There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. – Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom
When travelling, the only thing harder than overcoming culture shock is conquering re-entry shock. It is strange that despite how much I missed South Africa while in Taiwan, my own country seemed foreign when I returned. This was not because so much had changed since I was away, but because I had changed. My perception of what was normal had been moulded by my new home. Things that were once so familiar suddenly seemed foreign.
In Taiwan, I lived in Tainan City, a large metropolis of over one point eight million – much larger and more populous than East London, my home town. The city never slept, and was never silent. I had become accustomed to that. Back home, I couldn’t sleep. It was too quiet! Where was the noise? Where were the people?
Eating out in East London was a completely different experience, too. The servers could speak English! Well, at least most of them could. But despite this obvious linguistic advantage, knowing that most people in the restaurant could speak English meant a lack of privacy. Our conversation was no longer our own. And why was the server speaking so fast?
Despite how bad I was at using chop sticks, I missed them in South Africa. With knives and forks, I had no excuse to turn a meal into a food fight. Where’s the fun in that?
With its large population, the Taiwanese maximise land utility; buildings are usually quite tall. Returning to South Africa, all the buildings looked comparatively short and plain. Downtown didn’t hold its old appeal anymore. Nothing that even vaguely resembled the magnificence of Kaohsiung’s Tuntex Sky Tower or the awe-inspiring Taipei 101 was on offer.
South Africa for the most part has warm weather, but coming from Taiwan, the lack of humidity made it feel cool – almost uncomfortably cool at times. Similarly, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans felt chilly. Even in the heat of a South African summer, I could not bring myself to set foot in the ocean. Taiwan’s warm Pacific, on the other hand, was so welcoming that I would swim even in winter.
As I struggled to readjust to life in South Africa, I was finally able to see the forest through the trees. South Africa did have a great deal of open space, stunning beaches, and the bluest of blue skies. At night, it was as if the silk curtain of sky was opened, revealing so many stars that even the bright lights of Tainan couldn’t compete with their luminescence. Before leaving South Africa, I had never appreciated just how beautiful the country was. Seeing it again after returning was like seeing it for the first time. Of course, these factors alone would never compensate for the host of ills that the country is still grappling to come to terms with, but these redeeming qualities slowly helped me accept my roots again.
Working and living abroad opened my eyes to the splendour of Taiwan, a country now less foreign to me than my own. It also helped me appreciate what I had right in front of me growing up in South Africa. Despite the difficulties of culture shock and re-entry shock, the experience was absolutely worth it. Although now I am in neither South Africa nor Taiwan, these two countries will always have a special place in my heart – they were instrumental in shaping it into what it is today.
Below: One of the most beautiful videos I’ve ever seen. Enjoy!