Archives For maturity


September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni turns 21 today. He claims to not get excited about birthdays, always brushing off talk of them in the past. Raising three kids in poverty, his mom doesn’t tend to do much for holidays. He had been typically chill about it the past month or so. But seeing his WhatsApp status line this morning, I was glad to see the flash of humor and ego from my sometimes over-serious and insecure kid:

bday whatsapp status

In South African culture — or at least in Mtuseni’s Zulu culture — turning 21 is a milestone and rite of passage. As he explained to me back when his brother Moses reached that age, the family holds a big party to celebrate becoming a man. Mtuseni’s party is in a couple of weeks; his mother invited me when I talked to her in July while he was here. I wish there was a magic carpet that could carry me there in an hour so I could help celebrate; I’m not jumping on a plane for 16 hours for a birthday party. But Mtuseni is getting excited; his Facebook invite claims the bash will run from 8 pm to 7 am — and asks people to “bring beer, but no weapons.” I hope mom knows about the power of Facebook party invites!

mtuseni photo-walletOn my end, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since I had my first webcam chat with Mtuseni — shortly after he had turned 17 and was finishing his junior year in high school. We were both nervous — and I sort of botched it with a stiff PowerPoint showing him my home state (a suggestion in the mentor training). Still, it was my first interaction with the boy I knew only from a two-sentence description and photo provided by the nonprofit that matched us. I was captivated by that sweet smile on a kid half a world away wearing a school uniform… and wondered how this mentoring thing would all play out.

And although it truly seems like yesterday, I can’t believe it was three years ago that we “shared” a birthday cupcake on a web chat and I played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for him. His face lit up as he bounced to the music in his honor, knowing he would go home to no celebration. He was finishing high school and prepping for the month-long matric exams that would determine the next phase of his life. And I was beginning to think about offering to pay his tuition if by chance his exam scores qualified him for college. I can remember that half-hour birthday chat so clearly — neither of us could have imagined then the roller coaster ride that was to come.

Moses is gone now, and Mtuseni is the man of the family. He’s weeks away from finishing his last semester of school and ready to pound the Johannesburg pavement in search of an internship so he can graduate next June. When he was here, Mtuseni said that wearing a tie for his US visa interview (at my insistence) had inspired him to create a new look. “No more t-shirts,” he told me. “No more kid stuff.” So we passed by the tables of hip tees that I usually send to him and looked at chinos and button-down Oxfords and dressy shoes. We came home and he tried everything on, reveling in his own personal fashion show and sartorial upgrade. It was cool to see the transformation and his enthusiasm, though I will admit to some mixed emotions.

IMG_0298Despite his not-so-subtle hints the past few weeks, Mtuseni knows there’s no birthday present from me this year. The $250 to replace his third phone in June was his early gift, not to mention a trip to the US and a new duffle bag full of new clothes to take back. But I never let his birthday go unnoticed. Because sending mail to South Africa can be problematic — and I’m holding off until a Christmas package — I scanned and emailed a couple of birthday cards, telling him how proud I am of him — and how much I love him.

And as I’ve told Mtuseni many times before, no matter how old he is, deep down he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy” from the picture that started this remarkable journey for both of us. And he’s fine with that — even if he is a man now.


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Shock and Awe

August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Times+Square+New York

Mtuseni’s been home from his US trip for over a month now, and I’m still trying to put the pieces together. It’s a little bit like the aftermath of a tornado — not only from the nonstop energy of activities during his visit, but also the mental chaos it caused. The kid I saw here was in some ways the inquisitive, funny, sweet young man I know from years of long-form texting. Yet I was also surprised and a bit dismayed to see a moody, sour, sullen, insolent teenager — an alien being I’ve never experienced in four years of digital and phone communication. To say it caught me off guard is an understatement.

Part of Mtuseni’s darker persona is a product of an emotional immaturity: developmentally on many levels he is more like a 15-year-old than someone turning 21 next month. I was not prepared to handle the psychological roulette wheel of an adolescent boy. Props (and sympathy) to any parents who deal with that stuff on a daily basis.

But I discovered in a long talk with Mtuseni towards the mid-point of the visit — after things had come to a head and my capacity for patience was exhausted — that part of his mood and ‘tude were the by-product of profound culture shock.

Before Mtuseni arrived, friends noted that visiting the US from a poor South African settlement would be a culture shock to him. And I completely agreed. Yet what does that mean? What is culture? How do people living in a particular culture understand it — or do they even recognize it? For residents of a culture, it’s just life; you’re not aware of it as being a distinct through-line of daily experience. When I think of “American culture” today, it’s a mix of consumerism and marketing and obesity and violent movies and mindless reality TV. The higher values and principles of previous generations have been drowned out by crassness and banality — the Kardashian circus being the tipping point.

I don’t think that description fits all of America, but if someone asked me today to describe our culture in a nutshell that’s what I’d say, because the momentum seems to be heading in that direction. And given that Mtuseni experiences the eye-popping wealth and consumerism of Sandton at school every day (which shocked me on my trip to SA), and because he’s a student and consumer of mass media and marketing, I thought that any culture shock from visiting America would be limited.

Boy was I wrong.

When I finally sat Mtuseni down and asked him why he was being such a dick, his response was a profound eye opener for me. He said that, from the moment he stepped off the plane, everything seemed like a dream. Like he was here, but not here. Like he was watching himself in a movie, and thinking “This is my life? Am I really here in this place?” Everyone has had a similar out-of-body experience at some time. I remember feeling that in Venice — but having traveled before, it was wondrous and pleasant. For Mtuseni, that surreal feeling overwhelmed him — and he threw up defensive walls that at times made him miserable to be around.

