“Have you settled down and made some new friends?” This was the second question my mother asked me on the phone several weeks ago, after, of course, “Have you found a church?”
I think, after every season of my life, I convince myself that I’m completely okay with being regarded by others as odd, excluded, ostracized, or seen as something other than normal. (The problem is that it ends up being a lie in every new context, and then I have to spend a while reaching this point all over again.) After more than a month spent in Ghana, during which my beloved country simultaneously frustrated me and restored my soul, this state of solitary self-acceptance is what I was clad in as I arrived in Cape Town. Prior to arriving at my apartment, I didn’t know if I’d have a roommate or not. Of course, I was praying to God that I’d be blessed with a single room; not only for independence purposes, but also for how brilliant a single room is as a tool of ostracizing myself as preemptive defense against others doing it to me.
Thankfully, my prayer request was granted. I discovered, upon arrival, that although I would be sharing common facilities with five other girls, I had been allocated one of two single bedrooms in the apartment. The only thing that could possibly have made this arrangement more perfect is if I had been placed in a single-person apartment.
Unfortunate spoiler alert: This story doesn’t have a happy ending.
I started meeting my roommates one by one, and most of them seemed almost excessively excited to be here. (Read: I could tell, almost immediately, that I was dealing with extroverts.) I myself was running very low on energy that day, in light of my anxiety attack the previous night, which had cost me at least a couple of hours of sleep. I had figured, however, that these people who had flown in from America—vast time difference, compared to my two-hour change and relatively short journey from Accra—would have been even more worn out and exhausted than I was.
Three of them started socializing with each other immediately, and then with friends from their home schools, then making entirely new friends, bonding over shared struggles around late luggage and other such matters.
Perhaps the first thing that indicated to them that there would certainly be divisions between myself and everyone else is that my best friend, Tronomie (also known as the primary reason I moved to Cape Town) had escorted me to the apartment and was helping me unpack. Aside shopping for a few necessities, I spent that first day at the apartment literally just unpacking clothes and lying down, half-asleep, conversing with my best friend. Truth be told, though: even if Tro hadn’t been around, it’s very unlikely that I’d have thrown myself head-first into socializing. I don’t think that’s a thing I will ever be good at. (Or even really want to be good at.)
My immediate next-door neighbor, a Jamaican girl, was more like me. I wouldn’t call her introverted, but I would call her several levels quieter than the others. At the very least, with her, I was able to strike up an acquaintance that was simultaneously pleasant and comfortable—a rare thing between myself and strangers.
I slept early that night—but I should have known the direction life was bound to take for the rest of the semester, when, in the evening, all these purportedly jetlagged Americans went for a night out at Long Street together, even though they were virtual strangers, got far more wasted than I think wise for one’s first night in a foreign country, and at least a few spent the night in rooms other than their own. For me, there can be fewer clearer messages of, “Akotowaa, you do not belong with these people.” (P.S. I know that through my words, one might mistakenly place value judgements on these people’s characters. It’s tragic, but I feel the need to point out that it’s not that I live with awful human beings; it’s just that I live with human beings who are generally as dissimilar in character from me as people can possibly get.)
Surprisingly (but unsurprisingly), the pattern of wasted-getting, bar-frequenting, late nights continued for the next two weeks. I, on the other hand, was struggling as usual to live inside my weak, tired-all-the-time body, which found it hard enough to last through all the daytime orientation activities. Side note: My first week in Cape Town, I think I must have drunk alcohol literally every single day, although I don’t think it helped my social anxiety in the least. Inevitably, by nighttime, I’d want nothing more than to spend the night either alone or with my best friend.
As is usual for my life, the brick wall dividing me from other human beings appeared gradually.
One day, Tronomie was over at my apartment; it was almost exactly a week since I’d arrived, and not once had I gone out at night with the rest of my roommates. Together, early in the evening, they began planning to attend an event my RA had recommended highly: trivia night at some bar, after which they’d planned to go out clubbing. With apparent eagerness, my roommates asked me if I wanted to come, then asked me to come, then started semi-aggressively coaxing me to come, even insisting that I bring Tronomie along; what would be the harm? If we hated the experience, we could always just come back, right?
Well, after much deliberation, guilt (on my part), and uncertainty (on Tronomie’s part), everybody got into Ubers and we soon found ourselves at the entrance to a bar that looked nothing like what I had expected, even from the outside. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my Jamaican roommate and I got physically touched and verbally hassled by a man begging for money, right before we walked through the doors.
The actual bar was even more of a disappointment. The ongoing trivia looked like nothing I wanted to participate in; the place was overcrowded by an overwhelmingly Caucasian population; and worst of all, I could barely breathe from the thick, awful cigarette smoke.
Of course, my immediate reaction to realizing that it had been a grave mistake to leave the apartment, was to laugh. The roommate who had expended the most energy in encouraging everyone to come apologized at least five times. After a few hilariously sad minutes, Tro, my Jamaican roommate and I swiftly vacated the scene and returned home. The rest stayed and ended up enjoying themselves somewhat, probably in ways I will never be able to relate to. This would not be the last time something like this happened.
