South Africa vs the USA: The Ultimate Showdown

December 22, 2021
Lior Kolman

Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Class of 2022

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I grew up during Disney Channel’s peak era, and, as you’d expect, I spent most of my childhood watching the station. I loved watching the American families and their houses and high schools. But it wasn’t until I joined BBYO and met hundreds of Americans that I realized just how different our two lifestyles are. Below, you’ll find categories of the most interesting things that I do differently from Americans.


First off, let’s talk about the actual school system. Here in South Africa, our school year runs from January to November, whereas in the US, it runs from September to June. At first glance, this seemed completely bizarre to me. However, upon a deeper look, this difference came to make a lot more sense. Here in South Africa, I’ve always thought that starting in January and ending in November made perfect sense since our school year ran along with par with the year. So why would America make things more complicated? After talking to countless BBYO friends, I came to learn that it is not about running along with par with the year, it’s about the seasons. School ends in summer, and that’s always the way that it has been. Summer in South Africa is in December. Summer in the US is in June. So the difference makes perfect sense. 

Still, under the school umbrella, our education systems vary in the way that they are run. Here in South Africa, school uniforms are the norm; it is completely out of the ordinary to hear about a school that allows casual clothing every day. We only do that on some days known as ‘civvies’ day. Whereas in the US, school uniforms aren’t a thing unless you go to a private school. 

Ok next up is cafeterias. I have always dreamt of having a school cafeteria. Here we have to pack our own school lunches, and in the case that you ‘forget’ to pack it, we have an absurdly overpriced tuckshop. We don’t have a cafeteria space either. We just sit outside in designated grade areas. 

In the US, each person gets a designated locker in which to store all their belongings. At my school, if you want a locker, you've got to pay about R100 for a year, and you have to bring your own lock. There are only about 30 lockers in a school of 800 students. 


One of my personal favorite aspects of my country is our completely unique slang. Some of these words may be comparable to American phrases/expressions, but the main purpose of this subsection is to show off just how diverse we are here at the bottom of the world:

“Keen” →  We use this word for everything and anything. If you like a boy, you’re keen for him. If you’re excited to do something, you’re keen to do it. The emphasis of the word comes from the ‘e’. If you’re super excited for something you’re keeeeeeeeen. 

“Shame” → This is one of my personal favorites. We don’t use shame just out of pity. Also a word we use all the time with no real explanation. If someone does something for you, “shame, that's so sweet of you”. If someone looks nice, “shame, she looks stunning.”

“Ya no” → Means no.

“No ya’’ → Means yes.

“Jol” → This is what we use to describe a good time, a party. “Tonight’s gonna be such a jol!” 

“Now” “now now” “just now” → Yes, these three words mean completely different things. The true meaning behind these words is a secret trade that only South Africans get to learn. If you’re truly curious, text me and I may just tell you.   

“Braai” → Barbeque.

“Tomato sauce” → Ketchup. 

“Robot” → Traffic Light. 

Jewish Life:

I of course have to tie it all back together with a mention of how the lives of Jews differ in each country. There are truly no words to adequately describe the Jewish community here in South Africa, but I’ll give it my best. The Jewish community is like one massive happy family; everybody is somehow connected to each other. The Jewish community is one of the safest places in the country where we can walk around without fear. Most Jews in South Africa are non-orthodox and Bat/Bar Mitzvahs are a very big deal. We have a lot of Jewish day schools and loads of Jewish youth movements aimed to enrich our Judaism. In the US I hear that the Jewish community is very connected, but that certain areas have more connectivity than others.

I hope that through this article you have learned a bit more about South African culture. And, if you’re ever in the area, feel free to reach out so we can share our cultures together!

Lior Kolman is a BBG from BBYO: South Africa and is a founding member of BBYO South Africa!

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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