On the Dangers of Being an Expat

When you move to South Africa, it is easy to constantly compare South Africa with your old home, and to moan about being separated from North American (insert: where you used to live) comforts. Your conversations with yourself and others can easily revolve around the challenges of slow internet, your fears about crime, the stark inequality in the country, the lack of walkable neighbourhoods, the car dependency, the painful bureaucracy. If your attitude is one of continual comparing and contrasting, there is no lack of negative topics that can and will occupy your thoughts.

The danger in such a lens however, is that instead of observing and learning from the place in which you now live, you allow your comforts and discomforts to become the focus of your reflections. Instead of thinking about ways to contribute, you seek to replicate or better your life in your old home and to find spaces that make you comfortable. As a result, the beauty, character, soul, heartbreaks, and stories of your new home remain invisible to you. Your inward focus makes you a poor traveler because the history of the place and the context of the gaps and differences you notice are not as important to you than the differences you mourn.

The danger in having such singular vision is that if your time in a new place is a temporary experience, you may leave your expat experience unchanged by your travels. If your move is a more permanent one, you may never full settle into the curves of your new life.

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On Mosquing (Day 2 Ramadan 2015)

Wedding Day, Houghton Masjid (April 2015)

Wedding Day, Houghton Masjid (April 2015) Photo Credit: SP from SA

Yesterday was the second fast of the month and so far I’ve been praying at home. Partly because my local mosque didn’t have a women’s section when I was growing up and partly because I’m not very good with crowds and heat, it’s always just felt more familiar and comfortable to pray at home. And so although there are facilities at the local mosque, the past two nights I’ve waved goodbye to my husband and family as they leave for tarawih (nightly Ramadan prayers), before praying on my own while they are away.

But it’s winter in South Africa so heat isn’t an issue, and I was up early and ready to go, so when everyone headed to the masjid for Fajr (the dawn prayer), I jumped in the car.  Including myself, my mother in law and another woman there were three of us in the female section of the masjid at Fajr, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. The imam recited Surah Yaseen, my favourite chapter from the Qur’an, and it felt so comfortable to be starting the day praying and hearing a beloved and familiar Surah. It made me want to be more familiar with the Qur’an as a whole and to read and listen to it more often so that more chapters and verses become beloved friends, and to make dua this Ramadan that this takes place.

My mind was on duas because along with the heart softening experience of beautiful recitation, being in the mosque was a tangible, physical reminder that Ramadan is a time of supplication. It is a time of raising your expectations and knowing and trusting and believing God is Capable of all things. Our local masjid in Joburg is the Houghton West Street Masjid, and last year in Ramadan, before I had ever met my husband, I discovered the masjid when a teacher in Toronto tweeted a link to a recitation of the 99 Names from the Houghton Masjid Soundcloud page.  A couple of weeks later the same teacher posted their recitation of Surah Rahman (another chapter of the Qu’ran) and through Ramadan and afterwards as well, the same recitation of Surah Rahman, the 99 Names, and prayers on the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him posted on their Soundcloud page became things I would turn to time and time again for solace and comfort and reflection.

Many months later when I met my husband (a story for another time!) and learnt he is from South Africa, I admitted that I didn’t know very much about the country, but there was a masjid that I loved from afar. There are many, many, many masjids in South Africa, and so I didn’t think this particular one would be familiar to him, but to my great surprise, he shared that in fact, that very same masjid was his neighbourhood mosque, and that he loved their recitation of Surah Rahman too. A few months later, we were married in that very same masjid, and though wedding events and receptions can seem a bit of a blur, our nikkah (wedding ceremony) is very clear. Each time we drive past, or the few times I’ve been to the masjid to pray since then, our wedding day comes to mind, and yesterday’s Fajr prayer was no different. It brought forth memories of arriving at the masjid with my family beforehand, of navigating my long dress and train up the masjid stairs in heels (a new experience) to the female section upstairs, sitting as close as possible to the partition to see down into the mens section and hear the beautiful words and reflections of the ceremony, hugging friends and family and new faces afterwards, praying Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and praying and sitting on layers upon layers of material, making my way down the steps carefully after others left, and praying supplications in the moments before seeing my husband for the first time. Every time we visit the masjid, the anticipation and joy and gratitude of that day comes to life.

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On Learning Through Stories and Reading “Us” by David Nicholls

V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Thinking about the distance to Canada, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Seriously Planning has always been a reflection of my life and experiences. Over the past few years the blog has helped me think through questions of identity, faith, urbanism and personal growth as I’ve lived in both Toronto and Vancouver for graduate school, work opportunities, and to be closer to my family. Recently I’ve been thinking about/have been curious about how the blog will change over the next year, because in late April 2015 I got married (and moved) to Joburg, the city of my best friend. We’re both Canadian, but my husband is South African as well, and our beautiful, multi-day wedding with family, friends, prayer, laughter, food and gratitude are days and moments of memories that I will hold in my heart for a long time to come.

As we’ve joined our lives together in the weeks and days since the wedding, I’ve been reading a book that I picked up in London on my way to Joburg called “Us” by David Nicholls. It’s a wonderful, touching, tender, moving book, with complex characters, humour, suspense and just so much heart, and it’s been the perfect backdrop to the beginning of our shared path. We’ve both been thinking a lot about what it means to partner, to move across the world to another country, city, culture and community, to transition and to blend our individual histories, backgrounds and experiences together to God willing, make a culture of our own, and reading this book has been a wonderful way for me to process my own thoughts. Continue reading