So it’s official, the one thing I never imagined I would ever do is happening…I’m living and working in Zambia. After countless unsuccessful job applications and an abundance of frustration with looking for permanent employment, I landed a human rights consultancy gig which will keep me in my passport country until December. Let’s hope the next nine months are kind to me!
Growing up outside my home country, I never once thought I would end up living here and never really felt a strong urge to do so. Of all the places I’ve been in my young life, not one of them ever really felt like home to me, including my country of origin, as strange as that may seem to some. And anyone who is very close to me knows how weird it feels for me to say I’m a Zambian. Not that I feel much like any other particular nationality but I’ve always felt most like a foreigner in Zambia. But here I am. I’ll be here for quite a while and I’m going to try and make the most out of the experience.
You never know until you try really. As a child, I only ever lived in Zambia for very short periods of time and if I’m honest, didn’t always find it particularly enjoyable. However, I might just find that it’s more of an exciting experience living here as a working adult. Living and studying in Kampala – which is a lot livelier, more foreign and more chaotic than Lusaka – for four months last year, may have, to some extent, made me more inclined to give working here a try. If I could adjust to life there, albeit for a short period of time, surely I could adjust to life in Lusaka?
In many ways, I’ve likened my experience to that of Wei Shen, the main protagonist in the 2012 game Sleeping Dogs, which has also changed my perspective on “coming home.” I completed the game just before arriving in Zambia earlier this month and enjoyed it immensely – setting, soundtrack, missions, cast, characters and most of all, the storyline. However, the emotional journey of the main character was one particular aspect of the game that really resonated with me. Officer Wei Shen was born in Hong Kong but moved to the USA with his mother and sister as a pre-teen. He transitioned into an adult while still in the US and became a police officer with the San Francisco PD, graduating top of his class. He returns to Hong Kong after being transferred to the HKPD and is assigned to go undercover to infiltrate and bring down the Sun-on-Yee Triads. While undertaking this assignment Wei is faced with many of the challenges experienced by cultural nomads or third culture kids when it comes to our identity. These challenges are magnified by the fact that he is undercover.
Having spent his adolescence in in the US, Wei grows up to become torn between two different worlds and although some of his friends, acquaintances and fellow gang members are comfortable with his status as an Asian-American others regard him as an untrustworthy outsider despite his being a Hong Kong native. Adding to their suspicions is the fact that he seems to behave too much like a cop . While Wei adapts quite quickly to his situation, like a typical cultural chameleon, and does well to gain the trust of his Sun-on-Yee brothers (and sisters) through various acts of loyalty, his emotional well-being, from constantly playing two sides (cop vs gangster, Asian-American vs Chinese), is severely tested.
Wei’s handlers become concerned that the very same chameleon-like tendencies that make him the perfect candidate for the undercover job also make him the worst as it can happen, as it did in the game, that being embedded within one cultural setting for so long while lacking strong ties to a particular cultural identity occasionally makes him lose his sense of self and forget the true purpose of the mission. One thing I’ve always been good at is adapting and adjusting to very different cultural settings and like Wei it’s happened that I’ve committed so much to acclimatising to one particular setting that I sometimes go through periodic identity crises. I’m interested to see how being in Zambia for ten months, now that I’m self-aware and fully conscious of my multiple ‘cultural personalities’ so to speak, will affect how I see myself and how it may influence the decisions I make about where I would like to settle in the future. I might adapt to life in Lusaka to the point where it finally starts to feel like home or maybe I’ll go back to my physical home in South Africa feeling like just as much of a outsider as I did going into Zambia. Only time will tell but I’m going in with an open mind, eager to discover more about the land of my origin.
For me, another very interesting aspect of the Sleeping Dogs storyline was the fact that Wei doesn’t speak Cantonese throughout the game even when it’s spoken directly to him. Whether this was done to cater to an international audience or was a deliberate move on the part of the writers to add more depth to the character, I think it was a good additional layer to Wei’s personality which speaks to the experience of many people who share his childhood experience. It is clear, through his interactions with various characters who converse with him in the vernacular or mix it with English, that Wei can understand Cantonese very well. However, conversations with characters like Mrs. Chu, for example, who only speak in Chinese often appear awkward and stilted as Wei simply responds in English. This has been my typical experience of visits home. It’s not for want of trying but I struggle to speak my mother’s language, Bemba, despite my being able to understand it quite well. In spite of mum’s infrequent Bemba lessons, I never picked it up as a child. Usually when someone speaks to me in Bemba I’ll try respond with one or two phrases but often find myself reverting to English. Some of my family members have given up and accept that that’s how I am, others are neither sympathetic nor patient and a few can’t speak English at all. My reluctance to communicate in Bemba was further heightened by some of my relatives and friends mocking my heavily accented attempts at speaking Bemba. It was never really part of my plan to become fluent in Bemba, Nyanja or any other Zambian language this year but I might give it whirl. There’s never any harm in picking up an extra language or two.
A wise family member told me that there are times when you may be positioned in exactly the right station of your life in order to accomplish your goals in the future, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the present. So although I never saw myself living and working in Zambia, taking this job just felt like the right move to make at this point in time. It’s a short-term contract and could very well help me get to where I want to be career-wise. I might just find that life in Lusaka is not as daunting or alien as I thought. I’m about 3 weeks into my work here and so far, so good. I’m not on a mission to become inculcated with any particular cultural norms and values or become fluent in any local language in an attempt to be “more” Zambian. But I am embracing this work opportunity for what it can give me – good work experience, a chance to get to know my extended family, a better understanding of my home country, an opportunity to learn my parents’ languages and the ability to make a contribution to helping my home country fulfil some of her human rights obligations.