OPINION | When going “home” is a culture shock

Yolisa Mkele
Image: Supplied

December is back, which means once again its time to make a flurry of alcohol-infused, bad decisions followed by a trip back home. The idea of going “home” can often be a complicated one for us city folk. After all, it’s not like you are going back to your own space, where you pay the rent and make the rules. Nope, for a lot of us going home means going back to ezilaleni, the rural areas our grandparents came from, and the entire situation can often be wildly stressful.

For example, if you have ever gone down with your parents then you may notice how arriving in his old neighbourhood all of a sudden turns your mild-mannered accountant of a father into Papa Action. All of a sudden the family dynamic turns into a primary-school sports day where age groups are concerned and you begin to feel yourself turning into a living anachronism as norms, ideas, and behaviours that wouldn’t fly in your daily life become de rigueur. Ironically, it seems like going home can be quite a culture shock.

Yolisa Mkele as a baby
Image: Supplied

Part of the problem is change. When your dad was a kid and your grandmother was still a snack, the whole Bantustan situation mean that people of the same cultural groups were all clustered together. The result of this was that the various cultural norms of that particular group were reinforced within that area as everyone was more or less the same. Then dear old dad decided to go chase city lights. His time in the urban sprawl gave him many different tastes of many different rainbows and voilà — you were born.

You and papa are now officially from different worlds and it shows itself most vividly when the time comes to slaughter an animal. Having grown up in this world, your father (and the random assortment of uncles whose names you don’t know) can read the cultural cues with ease. Pops may be a bit rusty, but all he needs is a shot of Commando to get back into the groove. You, on the other hand, are lost at sea with inflatable arm bands.

“Where is your knife? No self -respecting man walks around without a knife,” someone says after you’ve been tasked with slaughtering the fidgety sheep in front of you.

In your mind you want to explain that only car thieves and people who think gold teeth are sexy carry knives, but you’re in a different world now and you’re supposed to know the rules. Furthermore, dad is not about to give you hints and tips if he doesn’t have to. His honour is also at stake. After all, he raised you: if you don’t know your own culture it’s his fault, right?

Being Xhosa in Johannesburg means something very different to being Xhosa in Qumbu and, for city kids, the textbook required to make the transition is often missing a few pages”

The same comical game of learning on the fly is going in inside the house. Women who share cooking duties with their partner or are Uber Eats VIPs are suddenly required to cook like Mthatha’s version of Nigella Lawson and serve like that old guy in Downtown Abbey who looks like a badger.

All of these intra-cultural differences can make for a minefield of confusion.

Being Xhosa in Johannesburg means something very different to being Xhosa in Qumbu and, for city kids, the textbook required to make the transition is often missing a few pages.

That said, going home, at whatever time of year, is always worth it. Aside from the obvious cultural benefits, it reconnects you with your family, while exposing you to something you are not necessarily accustomed to. Experiencing those two things in the same holiday both grounds one their identity while also serving as a reminder that the world is bigger than your city and the people in it. Finally it shows you that where you or your family comes from, does not have to determine where they end up.