But it wasn’t so much the cacophony of Times Square or the Boston subways or having electricity and a fully stocked kitchen that overwhelmed him. It was our American culture — experiences of life here that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice them. And having finally broken through his walls, they all came tumbling out of him in a list that stunned me. For example…

  • It felt “scary” to be hanging out with “older white people” here who treated him like a regular person and wanted to hear what he had to say. In South Africa, he says that whites look down on and talk down to blacks. There is mutual distrust, and he said that “apartheid will never be over in South Africa.” (My heart broke when he said that.)
  • People here are “very color blind,” with all types of diverse people all hanging out and comfortable together. (By contrast, seeing an episode of Family Feud at the gym — which happened to have a black family and a white family as contestants — Mtuseni said to me “Oh, so this show is black versus white?” That’s not the perception of a color-blind filter at work.)
  • Black teenagers here seem much more “confident” and comfortable and better dressed than his black peers in SA. (The realities of his deep poverty and limited farm-school education must have become more apparent to him here.)
  • It was “shocking” that Americans are so “open” and “talk about anything” and express opinions on everything. South Africans are much more cautious and oblique in their conversations. (I’d always heard that Americans are more forthright and direct than most cultures, but didn’t fully grasp it until hearing the perspective of an outsider like Mtuseni.)

Newbury+Street+cafe+Boston+TapeoBecause I live inside the American culture, these perceptions that Mtuseni shared were completely under my radar. Two “older” white folks and a college kid discussing a variety of topics at a Newbury Street cafe just seemed normal for me, but was on some level mind-blowing for him.

I now have a better understanding of “culture” and how it can affect someone who lives in a distinctly different one. I only wish I had somehow been more attuned to it with Mtuseni, and had checked in earlier with him. For after we spent over two hours talking about this stuff, he lost that sense of “being in a dream” and was more present here, more comfortable, more integrated into the experience. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his moments of sour faces and stony silence. But that wasn’t culture shock; it was merely a kid who has one foot in adulthood and one foot in ninth grade. And that’s going to take longer to resolve.


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August 3, 2013 — 7 Comments

JP hilltop pic July2013It’s hard to believe that Mtuseni’s been back home almost a month — and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the visit. Judging by my lofty standards, it wasn’t a rousing success. Then again, when you anticipate something for almost four years and play out in your head how wonderful things will be when it finally occurs, there’s bound to be some dashed expectations.

When he finally got his US visa this spring, I had pictured the visit as a valedictory lap for both of us — with Mtuseni about to start his final semester, an educated, engaged, and intellectually curious young man on his first trip abroad… a shining example of all my hard work with him. Instead I encountered a quiet, wary kid full of defenses and snap judgments, the whipsaw moods and sullen countenance of a 15-year-old, and a smoldering scowl that would scare off a pit bull.

It was confusing and maddening. Where was the warm, funny kid I chat with every day across six time zones?

There are many answers to that question. Friends who are parents have helped provide insights into the tormented travails of raising teenagers and young twenty-somethings. It’s encouraging to hear that many of them have wanted to throttle their post-adolescent kids, and found themselves thinking “Who the fuck are you? What crazed, evil being has hijacked the spirit of my sweet, loving kid?”

I also take (grudging) comfort in the fact that Mtuseni’s behavior toward me demonstrates a level of trust that is only reserved for a parent. Yes, I agree with everyone’s assessment that he’s testing me. (But did he need to do it on a first-time visit that cost me thousands of dollars?)

The other day it dawned on me that Mtuseni is playing out this delayed developmental psycho-drama with me because his father walked out before he reached his teens. Pushing back at me, ignoring me, scowling at me, simultaneously fearing and loving and hating me  — this is what he needs to do to forge his independent identity as a man. And although a big part of me wants to throw up my hands and say “Fuck this! I don’t need this shit” — it’s what I signed up for, whether I realized it or not. I suppose it was naive and foolish of me to think I’d take on the role of father and blithely avoid any of the real down-and-dirty aspects.

This classic father-son conflict is only one layer of a very complex puzzle that’s forcing me to think through some realignments and new strategies as the picture comes more into focus. He’s not at all where I thought he would be at this point. There is still a lot of work to do to get him prepared for life in the grown-up, professional world.

When I offered to put Mtuseni through school and go all-in on being there for him, I knew this thing wasn’t going to be a sprint. I was expecting a marathon — and envisioned his trip here as the beginning of the last celebratory mile. But evidently this is more like one of those insane ironman triathlons, and we’re just wrapping up the swim and getting ready for the 100-mile bike. I’m tired, stressed, and want my own life back. But I’ll do whatever it takes for Mtuseni, because I love this lunatic SOB. I’m just hoping this isn’t a decathlon.

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vintage+Chevy+BelAirEven though he returned almost three weeks ago, I’m still parsing the experience of Mtuseni’s visit. There is a lot to digest and try to understand — along with continuing fallout that currently has us at loggerheads like never before. I do believe my 20-year-old is finally turning 15, emotionally if not chronologically. Am I ready for the battles and pushback ahead? I don’t know. I’m not looking forward to it, that’s for sure. But if this is the necessary psycho-dynamic that must play out for him to become a man — and which he missed having no father around for most of his teenage years — then I guess I’ll strap on my whitewater gear and ride these churning rapids. As I’ve said before, I hate carnival rides!

In the meantime, the New York Times posted an interesting Room for Debate feature this weekend offering different perspectives on the future of South Africa and its economy. I found it surprising that none of the primary contributors addressed the issues of poor education and lack of Internet access — two issues I have described frequently here myself. I added my comments to the discussion. Check out the feature for some perspective on the challenges facing the country.

Source: New York Times

Click to access discussion. — Source: New York Times