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South African Pet Peeves
48 min read

South Africans’ 25 Greatest Immigration Peeves

When people discuss immigration, they usually focus on the most important aspects thereof – the best places to live, what schools are great, the cost of living and so forth.

But no matter the excitement about relocation, there will always be small snags and irritations that pop up. We take a look at some of the things that immigrants find most vexing.

Peeves aren’t problems

This article is not meant to highlight reasons not to immigrate, or critical problems you may face while you acclimatise. It’s more of a lighthearted quib – a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the nuisances new residents may encounter along the way.

It’s important to note, however, that such tiny annoyances can turn into significant problems if left unchecked. Immigration is a stressful process, and it’s easy to fixate on small issues when your usual support system or go-to stress-relievers aren’t accessible. The key is to address these issues as they arise and acknowledge that mild inconvenience is not necessarily the root cause of it all. Reach out and seek help if you feel like you’re not coping.

1. Central heating & cooling

While South Africans certainly have air conditioning, it’s not as prevalent locally as it is in certain countries abroad. We simply don’t have the overwhelmingly cold or hot climates some experience abroad.

Learning to close your doors and windows so the heating and cooling can work properly can be a bit of an odd experience. In some parts of the world you’ll walk out of a blizzard into a shopping mall and feel like you just travelled through time. Other places again are so warm that you’ll probably get cooler water in summer via your geyser than your tap.

2. Accidental lawlessness

No two countries’ laws are the same, and while one generally has an idea of what is appropriate and what isn’t, this isn’t always the case.

You’ll land yourself in deep trouble by chewing gum in Singapore. You will face a $500 fine if you send your friend pizza in Louisiana if they didn’t ask for it. You can leave that old board short at home when going to public pools in France as loose-fitting swimming attire is prohibited. Watch where you walk in Thailand as you can be arrested for stepping on cash. Don’t wear anything depicting Buddhism in Sri Lanka – this includes tattoos – as it will get you deported. Don’t wander around Dubai taking pictures of just any places as you may be detained.

There are many things which may land us in trouble if we aren’t used to the local laws.

3. Electricity & devices

It may seem like an odd thing to complain about given the state of SA’s electricity, but it does take some getting used to – how electricity works, how it is billed and what exactly you can and cannot plug in.

Not only may you need to replace your device plugs or buy new ones altogether, but you also need to be cognisant of voltage (V) , frequency (Hz) and current (A). If you’re into all that, you’re probably also interested in resistance (Ω) or the other measures and interplays between the bunch which may show you wattage, impedance, luminance, density, conductivity and so forth.

South Africa commonly uses 220/230 V, (50 Hz), and we use 3-pronged 15 A or 2-pronged 5 A plugs.   In the USA, Canada and Central America, most outlets are rated 110/120 V (60 Hz), while outlets in Europe are generally rated 220/240 V (50 Hz). Even if your voltage and frequency is right, you can’t expect to use the same adapters or plugs abroad.

There are many things to consider. Is it AC vs DC? How many wires are used? What adapters or plugs are accommodated? Is it digital or analogue? What batteries are those – lithium ion, carbon zinc, silver oxide, zinc air, voltaic, Zamboni pile, nickel metal hydride, nickel cadmium, calcium, flow, lithium-silicone? Does the electrical circuit have a built-in short – will you need fuses, or surge protection? Is that globe LED, halogen, incandescent or CFL?

Not understanding how power supply, flow, storage, input and output of appliances and circuits work abroad can not only be dangerous, but can lead to inadvertent blunders. For instance – your 50 Hz clock will run faster on 60 Hz electricity which could see you pitch up early for work if you don’t account for this. And if you don’t catch on it will eventually make you late.

4. Units of measure

Everyone knows that they’ll need to get used to Imperial when they move to the USA, and this can be a huge irritation. Perhaps the most difficult thing to wrap one’s head around is Fahrenheit – unlike most other measures, its arbitrary calculation and application doesn’t allow for swift conversion in one’s head.

But the US is not the only place where measurements can be odd. The UK tends to mix things up a bit – you’ll find millilitres and pints, ounces and kilograms, gallons and litres, yards and metres, acres and hectares all enmeshed in local media and talk.

