South African experiences Poland with newborn eyes

Kershen Naidoo was born in Durban, a coastal city in eastern South Africa and is currently the Business Development Manager at e-point, a leading internet software house.
From the complete change in scenery to the daunting task of learning a Slavic language, Kershen Naidoo embraced his journey to establishing a new life in Warsaw. Greater differences aside, it turns out that South Africans and Poles have at least two things in common: their love for beer and sausages.  

Kershen Naidoo was born in Durban, a coastal city in eastern South Africa, which is known for its African, Indian and colonial influences. The history of Kershen’s Indian roots began with his great-great-grandfather, who was taken from India to work as an indentured labourer in South Africa. Kershen grew up in a segregated neighbourhood in the 1980s and didn’t identify racial differences until he left his large Indian community. Despite the inability to interact with people of other colours during his childhood, Kershen developed empathy for non-native English speakers through his travels abroad. Bitten by the IT bug, Kershen finished his computer science studies in South Africa and travelled to the UK before moving to Spain and visiting other European countries as well as the United States. After working for an international AIDS/HIV conference and a healthcare organisation which allowed him to see the world, Kershen relocated to Warsaw where he lives with his wife Joanna and 3-year-old son Jeremi. He currently works as the Business Development Manager at e-point, a leading internet software house.

Do you remember your first day in Poland?

I arrived on the 5th of May 2014, a year after meeting Joanna and five days before my birthday. The weather was nice; it wasn’t hot, but the sky was clear and the temperature was cool. It was an interesting experience because I came without knowing anything about the country. I just wanted to see it like a baby with newborn eyes and not tainted by reading things on the internet.

What was your first impression of Poland?

My first impression was that Warsaw was very clean. I felt that it was organised and it was really flat, compared to South Africa which has lots of hills and wide roads, but it’s not as claustrophobic as cities in France or Spain or Italy, which is nice. The architecture is also quite interesting and really unique.

Did you struggle with the language barrier?

I’m a very empathetic person and I can read the person’s body language and during my travels abroad, that never scared me until I heard someone speaking Polish and I realised I wasn’t picking up anything. My wife never spoke Polish to me, so to me, I’ll use this analogy: it’s like tuning a radio and first, you get the static and suddenly you pick up a word or two. That’s how Polish is to me.

What are some similarities between Poland and South Africa?

Drinking. South Africans drink a lot of beer and a favourite pastime is hosting a ‘braai’ which is like a barbecue or campfire. Poles have similar charcoal grills and spend time with close friends. It’s enjoyable and everybody has a great time. They also love sausages called ‘boerewors’, which have cloves, coriander, and other spices.   

Have you had any strange experiences in Poland?

I started running marathons when I came to Poland because, in South Africa, you have to be careful where you run in public and stay on the safe side because of crime. When I moved to Warsaw, I decided to go for a run one day and I passed another runner going in the opposite direction and he waved at me. Another runner passed and did the same thing, so I wasn’t sure if I should wave too. My wife said they probably wave to give each other motivation. 

Kershen Naidoo with his son.

Two weeks later, I was running on the side of the road in the rain and a car pulled up beside me and the guy was talking to me in Polish and gesturing if I needed a lift, but I said ‘no’ and continued running. It was interesting to me because for the most part, Polish people don’t really look at you in the eye or worry about you. But as a runner, I suddenly made a connection with another human being in Poland.

Have you encountered any difficulties as a foreigner?

It’s difficult to be a person of colour in Poland. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that there’s racism everywhere but you tend to worry about how people perceive you. Being this skin colour, it’s easy to mistake me for an Arab, or from the Middle East or even Latin America. I remember going to the supermarket for the first time in Poland and I spent over an hour trying to figure out labels on products and I could tell people were staring at me and I felt like the only person of colour in this place. Nowadays, I see a lot of people of colour in Poland in the supermarkets and everywhere, and it’s a great sign. It’s a sign that the country is changing and moving forward.

What are your plans for the future?

Currently, we really like living in Poland. I think that Poland is at this precipice of change. There’s a lot of international businesses looking to invest in Poland. I think if they get the pollution sorted out and if the country continues to grow in the right way, it’s very possible that we will stay here longer.

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