Now, I don’t know whether it’s collective cognitive dissonance or whatever, but this thing that we all first agreed was horrible when we first showed up, happened to be a weekly event that my other roommates attended subsequently, with significant frequency. If it’s not some sort of dissonance, I feel like people frequently lie around me for no good reason. For example, I might mention once how I dislike people in general and I prefer solitude. Then, randomly, in what feels like a performance staged for my sake, I will hear an unnecessarily loud conversation happening in the kitchen, about how much these individuals love, love, love being alone—even though, guess what… they’re literally always surrounded by people. And seem to be very comfortable with it, too.
It doesn’t help that I also have that depression thing that often makes me retreat to my room and try to suppress my sobs because I literally cannot be bothered to have to explain to any concerned individuals why the hell I’m crying with no legitimate trigger. The depression part is particularly interesting because I think my attempts to hide it from everyone via solitude, more than anything, is what leads to the false construction of me in others’ minds as aloof, supercilious, and full of distaste for everybody other than myself. Emmom, it’s not their fault. How are they supposed to know that I cut a conversation short because if I didn’t leave for my room at that very moment to cry, I would have baselessly screamed their heads and the roof off? 😊
In the first couple of weeks, I found people with whom it appeared I had things in common. But I’m designed in a very weird way, such that even when I have things in common with people, my design makes certain that we can’t comfortably be friends. Even though I seem to have a natural deficiency in clicking with people at all, I can occasionally form meaningful one-on-one friendships with others. I think those are the best kinds of friendships, anyway. They feel less pretentious to me, more intimate, more intellectual, and appear to offer much greater space to unwrap the layers of self, giving involved persons time to get used to each new layer before another is revealed. It’s a laborious process, but it is so far the only one that works for me. Here is one of the reasons why it doesn’t succeed often: Given that I’m so anti-collective, making friends with me usually involves dissociating from the larger collective, which I will never be a part of. Making friends with me usually means choosing to be set apart from The Rest, and most people, even if they share my interests, aren’t comfortable with making one friend, maybe two, for an extended period of time, when they could be going out every night with eight instead. That’s why I think my best friendships are formed with other individuals who are also disinclined towards large collectives. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many of us in existence.
I don’t think people are very good at dealing with odd individuals. I think most of the actions they take in reaction to us are designed to ease their own discomfort rather than ours. In other words, I think my separateness makes other people uncomfortable.
As the division between myself and others grew, when my increasing discomfort began to show more, I would hold myself carefully apart from people, mostly to make them feel neither uncomfortable nor obligated to engage me. At first, it wouldn’t work, because people would treat me like they felt sorry for me. They would try to initiate largely uninteresting small-talk like, “How was your day?” or “How are you finding your classes?” And then, while I legitimately tried to give a meaningful answer, they would only half-listen, then respond with something hella generic like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” It would relieve both of us when they gave up on conversing with my boring-ass, over-sabi self and returned to their regular group conversations about the boys they’ve been seeing on Tinder or how lit they got last night.
The false-attempt-inclusive energy took a few weeks to dissipate. Before that, my roommates would extend incredibly (which is to say, “not credible”) polite invitations to me for various things, but either my tiredness or the fact that I’d already made prior plans with Tronomie would cause me to sheepishly and guiltily turn down the offer. After my continuous rejections, my frequent absences (usually to Tronomie’s house), and Tronomie’s frequent presence in my apartment, everyone soon gave up on trying to get me to do anything with them, which I think was a more natural arrangement for all involved parties.
To this day, our social plans hardly intersect. For instance, I would be cooking in the kitchen, then everyone else in the apartment would collectively and without regard for my presence, step out to a pre-planned dinner I knew nothing about. Or, on a random day, everyone would go out together to see a movie, which I’d only find out about because I went to the kitchen to make tea and saw people getting ready to request Ubers. Or, I’d wake up super late on a Saturday and find everyone returning from breakfast at one of Cape Town’s notable weekend food markets. It is as if we all collectively agreed that Akotowaa does not exist to do anything social with anyone else.
But we also can’t ignore the fact at least half of my roommates think I hate them. I am not making this up. Different ones have said, literally to my face, and on different occasions, “I feel like you secretly hate all of us.” So, that’s that, then. I allegedly hate everyone, and I don’t think I can do anything to dispel this notion, because I’m just on a different wavelength than they are. (Read: I’m hella boring. Which I should really come to terms with, because doing all my favorite, boring things brings me so much genuine joy that I don’t know why I’m still often ashamed of it.)
Surprisingly enough, the few pleasant acquaintance-ships I have made have been mostly school- or classroom-based. I suppose classrooms are where I speak the most because I’m emotionally invested in what I choose to study (mostly), opinionated and whatever, so that becomes a space where interaction tends to happen without having to be forced.
So yeah. In case you’ve been wondering, that’s how my social life in South Africa’s been going. No doubt, I will soon (if I haven’t already) get to that stage where I’m comfortable with being odd again. In the meantime, the discomfort and shame shall continue to linger without my permission.