Not only that, but there’s also the difference in clothing measurements to consider. Shoe sizes in SA are linked to UK sizes, which don’t correlate to US, EU or Eastern sizes. Large in China is not the same as Large in Sweden or Brazil. Size 8 means something wholly different when you’re in Egypt and the USA.

5. Dropping the jargon

Every South African knows that “now” and “now-now” are the same and different – both to each other and for each instance that these terms are used. The words both indicate that something will occur relatively soon, but the key is the relativity of it. It can mean 1 minute, 4 hours, 3 days or 2 weeks. Likewise, it’s quite obvious to us what someone means when they say you should turn at the robot, but this term will undoubtedly not be interpreted the way it is intended among foreigners.

How about that “lekker” word “shame”. Rumour has it that this word almost caused a diplomatic spat between South Africa and Japan when an SA diplomat said “ag shame” in response to a Japanese diplomat recounting a recent illness in the family. Referring to ‘Coloured’ people when living in the USA will make you seem like an enormous racist, even if that’s not your intent.

It’s hard to drop the lingo when you’re abroad, but it’s something you undoubtedly need to get used to when you’re living on foreign shores.

6. Learning the jargon

The frustrating part about dropping your colloquial talk is that you also need to get used to local lingo at the same time.

If your US friend asks you to bring some biscuits and gravy to the potluck – Marie biscuits and your best onion gravy will not get you any favours. Your righteous indignation may also get the better of you if your Kiwi friend tells you they heard you went tramping the weekend if you’re not aware that they’re referring to hiking. And you’ll probably look a bit sheepish if you giggle when your French neighbour tells you about the “phoque” on the beach if you don’t know they’re referring to a seal. And for pete’s sake, if your Australian friend tells you to bring a plate to the barbie, don’t bring an actual plate – it’s a ‘bring and braai’. If your Irish friend has a laugh when telling you about gas – chances are they’re neither referring to flatulence or gas leaks.

Australian speak is quite anomalous in general – known as ‘Strine’ there’s a tendency to turn words into pluralised diminutives which either agglutination or contraction using alliteration and/or common suffixes (often diphthongs).  There are common consonant and vowel pairs such as ba-/cr(i)-/bo/br-/ar-/bl(i)/sp-/sl-/sc-,  -ey/-y/-i/-ie(s)/-er(s), -ca/-ka(s), -ny/-ni/-vo/-bo, -ite/-um/-ight-/-an, -go/-bo/-vo/-o  and so forth. Examples are arvo, servo, sunnies, crikey, maccas, bogan, dunny, veggies, fair dinkum, mozzies and so forth.

The local jargon takes time getting used to – and as with South African languages it doesn’t always make much sense to foreign ears.

7. Local currency

We are all aware that we need to learn to operate in local currency when we move abroad, but this isn’t always as straight-forward as it seems.

One of the greatest issues is understanding that it’s not just about conversion but the incremental cost comparisons we are attuned to.

We can estimate the cost of a tank of petrol, a loaf of bread, a litre of milk, a ticket to the cinema, a McDonald’s happy meal and we tend to view the ratios of these costs comparatively in our minds. While it’s true that certain costs increase dramatically – for the most part we use these respective values to estimate the cost of other things.

Fresh food can be far more expensive elsewhere compared to bread, fuel may be almost zilch in certain places, healthcare may cost nothing or cost a fortune, etc. Education may be free while accommodation costs an arm and a leg. It’s hard to get used to the local costs of things and to plan accordingly when you’re used to these ingrained cost comparisons and conversions.

8. Tipping culture

Tipping culture is something which – just like the term ‘soccer’ is restricted mostly to South Africa and the USA. While it makes sense in SA where many people are able to earn a living this way without crippling businesses – it doesn’t necessarily make much sense elsewhere and can even be seen as insulting.

Conversely, however, tipping is expected for staff we would normally assume are paid well locally – such as the concierge at the hotel. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, so it’s good to know about it upfront. The great thing is that the cost of meals may not seem that exorbitant when you consider that you don’t need to leave a tip for your waiter at the end.

9. What’s a fiscal year?

South Africa, like most countries in the world, doesn’t use the calendar year as the fiscal year. While it’s understandable that other countries have their own start and end dates for these terms, it can be frustrating when it comes to taxes and admin.

