As my journey in Johannesburg comes to an end, I’ve had a lot of questions from my family – and myself – about what I’ve learned from my first experience abroad.
In South Africa, I learned how to be more open. Throughout my time there, I had a wealth of rewarding encounters that really made me question why it is that I don’t reach out to others more often when I’m back home. The people in Johannesburg were far more eager to converse than the typical Americans I am used to, and every time I chose to open up, I learned something new and unexpected. I had so many simple random interactions that brightened my day that I concluded that when it comes to breaking the ice, the reward outweighs the slight risk. You really don’t know who may be standing next to you or what they may have to offer until you extend yourself.
Being in a new environment inspired me to be open to new experiences as well. I attended events such as a hip-hop dance competition knowing fully well that I have the dancing skills of one of those tall flopping inflatables in front of car dealers, and I even harnessed that dancing power at a gala with the rest of the optics team as they watched with envy (or second-hand embarrassment, who knows?). I even attended a Wits University “War Games” club meeting with a friend of mine from the optics team. Through all these experiences, even when they weren’t all I had expected, I learned that it’s always rewarding to break routine and try new things.
I learned that black Americans and South Africans face many of the same struggles. Even though I was a foreigner, I felt far more at home than I thought I would. The people were welcoming, embraced the fact that I was a black American, and they seemed to really understand how my problems with America felt because of our shared struggles. I was amazed by how kind the people of Johannesburg were; how freely they would engage with me; and how excited they were to talk about black American culture as well as their own unique cultural backgrounds.
One of the biggest takeaways that I got from this opportunity is a new sense of pride in my own culture. I was all too familiar with cultural appropriation in the States, which is a really strange combination of admiration, envy, and hatred that leaves many black Americans confused and upset. Black Americans have had major influences on American culture and are often emulated by the majority of the population, yet at the same time, black Americans as a people still struggle for very basic human rights. Seeing as the individual lives of black Americans are assigned little value, there are few consequences to killing us. There are systems in place such as the school-to-prison pipeline and gentrification that suppress us and uproot us. And on top of all that, we can’t even claim that our lives matter without causing problems. Being black in America means that your culture is valuable, but you are not. On the other hand, in South Africa I was able to witness a respect for my culture while also being viewed as a human being and a true equal by the vast majority, which is something I had never felt.
Black American culture was strong enough to reach and inspire people all the way in South Africa, and I was able to hear music that I recognized and see people who were excited to hear my accent and find that I was from America. That made me proud.
Peter Williams is a rising sophomore studying mechanical engineering. This summer, he did an experiment in Optical Trapping via an internship at the Wits University Structured Light Lab in Johannesburg, South Africa.