South African out of his comfort zone in the U.S.
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“Pine” Pienaar was born Etienne Pienaar in South Africa. When he left his country it was in the midst of dismantling the “whites only” system of *apartheid that had been in place for nearly 350 years.
Pienaar: I came to the United States in 1993 to play rugby. Rugby is still mostly an amateur sport in the States. I ended up playing for quite a few teams. It turned out to be quite a good way to come over. My original plan was to stay for a year and go back and teach.
I had studied teaching after high school and got my degree and then I did my mandatory tour in the South African army. All white males were required to serve at that time.
I taught for a year when I got out of the service and realized I just wasn’t ready to commit to a career. I was in a very exploratory time in my life and I wanted to see a few things before I settled down.
Gallacher: So you landed in Louisville, Kentucky?
Pienaar: Yes, Louisville was my first contract. I played there for a six-month season and then got a chance to play for a short time in Denver. When I finished up there I heard about the summer league in Aspen. The Gentlemen of Aspen club had players from all over the world and it was, by far, the best rugby team in the United States.
I was 25 at the time and the extent of professional rugby in the United States was that they gave you a place to stay and they helped you find a job.
It was kind of like being in college but instead of going to classes I went to work. After work in the afternoon I would go play rugby.
Gallacher: Contrast that to rugby in South Africa.
Pienaar: Today playing professional rugby is no different than playing for the NFL or the NBA. But when I left South Africa for the States it was an amateur sport there and in the rest of the world as well. You didn’t get paid. Basically, you lived the life of a rock star without the money.
Two years after I left, rugby became a professional sport all around the world except for the United States. A rugby player’s prime is between the age of 20 and 28. If you are really tough you can push it a little past that.
Gallacher: So what was it like to be a 25 year old rugby player in Louisville?
Pienaar: Louisville was about as opposite of my life experience as I could get. I wasn’t sure what I was doing when I boarded that plane. It was both the most exciting and scariest thing I had ever done in my life.
I stayed with another guy from South Africa who had a one-bedroom apartment. He was going through some tough times during our six-month season so he was pretty distracted. My teammates were very nice to me when we were at practice and at games but they didn’t really reach out. I felt more at home in Denver in one day than I did during the six months I was in Louisville.
To be fair, I was struggling with my English at the time. I could make myself understood, but I didn’t know enough of the language to have a meaningful conversation. My situation was also complicated by my *Afrikaans accent, which sounded to some people like I was from England. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t speaking fluent English.
The toughest thing for me about coming to a new country was leaving my country and the person that I was behind. I became an absolute nobody. I had had 25 years in South Africa to build a reputation and suddenly I am in a place where no one knows anything about me. People who were meeting me here for the first time were judging me on just what they saw because they knew nothing about me.
My culture, my sense of humor was hard for people to understand. One of the main ways that people communicate is through their sense of humor. I remember trying to break the ice with people by cracking a joke. People would just look at me. What was funny to us in South Africa didn’t even make sense to people in the States. I got the “what is this guy talking about” look a lot that first year.
It was hard to try and quickly adapt to this new sense of humor and leave the things that I grew up with behind. I felt like I was starting from scratch to build a reputation. I was known for being a good rugby player throughout school and college and the army. Then, I come over here and people don’t even know what rugby is, never mind my reputation.
But that experience really helped me to begin to learn and grow as a person. I was out of my comfort zone. I realized that the perspective I had learned and been taught growing up was only one of many. I learned that there are a million ways to do things.
We were brought up in the midst of apartheid in South Africa in very strict religious ways. We were famous for being racist. One of the reasons I left my country, other than rugby, was to find out for myself what life was all about. I came here and suddenly saw new perspectives. I realized that it wasn’t that I was a bad person for being from South Africa. Ever since I opened my eyes as a little baby I was brought up in this way. I didn’t really know any better.
One of the first people to challenge me was my American friend. We were working out together in a Louisville gym. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I do remember the outcome. I made some prejudiced remark that was pretty typical of the way we Afrikaans would communicate with one another. He immediately challenged me.
He was the first person in my life to question my belief system and offer an opposite point of view. He completely blew me away because I had never thought about life in that way. I grew up accepting. It was the way it was. I never doubted it. I never questioned it. It was just the way we lived in South Africa. He was the first person to challenge it and it changed my whole life right there. That was what started my journey.
I questioned everything from that point. It was during this time that apartheid was being challenged in South Africa and the world was learning more about how things were handled. I realized that I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to be part of that any more because I saw everything in a different light.
I believe that it is our job, as human beings, to test our assumptions and search for the truth. And I think the only way we can do that is to get out of our comfort zone and take ourselves to places where people actually believe differently than we do. See life in a different way and make up our own minds.
*Afrikaans is a West Germanic language descended from Dutch and spoken mainly in South Africa and Namibia. About 10 million people speak Afrikaans as a first or second language, and several million other have a basic knowledge of the language.
* Apartheid (Afrikaans for separateness) was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government in South Africa between 1948 and 1994, under which the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and minority rule by whites was maintained.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent. To read past Immigrant Stories online go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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