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Even though there are eleven official languages in South Africa, they represent only a portion of all languages spoken in the country. Most South Africans speak enough English and Afrikaans to navigate effectively. Sometimes this complex social system works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
By Trevor’s senior year, he convinced Patricia that he needed a computer for school. This allowed Trevor to start selling bootleg CDs. Tim, a friend of Trevor’s from their neighborhood, helped Trevor sell his bootleg CDs. Trevor also used the computer to look at pictures of naked girls on the internet. Trevor wasn’t spending time with girls at his school, and he didn’t think he would be attending the matriculation dance. Tim, an unpredictable presence in Trevor’s life, offered to find a date for Trevor. When Trevor was introduced to his date, Babiki, he thought she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. Trevor and Babiki went out in groups several times, but the pair were never alone and Babiki was shy. The dance was coming up, and Trevor asked for permission to borrow Patricia’s boyfriend’s car. Abel owned a BMW, and Trevor wanted to impress Babiki. Abel initially refused, but he relented once he saw how beautiful Babiki was.
Sizwe, another middleman in Trevor’s CD business, convinced Trevor to have his hair braided into cornrows. Trevor thought the final result looked good, but Patricia teased him about how pretty it looked. When the night of the dance arrived, Abel broke his promise to lend Trevor the BMW, and Trevor had to take his old Mazda. Trevor was so late to pick up Babiki that she almost refused to get in the car. When the pair finally arrived at the dance, Babiki wouldn’t get out of the car. Eventually, Trevor learned that Babiki did not speak English. Trevor drove Babiki home, and he missed the dance. Trevor was ashamed, thinking back over his relationship with Babiki. During the month they had been dating, Trevor had never asked Babiki about herself. He had been too distracted by her beauty to think about her feelings, just like the naked women he looked at online.
Noah illustrates the ways that the language barrier in South Africa can prevent its people from knowing one another on a deep level. Babiki is Trevor’s third attempt at finding love, and as the title common to all three attempts makes plain, the journey is long, awkward, tragic, and humiliating, and Babiki’s story is the most humiliating of them all. The reader gets to know Babiki via the same progression of events and impressions as the author did at the time, so when Trevor discovers that she does not speak English, the reader is both as surprised as he is and able to understand how the miscommunication occurred. This miscommunication also highlights the superficial standards that he and his peers employ to choose a partner or a date. Their main criteria is to seek someone who will enhance their social status. They feel that it will boost their popularity by taking a beautiful girl to a dance, but do not see that the act is inherently selfish. When the other person finds out that the interest in them is so shallow, the interaction does not go well. In this situation, Babiki was no more interested in helping Trevor save face than he was in getting to know her, and his hubris makes for a miserable night for them both.
The incident with Babiki shows how much status and reputation factor into personal relationships. Noah does not share with us the reasons that Babiki agreed to go to the dance with young Trevor in the first place because he himself does not know. It is also likely that as a young girl from a poor neighborhood, she did not realize that she had the option to turn down the invitation, yet another example of how women might feel subservient to men in South African culture. Babiki thought that if she went to a dance in a different neighborhood with a mixed-race boy it would benefit her, even if the reason for her invitation was based only on her appearance. Trevor did take pains to impress her, or perhaps to rival her appearance, with some flashy trappings of his own meant to show off a manufactured status. He braided his hair into cornrows and arranged to borrow Abel’s BMW so that people would take notice of the brand-name car even before seeing the attractive couple inside it. When Abel reneges on his offer to loan Trevor the BMW, he reveals himself to be unreliable, but we also see how Trevor’s superficiality causes the evening to unravel.
Both throughout the book and at the end of Trevor’s trilogy of romantic forays from his school years, Noah provides the context to understand the actions of Trevor, his peers, and his family. Noah himself, however, refrains from reflecting on all but the current phase of his own life. Trevor’s goals for his final year of high school are to convince his mother to buy him a computer, to take a beautiful girl to the dance, and to find new ways to make money. Patricia helps him to get closer to his financial goals when she gets him the computer, and Tim and Sizwe help him to expand his bootleg CD business. Although Trevor has fallen short romantically and academically, he forges strong social connections with his business colleagues, who will come to provide him with his primary social outlet as well.