to accompany them for this short time in their journey. I wanted to look through a different window, and even help them see through my window to America.

It is a humbling experience, being at the mercy of strangers. I only hope that I can do this country justice through my observations and writings. There is much to be admired in their spirits and complexity. Each person has a different view in the house of South Africa, and I’m so excited to wander through the mansion of perspectives.

Author: allihoff

An asthmatic ginger searching for justice & peace in the redwood trees with coffee in one hand, a pen in the other, and Switchfoot playing in the background.