On the face of it, this image might suggest the means of transport for an immigrant to get from Point A to Point B. In fact, it is the Semester at Sea ship on which Ingrid Bianca Byerly has circumnavigated the Mediterranean and sailed around the world as a professor of ethnomusicology. Yet, the two are linked: Ingrid first immigrated to America to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, with a dissertation on ethnomusicology, at Duke University – even though, at the time, she didn’t consider her move to America as leaving her native country. “I had every intention of returning to South Africa,” she says, “but ended up making a home, and having my children, and forging a career here.” So, although she didn’t feel she left South Africa, she did end up in America.
Ingrid has been in the US for 26 years and, as well as being on the faculty for Semester at Sea, she teaches music, ethnomusicology, and humanitarian advocacy at Duke University, describing herself as an ‘amphibious educator.’ “I have the most incredible place to lecture ‘on land’ at Duke about the humanitarian causes that I care deeply about, interspersed with opportunities to teach ‘at sea’ about the music of countries we sail to around the world.” And she thinks of the windows of experience that have opened for her through both her doctorate, and her teaching profession here, as the ultimate passports in themselves,
Ingrid finds it amazing that she has now been in the US as long as she has. “Maybe because I always felt as though half of me was still in South Africa, both in mind and anticipation,” she says. “I go back as much as I can, and I have been here as much as I have been there.” She adds, “I am not conflicted about this. It is an authentic and comfortable sharing of loyalties for me.” To this end, she has dual South African and American citizenship, and feels supremely fortunate to carry both. American citizenship affords her a security and opportunities she never dreamt of, and South African citizenship reminds her of who she is. “My family is South African, and my sons are American, so that clinches it for me in terms of standing firmly balanced with my two feet on two continents, and my heart in the middle.” She believes home is not necessarily where you were born, or where you lived the longest, but where you came into yourself, and feel most eternally at peace with where you are. And, for her, Cape Town has always been, and will always be, home. “I spent my most formative stage in Cape Town, and to me that glorious place will always feel like the souls of my feet are exactly on the soil they belong, and that very sea-air is exactly the air I need to breathe.” And home for Ingrid is really anywhere her three sons are. “So whenever we’re all together in Cape Town – that’s not just Home, that’s Heaven.”
Table, Mountain, Cape beaches, the sparse beauty of the Karoo, Peppermint Crisps, Highveld thunderstorms, safaris between acacia trees, and the call of hadidas and fish eagles are just some of the things – both the enormous and the trivial – that cause profound nostalgia for Ingrid. Also, “the spontaneous genius of South African musicians, the harmonies and exquisite blendings of choral singing (whether rousing church groups worshiping in fields, or meticulous school choirs performing on stages), the easy and kind and hilarious intercultural friendships between perfect strangers (yes, I could spend a great deal of time on this phenomenon, which the rest of the world doesn’t fully understand about South Africa), and of course, family and old friends.”
Ingrid has found that one of the most difficult parts of being here has been her adjustment to a surprisingly different type of social milieu in America. “I miss the irrevocable bonds and constant ease of ‘my home people’ – the ‘pop-ins’ and tea-times and the deep and amusing involvement in each other’s lives.” She’s had to make adjustments in other ways too. As of this posting, the strangest part of being here for Ingrid is Donald Trump. “I thought I understood America well,” she says, “but I’ve pretty much had to reboot my brain for a better insight, and now I perceive it very differently.”
In encapsulating the way she feels that being an immigrant in America has changed her, Ingrid tells a lovely story. “I once heard an interview with a woman who won the Texas lottery, and she said an interesting thing: she said that abundant access to money simply allows you to show who you really are. If you are mean and stupid, it reveals how spiteful and foolish you really are, and if you are kind and smart, it reveals how generous and clever you are too.” Ingrid believes that this thinking can be transferred to ‘abundant opportunity’ too; it just gives you prospects to become, and reveal, who you really are. It needn’t change you, just allow you to be who you really are. “The opportunity of attending graduate school in America, and becoming an American with a new life and fulfilling career, while maintaining and treasuring my deep connections with South Africa, has allowed me to realize who I really am.”