This issue doesn’t affect immigrants who no longer have ties with SA, but for those who do it can be frustrating since different jurisdictions will require tax filing at different times. If one or either authority requires confirmation that your taxes and financial affairs in the other territory are up to date, this may require you to request such confirmation or clearance  at inopportune times. For instance, forms and notices such as IRP5 documents are generated automatically for the most part when filing opens in SA, banks, insurers, medical aids and others submit their documents which often allow for limited paperwork or admin on your part.

10. Public restrooms

Look, one wouldn’t necessarily write home about the state of most public restrooms in SA – but the fact of the matter is that they are usually available throughout the country and access is free. One may need to figure out where to get the key at rural garages (and take your own TP with), but if you need to go you don’t need to pay.

This is not the case for restrooms in many other parts of the world which require payment on entry. Something which can get you in a bit of a fix if you forget your wallet or purse at home.

11. Where’s the braai?

Braai culture is ingrained in saffa blood – no matter your race, creed or culture. While it makes sense that this isn’t as prevalent elsewhere, there are certain parts of the world where you’re not allowed to cook food over open flames at all.

These rules are mostly due to environmental restrictions or health and safety concerns – but the fact remains that you should enquire about the legality of it even if you want to do this in your own yard.

In the UK, for instance, public barbecues are prohibited by most councils and only allowed under certain conditions. The problem, of course, is that ‘private property’ doesn’t have the same definition in Britain that it does elsewhere – all property technically belongs to the Crown, so you may be fined irrespective of following certain rules. Best check with your local bobby before building your braai-broodjies.

12. “Hugo, bellie polisie!”

They say good fences make good neighbours, but that is wholly irrelevant in SA. We’ve such a vast disparity in how our neighbourhoods are structured, how they operate, and other demarcations of class and income that it’s pretty hard not to be in someone else’s business all the time.

Our suburbs and living areas are eclectic and no matter where you live – whether in a shack, rural farming community, close-knit small town, inner city, the ‘kommin’ burbs, middle class gated communities or fancy accessed controlled estates – there will be drama, and it will be simultaneously shocking and enticing.

Many parts of the world don’t have this patchwork of disparate and unusual people sharing the same spaces or suburban borders. You are unlikely to drive 100 km on most stretches of road abroad to find such bizarre differences of community, architecture, aesthetic and urban design.

While this may appeal to some, it can be jarring to new immigrants who appreciate the variety of SA and can become homesick by monotony. 

13. Generational & gender norms

South Africans across the board – from all cultures and races – are pretty big on social and cultural hierarchies. We demand respect for elders, want kids to ‘look us in the eye’, and we maintain a rather conservative ideology around social norms which is not necessarily the rule elsewhere.

If this is you, then you’re probably pretty disgruntled by young kids calling you by your name, teens eating before their grannies have dished up, men not holding doors for women, or even someone expecting to split the bill (or not split it) when you socialise abroad.

It can be jarring when the world no longer complies to the norms you’re used to, and maintaining your personal beliefs and values around these structures can label you a black sheep in your new community.

14. Mrs Ball’s & Wimpy et al.

Some things can be replaced, while others can never be one-upped. Most South Africans living abroad will tell you that what they miss most is some of their favourite condiments, meals and dishes.

The first ‘port of call’ (so to speak) for many Saffas visiting SA is often their local Wimpy, Spur, Steers or Chicken Licken. They want Mrs Ball’s, bobotie, koeksisters or koesisters, bunny chow, Gatsby’s, pies from their local garage, a Wimpy burger, some Steers chips drenched in monkeygland sauce (which, by the way, sounds odd to foreign ears). They want a pap and wors, melktert, vetkoeke, springbokkies, a big bag of biltong,

Who doesn’t miss their chakalaka, droëwors, ginger nuts, Bovril, Weetbix, Chappies, Zoo cookies, peppermint crisp, Creme Soda, Wilson toffees or fizzers?

15. Kuier culture

This entry isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a bit of a shock when first moving abroad. Few countries have such a ‘kuier culture’ as South Africa – and this is something which is perpetuated from high school, through varsity, and runs through families to old age.

