Friday, December 20, 2013

Why I’m Really Staying in Cape Town (It's Complicated)

"Cape Town is a very racist city."

I didn't say it. Alex did. Only I didn't hear him the first time he said it. We were talking on the phone, and the reception wasn't so great on the 16th floor of Gardens Centre apartment complex, my home in Cape Town for roughly the next month.

"I'm looking forward to hearing more about your screenplay -- and maybe getting some tips on how to write one, too."

"Did you hear what I just said?"

"Um, no, I guess I didn't." I had figured it was something pretty benign, like "So I'll see you around the 28th." That's the date that Alex, a 41-year-old screenwriter and playwright from Alabama, by way of Boston, who has been living in Johannesburg for five non-consecutive years (which were split in half by a two-year stint in London), will be arriving in Cape Town for a visit.

"I said Cape Town is a very racist city.... I just hope you know what you're getting yourself into." Ah, of course. No conversation in Cape Town would be a conversation in Cape Town without that being brought up.

"Yes, I know exactly what I'm getting myself into."

I heard him perfectly that time. And although I hadn't been here long enough to offer my unqualified concurrence, Alex's five-second review echoed the longer ones that Cape Town has received from a number of locals and expats I've encountered since my arrival here five and a half weeks ago. (Not since Buenos Aires, have I been in a city that has been so damned by its resident devotees, all of whom adore it anyway, half of whom seem genuinely surprised that I want to stick around.)

Alex, apparently, knows cities. He knows that Kissimmee, Florida, where I grew up, isn't the Florida that most non-Floridians think about when they think about Florida. He described Florida as being like three different countries: South Florida, Central Florida, and the Panhandle. Exactly.

He loves London, but he hated living there, not because of the weather (which is not as unrelentingly dreary as its reputation has it, but rather more ephemeral, like the climate in Melbourne) or because of those stuffy Brits ("I probably have more friends there than any other place in the world," he admitted). His problem with London seemed to have everything to do with his inner life at the time when he was living there. If London were a woman, he might have told her, "It's not you; it's me" – and he would have meant it.

I got what he was saying about London, just as I got what he was saying about Florida, just as I got what he was saying about Cape Town. When I started toying with the idea of taking the commitment plunge and settling for at least one year in Cape Town, everybody assumed I had fallen madly in love – either with the city, or with a guy here. My friend Adriaan, a Cape Town native whom I met in New York City in 2000 and kept in touch with ever since (even before Facebook made it easy), patted himself on the back: "I told you Cape Town gonna bite you like a bug."

I didn't know how to break to him. I haven't really been bitten by anything – not yet. There's nothing metaphysical about it: My attraction to Cape Town is purely physical. I can't stop looking at her (and taking pictures). That's not why I'm sticking around, but it will sure help ease the lonely nights.

"I'm not in love with Cape Town. I'm in like with it." I was talking to Elliott, my 31-year-old American friend from New York City who has spent the past year working on getting his master's (or is it his doctorate?) in African Studies. He was actually the second person here to suggest to me that Cape Town is a racist place, one week after my arrival. The first was Adriaan. As much as I admire Adriaan's intelligence and respect his point of view, like Alex, he's white. So he has his own perspective. Experiencing racism as a conscientious objector to it is a lot different from being its target, as Elliott, who is black, has. He has the shockingly offensive Grindr messages to prove it. Now so do I.

"I’m the kind of person who likes to punish myself." I explained to Alex. It's why I had such a love-hate relationship with the five weeks I spent climbing up and down Signal Hill at least twice a day to go back and forth between my apartment in Tamboerskloof and civilization on Kloof and Long Streets. I like the idea of pushing myself to the limit and deserving my reward at the end, even if it's just a seat in front of the TV, my laptop and a fan after ascending a long 45-degree incline to get home. That's a large part of why I run. At the end of every jog, there are the endorphins and often a fully-written blog post or freelance article in my head. That's some great reward!

Living in Gardens certainly won't be that much of a physical challenge, but the challenge of Cape Town's racial politics is a large part of the reason why I'm staying. It takes more than a month or two to begin to understand the racial politics of any country, as I learned during my extended stays in Argentina, Australia and Thailand. But the racial politics in those countries mostly involved other groups. Yes, I dealt with racism, but usually it was in the form of stereotypes and being objectified sexually. There weren't enough black people for there to be any kind of systematic movement against us.

In Cape Town, though, it's different. Here the racial politics seem to envelop aspects of the racial politics in all of the countries I've lived in, including the United States. I don't know enough about South African history to explain it, but it's even more intense in Cape Town than it seemed to be in Johannesburg. I suspect that has to do with the fact that a smaller percentage of the population in Joburg is white, creating a different dynamic. Cape Town is a much whiter city ("more European," white visitors often say, hardly masking their relief). If I were to compare what I've seen of the black-white dynamic here so far to anywhere in the U.S., it would be Atlanta, the city where my mother has lived for more than 25 years, a landlocked place to which I've never quite taken.

But the racial politics in Cape Town (and, I suppose South Africa in general) are far more complicated than the racial politics in the U.S. (It's frighteningly easy to read them into the one aspect of life in Cape Town that I actually do despise, the one I haven't experienced everywhere else: Pedestrians don't have the right of way, and people drive with little to no regard for their well-being.) In America, black and white people are two centuries removed from the blight of slavery. South Africans have had only two decades and change to recover from Apartheid. There's still a long long way to go.

One of the most surprising things about Cape Town is that being here I haven't escaped the big-black-man stereotypes that were constantly being thrown in my face by non-blacks in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok and everywhere in between. And curiously, I feel just as sexually objectified by non-black gay men (and even by a few black ones) in Cape Town as I have anywhere I've lived these last seven years. "Is it true what they say about black men?" is alive and well here.

Considering that there are black men all over Cape Town, you'd think there wouldn't be such a mystique surrounding us. Sadly, though, rampant segregation (social and sexual) seems to have created a gay community that in some ways is similar to all of the others I've experienced since 2006. Despite the preponderance of black men here, we're still the forbidden fruit for many whites. They might want to squeeze us in the produce department, maybe even sneak us into the bathroom and take a bite. Few want to actually take the apple home.

That's my early impression anyway. As I told Alex, I want to live with this for a while, as difficult as it might sometimes be, figure it out, understand it, maybe even do something to help change it. No pain, no gain: I want to earn, and I want to learn.

I have other reasons for staying in Cape Town: 1) There's less urban bustle here than in Bangkok, so I can indulge my obsession with independence and relative solitude while being surrounded by gorgeous nature. 2) Since the U.S. dollar is quite strong compared to the South African rand, it makes economic sense to be here. (No more $7 beers, as was customary in Melbourne.) 3) It’s a great base from which to explore the rest of the African continent (like Bangkok to Southeast Asia). 4) Although I had more of a richer religious experience in Johannesburg (as I like to say to anyone who compares them, it's Jerusalem to Cape Town's Tel Aviv), Cape Town has a better infrastructure. It's easier to move around here.

But Joburg isn't going anywhere. I can take a short flight there anytime I want to. For the foreseeable future, though, my home will be in Cape Town. Perhaps I will finally grasp its complex racial politics, fully understand them, and finally fall madly in love with the place anyway. Maybe I'll stumble upon the love of my life here and consider myself smitten and bitten.

I'm open to myriad possibilities, and in Cape Town there are myriad possibilities. But I won't find what I'm not looking for unless, for once, I stick around long enough to find it.
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