Time to Wake Up - YIIP Final Project

December 4, 2008 - Markham, Canada

It was a great day.  The sun was shining; the water was this beautiful aquamarine blue.  The participants at the Emerging Global Leaders Program were energetic, enthusiastic and they even started to share their stories with me.  As I beamed at how amazing they were, a smile stared to spread across my face.  It was not just your average, ‘it’s a good day smile,’ but the kind that wrinkles your face and shows your teeth.  My head was already resting listlessly on my two soft squishy pillows.  I decided at that very moment that I wanted to do something equally amazing as those kids.  I wanted to be some sort of amazing person as well.  I wanted to do this all before I reached the age of twenty-four. Why twenty-four?  I pulled that number arbitrarily out of thin air. It could have been twenty-five or thirty-eight, but twenty-five seems like such a milestone - the quarter century. Yet, there was something slightly askew with this goal.  I couldn’t figure it out at that moment.  But it hit me with the force of a thousand teething babies screaming- my goal was doomed before I could even start.

Cast aside the facts that there was nothing specific, measurable or anything remotely attainable in my subjective goal.  Put in a dash of reality and a pinch of perspective.  Stir.  Rest for a minute and then go into shock.  I remember that part quite clearly.  As my exhausted body slowly drifted out of consciousness and into the darkness of the night, my over-active imagination violently jolted me awake.  I am twenty-four, and I have been for some months now.  This was my quarter-life crisis (QLC).  Time will not let me forget this – ever.

There is no doubt that it would take an imagined, self-inflicted, personal crisis to spur some sort of self-reflection.  Much like other sorts of imagined things in my life, this really bothered me.  So here I am, rewriting rewrite number who knows.  What do I really have to say about the global citizenship aspect of the assignment?  Well, I have sat down and attempted to write this reflection many, many times.  Each time I would start and then proceed to discard the whole thing just a few hours later.  My QLC forced me to think, to re-evaluate just about everything in my life.  So I cut back and decided to write about what I learned.  Back so many moons ago as I lay in the soft, comfortable hotel bed enslaved by my QLC, I hoped that the incessant thoughts of “the future” would stop.   I tried not to dwell on it, but it those thoughts lingered in my mind for days.

It must have been over the long good byes and trans-Atlantic flight did it occur to me that I have done some of the things that those kids have done.  I just do it a little differently.  I have gone global.  I have done some growing up.  But I reckon I could and should do a lot more growing up.  I wouldn’t say that I’ve gone through many major changes, but I’ve changed enough so that if I were to meet my younger self from a few months ago, my younger self would probably cry himself to sleep.  I don’t know why I think my younger self might do something like that, but I am very interested to see what would actually happen.  My life is excessively sheltered, and that is why my choice of going to South Africa was so great.  This would be my chance to grow up a little bit.

I probably could have done a better job preparing for my internship.  The fact that everyone I talked to about going to Joburg reacted so viscerally should have set off alarms bells in my head.  There were noises in my head, but I thought they were just jealous.  As cautious as I was, nothing really could have prepared me for the great time that I had.  I had my shares of ups and downs, but I think that’s what made it so great.  Besides, without the challenges to balance out the good times, the entire experience would have been too smooth.  I figure I need to bumps along the way to wake me up.  maybe once in a while.   However, some wakeup calls are just not heeded the same way.  I have a snooze button for life.

The first alarm happened at the airport before I even left the city, let alone the country.  Forget all the preparation, questions and reading I’ve done for weeks, this was a kick in the teeth.  I was sitting in the lounge at Gate 175 and watching CBC news.  There were stories on the war on terror, oil prices, the American Presidential elections and other things that have become white noise.   I stood up for my boarding call when the breaking news story hit.  I just had to stop and drop everything to listen to the breaking news.  Although I read about the story weeks earlier on the internet, it felt so far away, so removed, so exotic.  Hearing it on the CBC somehow made it real, and for some reason, it struck a chord in me.  Johannesburg was in riots and foreigners were being attacked.  My jaw dropped.  People around me knew I was in shock.  If my face didn’t give it away, my verbalised thoughts certainly did me in.  (Something sounding like “fo huck” echoed through the terminal.)  I didn’t believe it at first.  The breaking news story was so much scarier and real than the other news stories I read.  There had to be some element of fear-mongering there.  Nevertheless, I got on my flight to London and tried to forget about the whole thing.  Instead, I concentrated on sleeping for the duration of the red-eye.  I wasn’t going to let Peter Mansbridge ruin my flight, the tight uncomfortable seats coupled with bad airline food did that for him.  Snooze.