We’re a country of ‘jollers’. In youth teens will sneak some drinks from their parents’ bars and go party somewhere they hope they won’t be caught, in varsity students will meet midday and go pub crawling until the wee hours of the morning, once people start working they’ll meet at the same pubs each weekend to unwind. When couples settle in, they will invite the same folks over every so often for a braai.

We are a social community – and this applies to virtually all cultures in SA – we like to meet up, we like to drink, and the party can generally start at any time and end at any time. The etiquette around social commingling is vastly different to how it is in most countries abroad. What seems normal in SA may earn  you an unfortunate label as party animal fairly quickly.

16. Rules of the road

The biggest problem for most South Africans is pretty much just learning to drive on the opposite side of the road (in most places), but there are other irritations people face abroad

Some are more serious than others, for instance – better check the fuel in your car before going on the autobahn in Germany as it’s illegal to run out of gas. Other things are less detrimental but can make you weary of driving.

It’s pretty rare for any South African to drive an automatic car, and while these cars certainly have their benefits, it can be hard to get used to driving automatics – something which is super common in the USA. Read our blog about road safety around the world for a glimpse on how automatic driving increases risk of accidents.

Some countries have extremely narrow roadways, some have highly confusing intersections, in some places you are only allowed to drive in certain lanes at certain times or with a specific number of occupants. There are rules to parking, changing lanes and yielding.  You may accidentally cross a border without knowing it. You may be required to have car insurance, etc. There are many confusing things about  driving around in a foreign country.

17. No shoes, no service?

Aside from Australia and New Zealand to an extent, few countries are even aware that people can walk without shoes.

Most schools in South Africa still don’t require children to wear school shoes up until a certain age and if you visit shops along the coast during summer, it’s not uncommon to see people stroll around stores barefoot. This practice is not only frowned upon in most countries, but can also see you denied entry, kicked out of establishments or receive a fine.

The contrary can also be an oddity for South Africans who find themselves in new cultures where shoes aren’t worn indoors – in such instances you should remember to leave your shoes at an appropriate space outside the house or in the foyer (and probably invest in frequent pedicures).

South Africa’s uncommon dress sense is strange for other reasons. You’ll find few places where people wear flip flops for different occasions, even fewer where people wear knee-length socks with their knee-length shorts.

18. Laughing it off

Coping with humour is certainly not specific to South Africa – but even foreigners visiting SA comment on how odd it is that we joke about our trauma. Thing is – we will not have gotten anywhere given the hands we’d been dealt if we don’t make light of the harsh realities we face.

Whether Eskom, the ANC, the Anglo Boer War, Apartheid, the Guptas, Nkandla, Somizi, 7de Laan, our president fumbling with his mask, our minister of health talking about zol, banning T-shirts, the SABC, Gautrain, mining blunders, raids, theft, violence, queueing at Home Affairs, traffic fines, thunderstorms, e-tolls, potholes or other things. It’s difficult to cope with cultures which don’t joke about the big stuff. 

While the world is always fascinated with superbowl ads in the USA, these commercials are an anomaly – unlike Nando’s, Chicken Licken and other businesses in South Africa who turn serious issues into satire on the daily.

19. No more ‘Calendar year’

In South Africa both work and public school programmes are demarcated according to the calendar year. Nearly everything we do follows this principle – medical aid, insurance, banking, shopping, leave – most things reset, increase or are structured from 1 January to 31 December.

Most businesses close for the year or have skeleton staff for the last weeks of December as everyone rests up for the new challenges of the new year.

It can therefore be quite jarring to suddenly find yourself in a place where school terms, holidays, policies and programmes don’t follow the same rhythm. No more long December holiday and school years that start and end on arbitrary dates of the year – wrapping your mind around this can be taxing.

20. “Please sir, may I have a snack?”

While places like the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand generally operate like South Africa when it comes to snacking, fast food and dining in general – other regions can be rather befuddling to saffas.

Certain countries and cultures – especially in the far east – have their biggest meals in the morning. In certain parts of the world restaurants or shops close for certain periods of the day – either for siesta or simply due to custom. Running into your local Engen garage or KFC for a snack any ol’ time of day is also not a given as fast food and snacking culture are simply not universal.

Want a garage pie late at night? Best bake one yourself.

