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4 Takeaways from Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Juliet: In a myriad of American TV show hosts, Trevor Noah is one of the few that brings an outsider’s perspective about American politics and society. It’s not only because he is South African, but also because he was shunned and did not belong anywhere even growing up in South Africa.

I love Trevor Noah because (1) he is just so damn adorable with those dimples, (2) I love his accent, and (3) he is always able to make me think about issues from a new perspective. Annie and I decided to read his autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Both of us had a few takeaways from his book that we want to share with you.

Juliet // Trevor Noah is more relatable than I thought.

Although my childhood is quite the opposite of Trevor’s, he says some things about his childhood that I can relate to.

If you didn’t know, Trevor is mixed: his mom is black, and his dad is Swiss/German. Trevor grew up during apartheid, which meant that he wasn’t allowed to walk down the street with either parent because he was too dark for his dad and too light for his mom. If they were caught, shit could go down.

He also spent a lot of time in his grandmother’s town, but he wasn’t allowed to leave the four corners of the yard because only black people were allowed in that town. So Trevor became really good at entertaining himself.

I was good at being alone. I lived inside my head. I still live inside my head. To this day you can leave me alone for hours and I’m perfectly happy entertaining myself. I have to remember to be with people.

I can relate to Trevor about living inside my own head, but my story isn’t filled with possibilities of being kidnapped or getting my mother in trouble. It’s because when I was young, my parents didn’t like me hanging out at friend’s houses, and my older sister was too cool to play with me, so I would entertain myself with card games. I’d play Go Fish by myself as four people so it felt like I had friends. I still spend a lot of time in my own head these days and I have to remind myself to seek out companionship. The fact that I could relate to Trevor at all shows that you can be similar to people with completely different experiences.

Annie // You do not own the thing that you love.

Trevor Noah had a dog named Fufi that he loved dearly. One day he found out Fufi would play at another boy’s house (who claimed Fufi was his dog) and then come back home at the end of the day. Trevor eventually got his dog back yet he couldn’t help but feel betrayed and upset that Fufi loved another boy.

The hard thing was understanding that Fufi wasn’t cheating on me with another boy. She was merely living her life to the fullest. Until I knew that she was going out on her own during the day, her other relationship hadn’t affected me at all. Fufi had no malicious intent. I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house.

Trevor tells his friends the story of Fufi whenever they come crying to him after their partner betrays them. So I pretend that I’m Trevor’s friend and he’s telling me this story and I wonder if this story would make me feel any better. It didn’t. Because how do you wrap your head around the fact that a person you love betrayed you and that person was merely trying to live their best life? I was so confused. If my partner was in another relationship while we were together and I didn’t know, I’d be pretty crushed if I found out.

But after discussing this story with Juliet, I realized the whole point of this story wasn’t to make me feel better. I expected it to because that’s what I would look for if I cried to a friend about a heartbreak. This is when I understood how differently we think. Like Juliet, Trevor takes on an objective view of these types of situations, while I’m more about the emotions. The takeaway of this story is that you have no control over what the other person will say or do regardless of how much you love them. So while you may feel like shit for what that person did, which is completely valid, if you take a step back and realize this person is probably just dealing with their own shit then it’d be easier to accept what happened and help you move on.

Juliet // His mother is a badass that we can all learn from.

When I think about the person I was when I was younger to who I am today, I learned a lot of things that Trevor’s mom told him growing up through my own experiences. Does this mean one day someone will see me as a badass?! I hope so.

Here is a short list of truths from Trevor’s mom:

Learn from your past and be better because of your past. But don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.

I used to be really emotional when I was younger and would never forgive and never forget. My sister was the same. Our fights were always explosive because we would not stop digging up the past. What starts off as an innocent comment or teasing poke usually ended up with us physically fighting each other, and I would be in emotional turmoil for several days. At one point, I realized that I would never win in an argument against my sister because of cultural beliefs that the younger one (me) has to listen to their elders, and our individual experiences that shaped our thoughts. The only thing that I could change was how I reacted in these situations, and that’s why I am the way I am today.

One of my former bosses told me that he and my other coworkers were impressed with how calm I am during stressful times at work, whether it is interacting with an aggressor or a wrench was thrown into whatever I was working on. That’s when I realized my mindset has completely shifted from an emotional one to one that is more rational and proactive. I’ve learned to quickly analyze whether something is worth my energy being upset about, and most of the time it isn’t. So why sweat it? Don’t get me wrong – I still have emotions. I’ve just gotten better at managing where I should be expending my energy.

I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience.

That is definitely my mentality these days. If you haven’t read any of the Financial Diaries series, go check it out and you’ll see that I try to not waste money on material things but on experiences that I’ll remember.

As headstrong and independent as my mom is, she remains the woman who gives back. She gives and gives and gives; that is her nature. She refused to be subservient to Abel at home, but she did want him to succeed as a man. If she could make their marriage a true marriage of equals, she was willing to pour herself into it completely.

To me, Trevor’s mom is the definition of a true feminist. There are still people who believe that a woman can only be either “strong and independent” or “supportive and nurturing”. The strong and independent ones are depicted as feminazis, and want to crush down the patriarchy. The supportive and nurturing ones are depicted as housewives doting in the men who bring home the bacon. What isn’t shown is this third image: a woman who is strong, independent, supportive, nurturing, and whatever else she wants to be.

Annie // Good guys and bad guys are perceived differently depending on where you grew up.

When I lived in Thailand, we went to markets where people sold pirated DVDs. We’d spend time going through their collection and buying them on the cheap, but we never thought, “This is illegal and they’re bad people.” It was just a way for someone to make a living. Not only that, we rarely saw the police go after these people or the consequences of selling pirated DVDs so to us, it seemed normal.

Trevor spent his summer after high school selling pirated CDs in “the hood” in order to save up money for college tuition. As he explains it, in the hood there’s “a fine line between civilian and criminal…even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life some way or another. There are different degrees of it. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that fell off the back of a truck to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware.”

My life of crime started off small, selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel like I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?

If you grew up in America, you’d rarely see anyone openly selling pirated CDs or DVDs because that’s illegal and the police will crack down on them. America strictly enforces copyright infringement laws yet in many other countries like Thailand and South Africa, people empathize with those who “hustle” and find ways around the law in order to make money and a living.

Annie: Both of us really enjoyed the book and we took away some insightful knowledge about Trevor Noah and his life. Like Juliet mentioned, despite having a very different upbring that most of us probably didn’t have, his experiences are still very relatable. So for those that have not read Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, I urge you to read it! You’ll find yourself laughing along and it’ll open your eyes to a different perspective of the world.

Have you read Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood? If so, what are some takeaways you had after reading it?

Annie & Juliet

*featured image credit

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