Living as a South African Emigrant in Perth

Living as a South African Emigrant in Perth

Living as a South African Emigrant in PerthBy Irene de Bruyn

Moving from South Africa to Perth, Irene constantly finds herself comparing the differences and similarities of both cultures as she settles in to her new life. This is her story…

Comparing Cultures

I suspect it irritates the inside out of Australians, but as an emigrant, it’s very difficult not to continuously compare South Africa with Australia, and notice the various cultural differences and similarities.

As I’m now living in Perth, these observations apply mainly to Western Australia, and are mostly superficial, as I’m basically shallow.

The first thing to really hit me between the eyes here was the calm, well-regulated traffic, which seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace, and the well-behaved (mostly) motorists.

Naturally, I picked up a speeding fine in no time (don’t ask), so I’ve learned that traffic cops here are not bribeable. And the bliss of not hearing those combi-taxis hooting all the time! I’ve nearly cured myself of my combi-taxi phobia, but not completely. I still react when I see one, and I have to remind myself that I’m in Australia now.

The drivers here don’t hoot at me if I’m a nanosecond late taking off from the robot, which is a marvel. In fact there are drivers here who are in more of a dwaal than I am. So I’ve learned patience. And I have to remember all the time to check my speed on the speedometer, something I certainly didn’t do in Johannesburg.

Also, they have had the brilliant idea here of signing cross-streets before you get there, thus avoiding last minute slamming on of brakes and left or right turns. This is a God-send for people like me, born without the map-reading gene. The roads are all smooth and in excellent condition, and I haven’t seen any potholes!

I was astonished, at first, to see traffic accidents covered in detail on television. Back in the Badlands, they weren’t reported at all unless you were famous (or an MP).

It really is delightful to travel on Perth’s clean, air-conditioned (nogal) buses and trains. The buses actually have the correct destination on the front, and the drivers don’t drive like maniacs. On my last bus trip in Johannesburg, I had to open my umbrella inside the bus, and wipe the seat before sitting on it. The public transport here is excellent.

Finding Comfort in a New City

Driving through suburbia, I’m struck by the sameness of the suburbs. There isn’t the huge contrast between the rich and poor areas you see in SA (never mind the squatter camps); in fact suburbs here which I’m told are slums don’t even look slummy to me. I can’t help wondering how many South Africans would probably kill to live in one of those ‘slums’.

I suppose this sameness is a reflection of what is essentially a middle-class society. The Taxman, like death, is the Great Leveller. And their gardens are so well tended and manicured! I don’t know how they find the time and energy for them.

Gardening and home renovating seem to me to be the two most popular national pastimes, if the number of TV programmes is anything to go by. At my last count there were about six weekly DIY (do-it-yourself) programs on gardening and home renovating, featuring blokes with names like Bruce and Stu, who make everything look like child’s play and utterly transform your home in one afternoon.

Talking of television, the advertisements here do make me wonder about the Ozzie sense of humour, (and the creative writers in the advertising agencies).

So many of the ads feature someone sitting on the toilet, landing in the toilet, having the toilet land on them, or more or less the same thing with cream pies. Or skidding on a cream pie. Or playing tennis with toilet rolls instead of tennis balls.

How this is supposed to induce feelings of brand loyalty escapes me. And the advertising agencies are apparently convinced that the more words they can squeeze into a minute, and the louder they shout, the more you’ll buy.

No, subtlety is not their strong point.

On the other hand, the helpfulness and friendliness of shop assistants and service establishments in general make me feel I’ve died and gone to consumer heaven. The shop assistants here actually know their stock. The Post Office is incredibly efficient and knowledgeable (what a pleasure), and I have never queued for more than a few minutes. This after many a lunch hour spent queuing in the Sandton Post Office for one item…we won’t go there.

And for book-lovers like me, Perth is library heaven. Or is heaven one big library? (I think I’d settle for that). The libraries here are well stocked with the latest fiction and non-fiction, in sufficient quantity for all borrowers to read them. And one can borrow 10 books at a time! Bliss.

Another thing that I love here is that I can revert to my natural sloppiness and not look terribly out of place. No-one here dresses up to the nines, or wears masses of make-up. Perthlings are very casual and laid-back. No kugels or koeksusters, or flash-your-cash jewellery here.

Going by the magazine covers here, and the TV starlets and bimbettes, the Ozzie ideal of beauty is definitely blond and – well – bland. You could stamp them out with cookie-cutters. And girlhood, sadly, seems to end early. Already at the ages of 9 and 10 young girls are dressing like teenagers, though perhaps this is happening all over the ‘civilised’ world.

Making Sense of the Local Language

One of the most insidious and infectious things about Ozzies is their accent. The singsong lilt with the upward lift at the end. I find myself listening to their lilting like a hypnotised cobra, waiting for that high note. And I haven’t taken in a word they’ve said.

One of their amusing language oddities is the way they shorten some words and names with more than one or two syllables and add an -o or -ie at the end. (I find myself doing it too). Like Freo for Fremantle, Rotto for Rottnest, footy for football, kindie for kindergarten, Nige for Nigel etc.

Some words they pronounce in ways I was rapped over the knuckles for at school, so I can’t help thinking this unfair. Like ‘rooves’ for ‘roofs’ , ‘respite’ the way it’s spelled, instead of ‘respitt’, and ‘housses’ for ‘houses’. They also add an invisible ‘r’ to words ending in ‘aw’. ‘drawring’ and I sawr a…’. But English is totally erratic anyway. I won’t hold it against them.

I must admit though that sometimes they look at me blankly when I ask about ‘parking the car’, or even ‘ja’ (I’ve been asked whether ‘ja’ means yes or no), as our long a’s are foreign to Aussie ears.

I’ve noticed that the young people here have a strange way of holding their pens when writing, in a clenched fist, as if they’re about to pound something in a pestle and mortar. I’m amazed when writing appears at the bottom of the pen.

Feeling Foodsick

The food here has a decided UK flavour (if that’s not an oxymoron) – though I believe that over the past 20 years or so it’s become much more eclectic, with a lot of Asian influence. Still, I was amazed to see ‘bangers and mash’ and ‘toad in the hole’ on a restaurant menu.

I just can’t find any pizzas without ham or bacon on them. But eating out, strangely enough, seems much more affordable here than it was in SA and I don’t find myself feeling so foodsick. (Leaving out the high end, which I always do). [Foodsick is like being homesick, missing certain food items]

After the passionate world of South African politics, Australia feels like a peaceful haven.

It’s more of a humdrum, ho-hum affair. I’ve never heard people here getting really worked up about politics. They get more excited about what (used to be) local government issues in SA – new roads, new marina developments etc. Which is perhaps a good thing, it shows there aren’t the deep acrimonious divides one has in South Africa.

Every year, I’m amazed at the number of unwanted items people here heap up on their pavements for collection by the bulk recycling. I just can’t believe the things people are discarding: furniture, beds, stoves, radios, carpets… often still in good condition. I can’t help thinking that each suburb’s discards would furnish a squatter camp, and wish it could be shipped to South Africa!

Because of their high standard of living, I think Australian expectations are generally high. And it seems that when these aren’t fulfilled, Aussies are inclined to whinge. They expect a lot of perfection.

But I think perhaps some of the most fundamental differences between Aussie and SA society have been caused by underlying attitudes: the (avowed) Aussie demand that everyone should get a ‘fair go’, and the (unavowed) South African attitude of ‘devil take the hindmost’. Whether these attitudes will change remains to be seen.


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