Leave home. The academy. A conference of friends and colleagues. Spend 25 hours on planes. Arrive haggard, jet-lagged, bleary-eyed. Find an unfamiliar face waiting expectantly. Clamber into his truck and drive two hours to Stanger while discussing “America” (Georgia, in particular). Move your bag into the minivan of another unfamiliar, expectant stranger while you sneak glances at King Shaka’s tomb. Drive another two hours, fighting what feels like narcolepsy. Arrive at the University of Zululand to meet your professor and classmates, who eagerly take you out to a lavish buffet at a local resort hotel. Smile. Eat more than you are comfortable with to show your appreciation. Don’t forget to smile. Climb back into the minivan, which takes everyone home first so that you can meet your family. Accept their isiZulu greetings and nervously wait for signals as to the appropriate social behavior. Receive a full plate of beef stew. Eat more than you are comfortable with to show your appreciation. Don’t forget to smile.
After a week or so, relax enough that you begin to feel a routine emerge. Enjoy classes with your professor and fellow American students. Develop familiarity with your host family by sharing meals, learning birthdays, and watching Generations every night. Relive the finer points of high school with your fellow students by recapping each episode in the van to campus, filling in the gaps with stories and gossip about your host families. Talk about Kanye and Eminem with your brothers. Laugh. Smile. Feel inexplicably lonely. Laugh some more.
Gaze out the window at the endless rolling canefields that dominate the countryside of coastal KwaZulu-Natal. Indulge in conversations about “America” and awkwardly acknowledge that you are now the local representative for whatever that is. Wade into the Indian Ocean for the first time. Forget yourself. Discover yourself. Realize that you are yourself, here, too.
Enjoy the van rides to sites far from the University and from Durban. Sing along with Mafikizolo and with Celine Dion, which are both part of your van driver’s CD collection. Drink utshwala besizulu (“Zulu beer”) with a prince. Laugh with young students at a graduation ceremony. Gawk at animals in the reserves. Return home to hear that your Baba’s brother has passed away. Feel death settle into the bones of the house. Remember that you are an outsider when waves of community members come to mourn each and every night. Feel explicably lonely. Send more emails that week.
Say goodbye to your host family, and prepare to repeat this acclimation process immediately. Trundle into the van with your bags (now full of souvenirs and gifts). Enjoy the ride to Durban. Discover how to say your isiZulu name (“Xolani”) correctly for the first time. Arrive at your new home. Indulge in the barbeque they have prepared for everyone. Eat more than you are comfortable with to show your appreciation. Smile.
Find new rhythms, new routines. Watch American and Russian action movies with your four brothers. Practice isiZulu around the house. Indulge in the discovery that you now know more than five words. Undertake adventures with your fellow American students. Visit the Durban International Film Festival and various art galleries around town. Spend a day at the beach. See all of the plays at the Playhouse Theater’s installation of the Women’s Arts Festival. Return “home,” to watch the complete collection of Trevor Noah’s comedy routines. Watch Generations. Friend each other on Facebook. Laugh. Say goodbye.
Venture out on your own. Travel again. DUR. JNB. PE. CPT. JNB. Meet up with friends from the States in coffee shops and dusty archives. Feel dislocated. Miss your “family.” Miss your other “family.” Miss your family. Enjoy being a tourist. Hike languidly around Grahamstown and Cape Town. Scurry nervously through Jozi. Work. Send a lot of emails. Convince yourself that you are ready to go home. Promise yourself that you will return soon. Marinate in the bittersweetness of returns that are always a turning away from something else.
JNB. JFK. SFO.
Land. Feel that you are on land for the first time in a long time. Visit with friends, family, and loved ones. Give them gifts and various kitsch that you found just for them. Try to tell them all about your trip. Show them your Instagrams of food and scenery. Feel inexplicably lonely. Laugh. Share their food. Eat more than you are comfortable with to show your appreciation. Feel a change in yourself that you cannot put into words. Realize that you are yourself, here, too. Smile. Don’t forget to smile. Find your way back to rhythms and routines. Rediscover your familiar surroundings. Pick up where you left off. Smile. Laugh. Then…