Archives For settlement

One Chapter Closes

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

magnoliasEvery few years, in late spring when I’m marveling at the pink magnolia trees in Boston’s Back Bay, a vivid memory surfaces… It was my very last day at Emerson College, on the old Beacon Street campus in the stately brownstones. I had a meeting with my senior seminar professor, turned in some graduation paperwork, and was finished. My college days were done, and I enjoyed the sense of relief and accomplishment.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon. Spying an empty classroom, I sat in a big open window and looked down at the lively street scene that had been my life for three years. I loved Emerson and living in the city. At my father’s insistence, I’d started college at UMass Amherst, in the rural western part of the state. Aside from one semester in a high-rise dorm with a bunch of smart, funny, crazy friends, I hated my time there. I’m a city person; a college town in the woods felt like prison.

Transferring to Emerson — on my own dime — was the best decision I’d ever made. I learned a lot, felt validated for my creative talents, met some great people, and came into myself. So my feelings sitting in that window were bittersweet. A wonderful chapter in my life was coming to an end. Yes, I was young and had a whole future of possibilities ahead. But something in me wanted to sit in that spot and hold onto that moment forever, unwilling to close the book and walk away.

But I still lived in the city. And by the fall I would start my first job as a copywriter for a small agency. Emerson had been a big, bright spot in my life — but it wasn’t my everything.

____________________

This week Mtuseni’s on-campus chapter comes to an end. It’s amazing how fast the time went. It seems like just yesterday he visited the school for the first time and — against my instructions — took the entrance exam on the spot. I remember my complete joy when the administrator emailed to say he had done well and was accepted, and his excitement when I told him the news. For me, that moment began a three-year stretch of tuition bills, arguments with school staff, searching for extra resources, and intensive coaching with Mtuseni on many levels, including some I never anticipated.

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopFor Mtuseni, these three years have been nothing short of transformational. Although his first-term transition from a poor farm school to a college in South Africa’s wealthiest neighborhood was rough, we got him through those “darkest days” and he flourished. He has many friends on campus and loves being among a crowd of young, dynamic, ambitious peers.

I’ve always dreaded Mtuseni’s extended breaks from school, because within a day or two he becomes a bear. He’s bored out of his mind. Grouchy. Snappish. Miserable. Because unlike my college experience — where I went home to a vibrant life in Harvard Square, Mtuseni goes home to the settlement — where he is the first person to attend college. Where nobody understands him or feeds his mind or inspires him. Where, as he says, “people sit outside every day and just watch the sun cross the sky.” And where their main concern is not creating a professional radio demo tape, but putting food on the table and keeping their kids alive.

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

The closure of my Emerson chapter was sad for me, but the closing of Mtuseni’s Boston Media House chapter will be much harder on him. He’ll lose touch with many of his friends; daily face-to-face interaction supplanted by the emptiness of Facebook wall comments. The mutual peer support and friendly competition to succeed will vanish, with my custom blend of loving support and parental whip-cracking left to fill the gap. The busy street life of campus and Sandton’s corporate HQs and luxe malls will be replaced by the sullen atmosphere of poverty and dashed hope in Mtuseni’s settlement.

I’m a little worried. Going to college has been a rejuvenating elixir for Mtuseni. Without it, his community environment of despair can be a strong brew that pulls him backwards. Our work is not done; he still needs to find an internship — and I feel in some ways perhaps my toughest challenges lie ahead. Still, I will celebrate his — our — accomplishment this week. And try to keep his head and heart filled with a future of rich possibilities.


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Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.

Boston+Media+House+radio

Boston+Media+House+radio

 

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Doctor Dad

October 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

sickSince taking on the surrogate father role with Mtuseni, I’ve had to wear many hats: coach, cheerleader, task master, advocate, therapist, researcher, consoler, educator, employment agent — the list keeps growing. But I never expected to be his personal epidemiologist.

Since I’ve known him, Mtuseni has often been sick. Fever, flu, cold sores, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, congestion. Since I brought him some multivitamins last year — and continue to keep him stocked — he’s had far fewer bouts of cold and flu. But I’ll still get anguished reports of periodic stomach problems from him, told in his drama-queen style. (He can be a big baby when sick.) But some people (thankfully not me) are more prone to stomach bugs so I didn’t give it much thought, just waited for “I’m weak and dying” texts to switch to “I’m fine now.”

But when Mtuseni was here in Boston this summer, a small incident opened a new perspective for me on his tummy troubles. One night after supper he cleaned up the kitchen while I did some work. I came in later to put a few things back in their usual spot, and noticed the leftover rotisserie chicken wasn’t in the fridge. I looked in the cabinets and the trash but couldn’t find it. When I asked Mtuseni, he said “I put it in the oven” and, sure enough, there was the unwrapped bird sitting in the microwave. I chuckled incredulously and told him that stuff like this needs to go in the refrigerator. He was watching TV and only half-listened.

But this got me thinking… Is this how Mtuseni would normally store leftover food at home? The image of cooked meat sitting on a shelf overnight in his stifling shack haunted me.

So this past Monday he is “super sick” with cramps and vomiting. I ask if anyone else in school or the community is sick and he says only him and mom. With symptoms isolated to just the family, it sounds like food poisoning to me — and I think about the unwrapped roasted chicken. And then I think about the lack of running water. And handling raw meat. And mom’s pen of goats in the yard. And the outhouses. And the barely cool glass of Coke mom served me from their gas-powered refrigerator.

When I first asked Mtuseni to look for vitamins and explained how beneficial they are, he asked, “What are these magic pills?” If he didn’t know about vitamins (despite taking science and life skills classes in his public high school) then safe food handling practices were certainly not familiar to him. I quickly gathered some info and tips online — trying to tamp down my worry after reading about the effects of salmonella and E. coli —  and sent them to Mtuseni. He said he’d look at them and do the best he could, but the fridge is too “weak” to keep things cold in the heat (and it’s barely spring there now). I just hope this is one time he fully listens to my advice and acts on it; I’m more aware now of the risks. Perhaps food-related illness is part of the reason why some people in the community “just get sick and die” — some families don’t have any refrigeration.

Some people who hear about my experience with Mtuseni don’t fully grasp the level of stress I carry sometimes. I’ll hear “Oh, my teenager is the same way: never listens.” But their kid doesn’t struggle to sleep in a cinder block hotbox on a summer night, or have no escape from the cold when temps dip into the 30s. They’re not ruining their eyes studying for exams by candle light or tarring their lungs with the smoke from kerosene lanterns. And they’re not going to spend three days weak and vomiting from a plate of leftover pap and stew.


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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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