I can only imagine what the rest of the passengers were feeling.  Oh that’s right, no one was worried, they were all stopping in jolly olde England.  Anyone I conversed with was in complete disbelief that I was heading towards the violence.  “Well pip pip off you go then.”  The British had their own special way with dealing with incidents of this sort.  They wished me luck and their condolences.  Like my bags, even my excitement was getting checked.  The number of airport “oh be careful” utterances by complete strangers was disheartening.  However, the worst utterance was made by one of the flight attendants on the plane.  He mentioned something along the lines of “you must be crazy to go there, I left years ago.”  I started to question myself.  Was I making the right choice?

Right or wrong there was no turning back now.  The gentleman beside me started to preach about the greatness of God.  He insisted that I needed God’s graces while I was in Johannesburg.  I thought it was strange that he was telling me all of this as he was on his way to Harare, Zimbabwe.  Here was my sign, the sign that things were going to be different, unimaginatively different.  Here was this guy wishing me good luck as he headed to a country in complete disarray.  Talk about perspective.  I haven’t landed in the country and I’m uncertain on how I’m going live the next three months.

I was already lost; worse, it has only been two days.  It was pitch black outside, and I was sure that the taxi was going through all of the parts of the city that I was told to stay out of.  More alarms.  These alarms were blaring.  The taxi must have reeked of fear.  What made it worse was the fear wasn’t just mine.  The taxi driver was scared out of his mind too.  I have never seen a man so afraid of the road.  He was a nervous wreck, and that made me even more nervous.

“Oh there is the CBD, and is that a group of vagrants vandalising something?  Oh, look where we are, another dark and abandoned alleyway, let’s go down that road why don’t we?  What?  We’re lost?  Sure, why don’t you keep driving down that unmarked, dirt road, I’m sure my hostel is down in the middle of nowhere.”
My mind was racing.  Much like being kicked in the face, this was one of those life experiences that I would like to never repeat.  The normally half-hour car ride into the city took the better part of an hour to get back out to the hostel.

“Hey Canada!  You’re back!  We were starting to get worried, we thought you were dead.”
And that’s when I knew I re-adjust my expectations.  There really could not have been a warmer greeting for me that night.  Short of drying myself off with sandpaper, I don’t think I could have felt much else.
The next day, I was repeating that journey from the city.  Alarms, more alarms.  This time the taxi driver knew where he was going.  He told me he was taking a shortcut.  The alarms are now wailing at such a pitch that my breathing was worse than the day before.  I was checking my shoulder while in the car.  
“Was there a football match today?”
“Yes, there was, and these two teams are the biggest rivals.  They usually end up in fights.”
“And where we’re travelling is safe?”
“Of course, I come here all the time”
Mind you, I was just told that the hostel had one of their guests mugged and beaten in this area.  There were football fans everywhere as we drove through.  And since the foreigner in me only knows football fans through movies like 'Green Street Hooligans,' it was very long ride.  It was also the area with one of the highest rates of murder, assault and violent car jackings.   Three days and I already have been through just about every area in the city that I was not supposed to go.  However, I was brazen, stupid and in over my head.  I didn’t know what else to do.  I took many new risks; dumb, uncalculated, unnecessary risks, but they were new experiences nonetheless. I felt like I had a handle on things.  Slam down that snooze button!

(Un)fortunately, the internship didn't allow me to cruise or snooze.  There was a lot going on at Sci-Bono.  Slacking off was not an option.  My strengths and experience were immediately examined and put to use.  Within hours, I was handed a major project to manage.  Then I was given many smaller tasks to attend to.  There was no doubt that I jumped head first into this job.  The job wasn't especially difficult, but it was definitely busy.  If you were to mix the best of the many different part-time jobs that I had over the years and meld them into a singular amazing job, my internship position was that.  Not only was the work fun, but my supervisors basically gave me complete creative freedom.  I just had to complete the project and tasks that were assigned to me.  How I went about it was completely up to me.  There were very few guidelines and managerial interference.  They just said, '"go."  I never get complete creative freedom; I've always been the worker drone noisily slaving away somewhere.  I was now important enough that the work given to me was given in good faith.  I couldn’t believe that I was in a position where my opinion mattered.  I was trusted to do something good.  But I was at a loss.  How could these professionals trust me?  I am small time, from the middle of nowhere, student intern.  I was now deemed capable of creating, managing and implementing their programs?  What's the catch?

