Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Carly Rae

Confession of the week: I am terrible at flirting.

I love talking to people, but innuendoes make me uncomfortable.  I usually try to ignore a man’s flirting or teasing, even though this strategy often makes me look dumb/oblivious.

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian.  And sorta from Vancouver.

Van is notorious for its frosty, polite people and terrible dating prospects.  I’m not kidding.  How many articles do you want on the subject?

Seriously, only a girl from BC would sing a song about how hard it is to get a guy to talk to her:

Being from a small town, though, I love chatting with EVERYONE.  People in Van frequently think it’s weird that I try to talk to them.  One of the best parts about ZA is that it’s normal to chat with strangers without automatically being labeled as a creeper.

Along with that openness, however, is more flirtatiousness.  Not sweet smiles and respectful compliments, but over-the-top ridiculous overtures. 

One of the other interns told me about going for a walk near her office in Marshalltown (Joburg’s CBD): a man across the road started singing “Hey sexy lady!” Gangnam style, with the accompanying dance moves.

“That would never happen in Canada!” she exclaimed.

“Thank god,” I answered.

Unfortunately my ignoring strategy isn’t working too well in my office.  I see these people every day and it’s pretty difficult to disregard a direct insinuation without looking like a total idiot.

Sometimes I just shake my head in response and give a disapproving smile.  Like to the security guard who always me “My love” (not in a sweet way).  Or when a colleague said, “You moved to a new neighbourhood?  Can I visit your place?  Your bedroom?”

Or I try to downplay it, such as when one of the security guards stopped me as I was entering the building and said, “I meant to tell you.  Yesterday, as you were walking, a man turned around as you passed, looked you up and down and said, “Daaaaaammmmmn.”  It was a few blocks away and I heard him loud and clear, but you didn’t even notice.”

I smiled awkwardly, “Uh… yeah… well that’s this neighbourhood, right?  All women get lots of attention so I try to ignore it.”

“There were lots of girls on the street, but you’re the only who caught his eye,” the security man smiled.  “Because you’re so attractive.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.

Does he think its compliment to be sexually objectified?

Sometimes I am at a complete loss for an appropriate response.  Like this week when one of my colleagues showed me a poem he’d written about a beautiful angel who stops traffic with her grace and his deep, fiery desire for her.  So. Awkward.

Back home, this would be sexual harassment.

But here, I don’t think the men in my workplace are trying to be disrespectful; flirting is the only way they know how to interact with women.  They expect me to appreciate their attention instead of feeling offended.

Even though I don’t like their behaviour, I am doing my best to remain open-minded.

It’s still weird to me, though, that the maintenance manager, an older man with a daughter my age, frequently grabs my wrist when we visit the projects or grips my shoulder when he greets me in the office.  But I read “Rainbow Nation Navigation” (  and learned that Afrikaners are much more touchy-feely than British people.  So I’m trying to be tolerant despite my British heritage of stand-offishness and why-are-you-in-my-space attitude.

Because that was also in “Rainbow Nation Navigation”: don’t tell British people too many details about your personal life or touch them unnecessarily.  Too true.

Maybe that’s why the best commitment most Vancouverites can get is, “Call me maybe?”


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