Where am I from? Maxime Noell
The "where are you from” question… I always take a second before giving an answer even if that comes across as slightly awkward. Because I’m not entirely sure where to start with someone I’ve just met. I’ve never wanted to bore them with all the details, but in actual fact, there are a lot of details to cover… It’s just never been a straightforward question. The easiest way to answer and best way to describe my identity is that I am South African and French. And that’s exactly how I feel. I am fully French and fully South African. I could pass as one or the other, without revealing my second identity if I wanted to. That’s how I see my two cultures. But obviously, the more you get to know me, the more you’ll notice how some things are not as straightforward — my identity is plural and has multiple layers to it.
The biggest question one could ask me, and that would already reveal a lot is ‘Where is home?’ Without a doubt, home is Johannesburg. I was born and raised in Johannesburg, and that’s a huge part of who I am as a person. My immediate family still lives there and I will forever feel the need to go back, as I currently live in London. It’s the place I know best, and that recharges my batteries when I need to be reenergised. Not to sound cliché but, my heart is in Johannesburg and that’s where home is.
But growing up in Johannesburg, I was very much French as well. Of course, I never grew up in France and only lived there 3 years during my university studies. But I still am, and feel, very much French. My parents, who emigrated from Paris, were as French as they come. At home, speaking English was almost banned and it was important for them to feel as though I wasn’t losing my French culture or language — which is why I went to the French school. Culturally, we were very French but with a South African twist. Christmas was still celebrated on the 24th instead of the 25th, but it was a braai…
My South African identity is also one to think about. As a White South African, who has no historical links to the country, it was always important for me to think about where I fit in. I’m not Afrikaans, nor am I part of the numerous originally immigrant White minorities in the country (British, Greek, Portuguese, Jewish, Italian, etc.). Our country’s ever chilling past has altered the experience of being a South African, depending on your race, culture and origin. And as a South African, who never had a place in this history, it can be difficult to find a place to fit in. In fact, I was also brought up by a strong Tsonga woman, my nanny and family helper as we call them back home. She has been with my parents for 30 years and is truly part of my family. She’s my South African grandmother. And she’s opened my eyes to the experience of being a Black South African and more so, a Black South African from a minority culture, the Tsonga or ‘Shangaan’ people. Not saying this is my culture by any means, but it has opened my eyes to the complexity of defining what being South African means. I’ve developed a passion for all the different cultures in the country and can now hold a conversation in Setswana or IsiXhosa. Sort of unusual for most White South Africans. But that’s me! Trying to be as fully South African as I can be, all whilst knowing, I’m still very French. In many ways, it is my duty to keep personally embracing South Africa as a country that warmly welcomed my family and I at a time when it was still trying to figure itself out and where it stood considering its difficult past.
To add another layer, my father, who was born in Paris, is actually Catalan. And that whole side of the family is very Catalan! I spent most of the European summers in our family village located just before the Pyrenees. But again, having grown up in Johannesburg and having gone to the French School, my father never really spoke to me in Catalan or Spanish; only a few words here and there. I can totally fake the accent and have basic conversations, but I actually don’t really speak well. And language is a huge part of connecting with your culture. I still have a lot to learn about this part of my cultural identity, but can still say I feel very much connected with it. I am Catalan —in a peculiar way indeed, but it’s still part of who I am. My uncles and aunts won’t let me say otherwise.
So there you have it. I’m a South African and French guy from Johannesburg, that also feels quite Parisian or Catalan at times. Always ready to blend in most of these contexts all the whilst feeling quite out of place.
Identities are complex and plural, and for me, continuous learning experiences!