Professionally, there was no catch.  This was perhaps the best developmental training/ internship/ work experience that money can't buy.  It is rare that a company would consider giving you so much unfettered access and support in pursuing your own interests.  I must credit my supervisors Michael Peter and Thandi O' Hagan here for making my interests their interests.  They made the whole thing fun, it didn't feel like work at all.  There were many frustrating moments of learning, but the rewards from such challenges were overwhelmingly stacked high in my favour.  With every new project came new and exciting cutting edge science demonstrations to inspire more projects.  After every demonstration, there would be meetings to implement new projects.  I sat at tables where decisions were being made about the state of education in the country.  I sat at tables where I knew something big was going to happen.  I was there to influence and contribute to educational reform in the country.  For a few weeks, I was the guy behind the people behind the scenes.

This participative internship did not begin and end with work.  The world outside of work was a whole different matter in of itself.  This whole global village idea isn’t too far off the mark in reality.  While McLuhan was talking about technological advances, my global village is physical.  For the most part, life wasn’t that much different.  Sure there were differences but I wouldn’t say that they extended far enough to completely change my perspective on the world.  However, it really wasn’t about what I thought.  I was the other, the outsider, the Canadian.  Visually, I was different.  But given the opportunity to get to know my neighbours and colleagues, we found that we were all very similar; more so than I could have imagined.

There was a landmark court decision handed down by the Supreme Court of South Africa as I arrived in the country.  All ethnically Chinese South Africans were to be considered black.  I didn’t know this, but I was black.  I never considered myself any colour.  The thought just never came up.  I’m just Canadian.  Yes, my heritage is Chinese and Vietnamese (this is news to me, I just found that one out too) but I don’t know how to be anything but Canadian.  Well I could probably slide many other temporary adoptive identities in there, but I’m predominantly Canadian.  So imagine my surprise when I was given not one new identity but three.

At first, some of the kids I met thought I was white.  White?  Me?  They had to mistaken.  I’m not white, I have this ambiguous shade to my skin that makes me look like I can be of any heritage… oh there’s the reason.  So for a few days I was white.  I accepted my ‘whiteness’ and lived with it.  I just assumed that because of the racial injustices of the Apartheid regime, the kids were just going on past knowledge.  There were three different categories then, black, white and coloured.  But I really don’t fit into any of those categories either.

When the kids started coming to my programmes, I became Chinese. I was now thoroughly confused.  How could my outward appearance something so different in so few days?  This meant some of the kids knew about some ethnic variations in people.  But no, they really didn’t know about different ethnicities, I just looked like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee or that guy from their favourite science show.  How the kids identified me was with colour.  I had a different colour to the people they knew and that made me different.  But my difference wasn’t universal.  There was this hierarchy based on difference.  Depending on how I was seen in the eyes of the people, I was treated differently.  At first I thought it was like a musical cacophony, but I then understood clearly, this was another alarm.

My colleague screamed from across the foyer, “Hey black man!”  I walked on.  “Hey black man, what’s up?” He asked from right in front of me.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my new identity.  Word had spread about the court ruling and I instantly became a part of the majority.  Now this third change in identity wouldn’t have been an alarm if things suddenly didn’t get easier.  I had a much easier time joking with some of colleagues and with my neighbours.  It was like an imaginary welcome mat had been rolled out for me.  Snooze.  While nothing changed professionally, there were a lot more jokes flying through the air now.  My neighbours were the ones that made the most of this joke.  Everything was because I was black.  When my roommate didn’t understand something and I did, it was because I was black.  When I was having fun, it was because I was black.  When I was working, it was because I was black.  They found all sorts of uses of my ‘blackness’ to explain my life.  And when I didn’t understand why they were doing it, it was ok – because I was black.  To this day, those identities are still lost on me.  I can’t say that I’ve conformed to the ideas that I was labelled with.

