next town west i’ma find my tribe, part 4: honorary speaker

I lived on the South African highfield for some time, after college. I commuted from Harrismith to Qwaqwa and sometimes to the lowfield seaport that some call Thekwini and others Durban. Sotho, Zulu, and African Dutch were spoken in these places. I started getting into all three.

African Dutch gave me a fresh look at a lot of the core words in English. That blew my mind. Sometimes, whole sentences would sound like English. The sentence My pen is in my hand was spelled exactly the same in both languages. The Afrikaans version sounded like English with a funny accent.

Sotho and Zulu were harder for me. They were set up real different from European or East Asian languages. They were also cousins of each other. To ward off mix-ups, I made sure to keep my books for Sotho in one room of the house and my books for Zulu in another. To each its own and never the twain should meet.

For some reason, after a short while the two languages took on sharply different identities in my mind. From then on I couldn’t have gotten the two up mixed up if I tried.

Learning the clicks was the highlight of learning Sotho and Zulu. Sotho had one click, the one that sounds like a cork popping. Zulu had that one and two more. Clicking was easy in itself, since we all make these sounds sometimes anyway. Learning to click before and in between vowels was tougher.

The fact that I took the time to learn how to click was an outward sign of my respect for the Romans in Rome, and the Romans clearly respected me back for that.

For work- and family-related reasons, most of the people I fraternized with in South Africa were East and Southeast Asian expats. The only Africans I wound up mingling with were White Anglos from eThekwini. Since East Asians had been considered honorary White folks under Apartheid, this was exactly how I was expected to behave.

Apartheid had ended about eight years before I came on the scene. From time to time you’d hear a White person imply or insinuate that things were better “the way they were”, but “honorary White” Chinese expat persons would just come out and say it, often. Faced with rising crime and other urban sub-Saharan delights, many of these expats soon “went back to China” — not always literally.

The only time I used my Sotho and African Dutch was when my aunt’s dog went missing in action. I re-whet my door-to-door sales skills and went door to door asking people if they’d seen him. The White neighbors spoke good English, but their hired help usually only spoke Sotho and Dutch, and maybe Zulu, but I wouldn’t know. I had to use what little I knew to communicate creatively. At that point I spoke more Sotho than Dutch. I bet some people got a kick out of talking to an honorary White stranger that spoke Sotho best out of the three local lingos.

Later on some guy found the old dog moseying along the shoulder of a road that led up toward the flat mountain behind the town, the one with the cross on top of it that lights up at night. He brought him to the dog shelter. A lady at the shelter said that sometimes the local dogs head up there when it comes time to die. Somehow my aunt’s dog, California-born and -bred, knew to go the same way. He came back to the house, hung out for another year or so and finally died of old age a long, long way from San José.

Read more —

part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *