My most recent post shared a bit of recognition I received from Mtuseni in his yearly wrap-up. These are always gratifying and genuine, and he offers them in some form or another quite regularly. Mtuseni is so loving and appreciative in this oddball relationship we’ve developed; he really is a good heart.
And then there’s the flip side. The 15th of the month has come and gone — the deadline for him to do certain tasks to earn his monthly allowance from me — and he hasn’t done a thing. Never even proposed a set of tasks, as he is supposed to do. He didn’t do it last month either, and he received no allowance. I can play hardball now because it’s his summer vacation and he doesn’t need extra money for school. But getting him to faithfully do allowance tasks each month has been an ongoing battle. It drives me insane, and I lost it with him yesterday. Having the same discussion month after month with little change would make anybody crazy.
For the past couple years, since I started the allowance, I could not fathom why this seemingly smart kid cannot grasp the concept of needing to do X number of tasks in order to earn his allowance. A first grader is capable of understanding this! But it’s recently come to my attention that I need to qualify this statement: A first grader in the United States can understand this concept. Unfortunately, Mtuseni lives in a South African culture of “good enough.”
I continually gripe about sending detailed e-mails to people in South Africa and getting minimal responses that barely address a small percentage of my questions, if I’m lucky. Last week I sent a four-paragraph note to Mtuseni’s academic dean about his struggles deciding on a major, and asking for her feedback. She replied with one-sentence that didn’t accurately reflect what I wrote. This sort of thing happens more often than not when communicating with South Africans, and others in the US have shared similar experiences. It’s almost as if the thinking is, “Well, I answered a bit of that e-mail. Good enough.”
And “good enough” is how Mtuseni approaches his allowance tasks. It’s all he knows. It’s part of his cultural DNA. The national exams to complete high school and qualify for tertiary study keep lowering the passing standard to move kids through the system: a score of 30 percent qualifies a student to complete high school. Mtuseni’s college seems to emphasize pass/fail over specific grades. Mtuseni is naturally bright and capable of getting decent grades, but with “passing” as the benchmark he seems satisfied whether he gets a 52 or an 80. (A grade of 50 is considered passing — shocking from a US perspective where passing is a 65. US college kids with grades less than 70 are often put on probation, and college transcripts with grades below 80 won’t get you hired anywhere. When I told Mtuseni this, he was stunned.)
So when I ask Mtuseni to write three blog posts and revise his LinkedIn profile and prep answers to five interview questions in a month — and I get two half-baked blog posts at the last minute, no profile info, and pushback on any interview prep — it’s because he truly believes that doing 30 percent of what I ask is “good enough” to earn his allowance. It’s like a “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” scenario; his mind cannot comprehend why this is unacceptable to me.
My understanding his cultural perspective finally sheds light on the ongoing mystery of why every month is a battle of wills over his allowance. It’s exhausting. But he’s not off the hook. He is going to change. He must.
I’m not trying to be disrespectful to Mtuseni’s culture or mold him in my American image. Because the thing is, not everyone in South Africa subscribes to the “good enough” philosophy. There are people I deal with regularly who are very responsive and professional. People who understand the challenge of trying to accomplish things for Mtuseni via e-mail from half a world away, and who go the extra mile for me. If everybody in South Africa operated on the “good enough” principle, the country would not be Africa’s largest economy and no progress would ever be achieved.
Mtuseni must be a South African for whom “good enough” isn’t acceptable. He has big dreams for his life and for helping to lift his family out of poverty. And he has flashes of innate brilliance that make me feel incredibly lucky that fate dropped this scruffy gem into my life. But his CV shows that he attended a crap public school. His diploma from a junior college won’t hold up to the newly minted university degrees he will compete against in the job market. The electrical tape that holds his dusty dress shoes together and his Plot 90 address brand him as a poor settlement kid. The color of his skin steers him toward an unemployment rate of 41 percent for blacks vs a 7.5 percent unemployment rate for South African whites.
With all the rough headwinds he faces, Mtuseni has to work two… three… ten times harder than the average person to even be considered for a chance to work toward the life he wants so desperately. This “good enough” attitude that he lives by is not good enough. Not by a long shot. He has to understand this and start changing now. His last year of school begins in a month.
I think we have a long year ahead of us.
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