My transient identity was most often a good thing.  Because I was always someone different to everyone I met, I was always given a wide berth.  I was able to bypass lines, get good service or not be discriminated against negatively.  Moreover, it really helped when making first impressions.  No one knew exactly who I was and what to expect.  This made it more fun when I would speak in Sotho (Sesotho) or write it on the chalkboard.  I was even given a Sesotho name.  When I travelled out of the city, I ceased to be Francis Ngo for a brief moment.  For a moment I would be Thabo Ingozi from Canada or if the staff were feeling especially cheeky, Johannesburg.  This introduction was always met with sheer shock and delight.  There would be collective feeling of suspended disbelief.  The students would only relax when I started speaking in English.  That made my identity clear to everyone.  It was strange that despite the transient nature of my identity, many students couldn’t accept that I was just another guy, I had to be labelled different.  Funnily enough, my adoptive names translate into two very different things, Thabo means happiness and Ingozi means danger.  Both names were very fitting of my personality and my impact on the outreach programme at Sci-Bono.  The names fit with how I choose to see and live life.  Life was full of happiness, but it also has its dangers.

Acceptance happens when those around you stop trying to label you and just call you as you are.  When working, I was Thabo.  The kids, my colleagues all called me Thabo.  They even asked if I was local to Joburg as if I had been there for years.  They couldn’t accept that I was born there, but wanted to know how long I’ve chosen to be there.  They always laughed when I told them I had been in the country for a few months.  I was too ingrained in life there for them to describe me as just a tourist or visitor.  You could clearly see that I enjoyed my work and wanted to continue.  I laughed more often, and louder than others.  I sang more songs.  I played more games.  I made the office a playground.  I also commandeered the science exhibitions as part of my office. I also had the largest desk by far at all of Sci-Bono.  It was four desks put together but who’s counting?  My desk was covered with toys, pamphlets, leaflets and books on what I was working on.  That’s how I did things.  The veterans at Sci-Bono even noticed, and politely let me be.  Thabo got stuff done.  Thabo was always laughing.  Alarms, the alarms started blaring again.

It’s easy to ignore the alarms when under times of stress.  But when the alarms are going off when things are good, well, it’s definitely time to wake up and see what’s going on.  The alarms went off this time because I sensed something was wrong with me.   It was clear that I was having too much fun.  How was I going to be able to go back to the real world once I finished here?   I was finally awake from my dream-like state of being.  I could finally feel just about everything and it was not as nice as I thought it was.  I wasn’t home, and but this felt like home.  I have acclimatised, grown accustom to and accepted my new home.  I could live here.  It didn’t bother me one bit.

I have found a way to make a place that was very different, very familiar.  Going back through my blogs only reminds of how comfortable I really was.  Granted, there were unbelievable acts of violence happening right in front of me, but those can happen anywhere.  When the so called exotic feels just as familiar as everyday situations at home, well the world is a much smaller place than some people would lead you to believe.  If you really want to know how I think we are global citizens then writing in down in a response won’t capture it.  I can describe all my feelings and thoughts ad nauseum but I still can’t get to the essence of it.  (Hence deleting at least four previous editions)  I can’t show or even begin to describe how those connections to other helped me grow.  The thousands of photos I took are but reminders of what happened to me.  I need not spell out what each lesson was either, it just wouldn’t be my story if I had to regurgitate that information.  My story is about what I’m going to do because of it.
Even to this day, months after the entire thing, I don’t think about the times I was writing those reports or the meetings that I went to, or things that I did.  Nor do the people that made my internship pop into my mind.  It’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  As selfish as that sounds, there is a reason.  Should I continue to dwell on how amazing that experience was, I won’t be able to move forward.  I won’t be able to use those lessons learned.  I would have failed myself.

Have I changed from my internship?  The short answer; yes.  The feeling of cold sweat from watching senseless violence does not fade easily.  The warmth and compassion felt from working so closely with others goes wherever I go. I may not remember every detail, and I may not remember everyone, but I sure do live by them.  I live the lessons I learned.  Those people and those experiences have shaped who I am today.  I consciously think about keeping up with those real life lessons.  Those assumptions I made before I left are still there.  I still assume that I will be amazed, shocked, and worked to the bone.  If the internship has taught me anything, it’s that I need to do it all over again with something else.  I need to leave the comforts of this benign life here and do something.  So it’s time to wrap all of that up, tie it off and put it away in the shoebox of my mind.  This experience has been packed up, opened, deconstructed, evaluated and reconstituted too many times already.  It’s importance is starting to feel over used.   Real life is waiting.  I can’t expect that everything will always resemble that internship.  I haven’t put my time in with real life yet.  With that said, this undergrad is taking forever.  Or maybe I’m just waiting for that alarm to wake me up.

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