Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cultural Clash, xenophobic utterances kicks me out of Checkers Balfour Park in Johannesburg as ‘Store Manager’ Watches

31st March 2016
Johannesburg 2090

It is very easy to have a bad day; especially in things that we have little or no control over. It is also very easy for children to be taught the wrong things in life. My heart-breaking experience narrates thus. The day before Easter Sunday 2016, I took my children to Clicks for annual medical check-up. Unfortunately, the nursing sister had booked the long weekend off despite the fact that we had an appointment. As we walked out of Clicks, I suggested that we get Easter eggs for a fun hunt since we will be hosting more visitors later on that day.
Yeah, we all headed to Checkers, happy but mostly excited. At the Easter Eggs stand, my children got even more excited when I said ‘choose yours’. Realising that there were no prices on the eggs that they had chosen, we called out. Unfortunately, the immediate employee could not help us. Almost God sent, a female employee walked towards us holding a scanner. The children all turned to her for help, which she gracefully did. Before she could divulge the price, my younger daughter dropped another egg into the trolley. At this point I said to her ‘wait, don’t pick anymore. Let auntie scan so we can know the prices’ oh my! What came out of this female employee’s mouth immediately poisoned the mood we had and left me really hurt.
‘I am not your auntie’ she said, addressing my children without looking at me. Pointing her scanner at them, she added. ‘I am not your mother’s sister and I will never be. I am not your auntie and I will never be’ trying to hide my feeling and the shock, I laughed it off. Then she said it again. At this point, I asked her who she is. She repeated the above. I said to her ‘not that you are my sister, but you are an aunt to my children.’ Again she said; this time to me; ‘I am not your sister and I will never be your sister.’
Trying to hold high after four such blows and a scene of onlookers (mostly her colleagues), I then said to my children; ‘Let that woman scan so we can know the prices.’ I asked her if addressing her as a woman was OK, and she repeated ‘I’m not your sister and I will never be your sister.’ After picking what we wanted, I said to myself that I better find out from this woman what I should address her. I walked to her and said ‘sorry, you don’t want me to call you auntie to my children, what would you want me to call you?’ she said ‘I am not your sister and I will never be. I am not your children’s auntie and I will never be.’
I looked at her this time more determined because my traumatised children had been taken away by a fellow employee (whom I thank for that). I said to her, ‘yes, I acknowledge that you are not my sister and you are not my children’s auntie. Right now, what I need from you is how to address you. What should I refer to you as in front of my children?’ she asked me with a very high voice ‘what is auntie, who is an auntie?’ I said, can we forget about the word auntie and you just tell me what to address you?’ she asked me ‘what is the word auntie and who is an auntie’ then I said to her, ‘an auntie is a female sibling to a parent. But in the African context, it is respect for older people whose names you don’t want to call’ to which she added. ‘In Africa? I am not from Africa. I am not from your Africa there, I am from Africa down here’. Pointing her scanner to the floor. The first thing that clicked my mind at these words was the reason she I treating me like this. Is it because she established that I am a foreigner in her country shopping in their shop? Seeing that the argument I taking a xenophobic turn I said that I will not be drawn into this. I continued to keep my line I said; ‘ma’am, after telling my children that you are not their auntie, don’t you think that you should have told them who you are just to teach them?’ her response; ‘no. it is not my job’. To which I added, ‘it is your responsibility to tell children who you want them to call you because they have to learn. Tell me’ she said; ‘I will not teach your children. I will not tell them.’ I repeated my question and she repeated her answer.
At this point I became impatient, but mostly embarrassed because we had onlookers. I said to her, ‘you are not my sister and I am not desperate for a sister. All I need from you is to tell me what I should call you. I am a teacher of children and I will need to know’ to this, she responded. ‘You are a teacher who does not know what an auntie is? Go, I will not tell you.’ Then I said, ‘raising your voice and shouting will not help us, just tell me what to address you.’ She said ‘you are a teacher, you should know.’ And I added. ‘Right now ma’am I am a teacher who wants to learn. Teach me so that can teach my children.’ we carried on and on. I told her not to shout at me 3 times.
I said to her ‘better still, you go tell my children because you owe it to teach them’. She said she will not. That I should teach my children myself. I got really angry but still keeping the powers in her hands.
Finally, I turned to the colleague who kept telling her not to talk and I said, ‘can I speak to the store manager?’ to my surprise, she said ‘this is the store manager.’ I am not sure for how long, but the said store manager was among the onlookers. I turned to her and narrated what happened. She asked her colleague to apologise and the colleague refused. The Manager turned and told me that she has refused. I told the store manager that I do not need an apology anyway because an apology will not take out the trauma that this has caused me and my children. I said that ‘an explanation will make us leave this store knowing that we have learnt something.’ Gracefully, the STORE MANAGER said to me ‘but she has refused to apologise’ then I said fine. I said that I will leave this store, and I will take this matter to the media. They all turned and said something in their vernacular to this female employee and then she said to me ‘I am Sheron. My name is Sheron. Call me Sheron.’
At this point, I told all the employee, but particularly Cindy the store Manager that I will walk out of their store comfortably if Sheron does 3 things for me;
1.      Address my children on who she is and how I should have referred to her,
