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  • Writer's pictureAlasdair Bruce

The trouble with dual nationality

I have spent much of my life dodging xenophobia of the mildest kind. I am a veteran in the warfare of evading people’s prejudices, a special operative hiding in the shadows of one of my two nationalities. Like an undercover agent, I disguise myself with an accent, a twang, a “howzit”, or some other conversational quirk depending on the environment in which I find myself.

This is both the blessing and the curse of being from two places at once. I have become what some of my friends call a social chameleon, owing not to the extensive distance between my eyes, but to an ability to blend in. However, I am a chameleon whose shade doesn’t seem ever to fully match the branch I’m perched on. I was born in the UK and raised in South Africa before moving back to the UK. In both of my homes I have, at times, been an intrigue, a cultural curiosity from a faraway land.

Many dual citizens complain of the same first-world problem: they struggle to feel wholly at home in each of their countries. It might not be an externally obvious struggle and their differences might be embraced with open arms, but there are endlessly small internal struggles that take place daily; small parts of themselves surrendered to fit in.

For me, the arena in which these quotidian battles take place is language. In South Africa, my English accent that I’d somehow clung onto despite being transplanted to the most Afrikaans of provinces generated much interest, jokes, and, sometimes, animosity. There is a phrase in South Africa that describes an English-speaking South African: a “soutie” (roughly, salty penis) is one who has one foot in England and one in South Africa while their willy dangles somewhere in the Atlantic. I don’t want to unpack the anatomical and geographical validity of this too much, but, were it big enough, it would be more likely to land in Cameroon or Nigeria depending on wind.

Moving to the UK, people’s inquisitiveness (or stupidity and churlishness) forced me to drop the slang and turns of phrase that I’d spent the past 18 years crafting, moulding, perfecting and wielding in conversation. Trainers could no longer be tekkies if I wanted the conversation to flow without being stopped to explain myself. We were no longer having braais but barbecues. On arriving at university in the UK, people suddenly became interested in whether I liked my coffee black or white. In South Africa, the word yoghurt caused quite the uproar. Instead of the accepted yo (as in yo-yo) ghurt, I said yog (rhymes with fog) urt. Soon after asking someone to pass me some of the creamy good stuff for my granola, most of the town would arrive at the window with pitchforks and torches to jeer at me.

So instead of running headlong into this mob, you adapt. And every time you do so you give a small piece of yourself away. It’s minor, but it teaches you you can’t be comfortable in your own skin, that it’s easier to conform than it is to be different.

It’s not all bad, though. The English are notoriously disliked. Even the English don’t like the English. If I find myself at a local’s watering hole in the depths of the Orange Free State flanked by Afrikaans farmers with a taste for brandy and a distaste for the English, any suggestion that I was born in the quaint city of Bath, Somerset, is “Kak, man! I am from van Reenen in die Vrystaat.” If any accusations of poshness are (rightly) lodged against me, they can’t possibly be true - I’m South African where poshness isn’t a concept.

But even when you use it to avoid a bad situation, you’re running away from a part of you, instead of wearing it and embracing it.

I now live in France to break this rally of terrestrial tennis between South Africa and England. It’s strange that you can be most yourself in a place that’s not your home, where your pasts don’t have to compete or hide.


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