21. Night v Day – Winter v Summer

South Africa’s distance from the poles and equator means we have a greater discrepancy between daylight hours during different seasons than places along the equator, but this difference is far smaller than many other places in the world.

The difference is both based on latitude, geolocation (given the tilt of the earth’s axis) as well as the terrain and climate. Some places at the same latitudes may have far more or less daylight hours due to more or less mountainous terrain, vegetation, meteorological events, human activity and so forth.

For instance: Perth and Johannesburg measure the closest in longest and shortest days across a similar latitude, while Asamara in Eritrea at the same approximate latitude north diverges greatly from these averages.

But what if you move to a place further south or north than your current home? It takes some getting used to if your summer and winter daylight hours differ vastly or don’t differ at all. Putting kids to bed while the sun is still high in the sky or walking them home from school in moonlight are odd challenges.

22. Can’t take the weather with you

South Africa has one of the most agreeable climates in the world – while we have snow and experience droughts, our extremes are quite mild compared to other places in the world. The difference in winter and summer rainfall across regions ensures that there is always an area of lush nature one can venture to throughout the year.

Our average high temperatures between regions are 25 to 35°C with our low temperatures averaging 10 to 20°C. For the country as a whole, the annual temperature ranges from 11 to 22°C. South Africa has a rather temperate climate compared to other regions. Our annual rainfall measures an approximate 200 to 600 millimetres compared to a place like Indonesia whose Monsoon season ups the ante to 2 500 to 3 500 millimetres.

And who will survive places like Bandar-e Mahshahr which has seen temperatures up to 70°C, Death Valley USA where winter cool is a scorching 40°C or Timbuktu in Mali which temperature ranges from 25 to 40°C on average?

23. A stick of butter?

In addition to converting from metres to feet and Rands to Sterling, there are other conversions which can be irritating. In fact, some of these don’t allow for conversion at all and require replacements instead.

It’s quite customary for people in certain regions to refer to a certain type of product or measurement by its local use. A stick of butter, a bag of cheetos, a sachet of branded ghee, a tube of something you cannot read, nevermind decipher – these are all issues which plague the newbie abroad. Is it coriander, dhania or cilantro? How big is a stick? What size is a cup?

This issue has broader implications – knowing whether your 1 tonner ‘bakkie’ is actually a 1000 kg bakkie, 1102 kg bakkie or 907 kg bakkie obviously depends on which kind of ton(ne) is used. And is that billion a hundred million or a thousand million? This makes a pretty significant difference if you work with statistics, analytics or finance.

24. Green is for go, no?

Colours are perceived and used in quite divergent ways across the world. There are colours which represent certain cultural events or common user perceptions: black means mourning in most of the western world, while white is used for these occasions in the east. Red means go in many parts of Asia and ‘stop’ for most of the world – something which has caused quite a bit of chaos at the stock exchange.

Certain colours are linked to political, cultural or religious ideologies – neither a combination of orange-blue-white or green-black-yellow will go down well with most audiences in South Africa. Orange in black reminds people of one of the most controversial and lucrative online organisations (prone to breaking up marriages). Likewise, the white, red and blue which is so representative in the commonwealth is frowned upon by former colonies. 2023’s greatest despot and abuser (Russia) most probably scoffs at any combination of bright yellow and blue, just as the past century’s most effective military behemoth and foreign squatter (USA) holds great disdain for any combination of white, red and green.

Getting your colours right is not always easy.

25. Them timezones

Along with the latitude differences, longitudes pose their own issues. Whether messaging, calling or staying abreast of news, holding meetings, watching rugby matches or catching the grand prix – time zones can be pretty gnarly things to navigate as new arrival.

Moreover, while South Africa has chosen a singular time zone across the nation, this is not true of other territories that share the same longitudes as our nation and cities.  South Africa cities share ‘longitudes’ with places which have a -1 to + offset to SA’s most western and eastern longitudes.

Knowing when to call, what time of day it is, when your favourite show starts or how to calculate the difference between longitudes and time zones can be highly frustrating.

What gets your goat?

Join our Facebook page and tell us in the comments what oddities you’ve found vexing during your emigration and immigration process. Connect with other like-minded individuals who have gone through the same experiences.

It’s always lekker to share.

If you need help with your cross-border finance – get in touch so we can lend a hand.

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