2.      Why she shouted/burst out the way she did,
3.      Tell me why she classifies herself as not an African like me from up there.
Sheron still refused to do anything, until the women spoke to her in very strong voices (in the vernacular). At this point, the said store manager was holding me. I asked her to let go of me because I am no criminal. In what seemed to have been a consensus from Sheron to talk, we were pulled towards my children as the other woman who had diligently babysat them walked them towards us.
My physically traumatised children stood there listening to this woman as she told them that ‘I am not your auntie and I will never be. I am not your mother’s sister and I will never be. I know what your mother meant. She takes me for the woman working in your house. I am Sheron!.’ Shocked I burst into tears. But before I did, my daughter said to her that ‘you are auntie Sheron because you are big.’ In shock, I told her not to teach my children the wrong things because they know who an auntie is. I told her to tell them who she should be referred to full stop. ‘Sheron!’ she said without looking at me. At this point, I decided to take down her full names as Sheron Makola, and the store manager as Cindy Nyathi. I gave Cindy my business card and left in an attempt to bury my tears.
As we walked away, the store manager asked me if I would not need my goods again. In shame, I told her that I would come back, but I told my children that we would go to another store and with six children in my company, I walked to Wimpy. I stopped there because I could neither walk to my car nor drive home crying. I needed to hide my intense feeling from my children by keeping them distracted. As they sat down to eat, this gave me the opportunity to write down everything before I forgot.
As I wrote this, so many things raced in my head; Is it my African outfit that immediately attracted this female to treat me like the outsider I am? Is it my accent that pushed her to talk to me the way she did? Is it the way I spoke? Was I arrogant? Is she a normal South African woman just being herself? Too many question but one answer. I will never be a South African. Yes I accept that. But why does it have to come out in this manner? Why was she so bitter?
To Cindy the store manager; why did she have to tell me that all is OK and that I hear it myself, her colleague (subordinate for that matter) is not going to address me alluding that there is nothing she can do? Is Cindy in support of what this female did to my children and I? Would Cindy have done the same? I feel diminished by the mere fact that when I asked to speak to the store manager, she had been standing there the whole time listening as her colleague grills me?
Then the onlookers. What were they really telling themselves? No one condemned this female for addressing my children and I the way she did. Or maybe they did not do it in English. Is it because I am a foreigner? One thing is clear. I will never be a South African. But is this how it should play out?
Then my children. How often do I need to panic if I walk into a store in fear of exposing my children to aggressive explosions? For years, I have taught my children never ever to call an adult by their name because a woman that looks old enough to have a child is their auntie and a man is their uncle. Is it just going to take one shopping outing at Checkers in Balfour Park-Johannesburg to erase what I have taught my children for this long? I cried more, the more I thought about this.
Then my phone rang. It was 42 minutes after we left the shop. The caller introduced herself as Cindy and asked if I was ok. I said no and I told her that the treatment I got from the shop has left me with broken emotions. I told Cindy that I am sitting in Wimpy and all I can do is shed tears. She apologised and asked if she could come to see me, and my response was ‘if you like’. The she said ‘I’m coming’ and she hung up the phone. I continued writing and when the restaurant staff came to our table, I asked her how she would like my children to address her. ‘Auntie’ she said almost spontaneously. ‘Why?’ I asked, and she said ‘because that is the first way that children should address grown women’. I cried the more. I cried because this attendant is a second person who could be humiliated for doing this.
We left the shopping centre 51 minutes after the call and Cindy neither came nor called again. When I got home, I saw that she called me two times. Probably her calls came at the time we were walking to the parking lot or while driving home because with six children all under the ages of 11, a phone ring tone cannot break through their noise. I unfortunately have not heard from Cindy again and like would many, she’s moved on. Sheron has moved on. Checkers Balfour Park has moved on. But I have not.
I sent her a copy of this to the Checkers Balfour Park on Tuesday. Cindy called within 15 minutes of receipt to acknowledge receipt. She asked me if my children and I was OK and told me that she reported the incident to their head office. I warned her that I will make this public. Now I did.
But not before I spoke to a group of 3 parents all South Africans at my children’s school. The mixed group was made up –f an Indian, I 'Cape Coloured' and a Black Sotho woman. They all confirmed that in their cultures, an auntie is exactly what Sheron would have been in my thoughts, and that I did nothing wrong.
Thereafter, I felt more confident to share my experience with you. As I let this out, I still ask myself. If that was a cultural clash? I would like to engage more South Africans on their story stance in this matter. I have written a tribute to South Africa in one of my books. I will continue to pay tribute to South Africa and the beautiful people who make me feel at home here. But if there is one thing that I want to leave behind with every South African, it is the fact that they are the same like other people who live in their land. Some of them may know this and some may not. Some of them are xenophobic but many are not. Some of them are just bias to many more are not. Whatever choice we make, we are all children of the Universe. No better than the Stars and the Moon. We have the right to live. One love.

Thank you for reading.

Victorine Mbong Shu.

Author and Conversationist on Involved Parenting

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