In the queue at JFK

2014-11-12 00:00

“IT must be Ebola,” said the person in front of me in the queue this week.

“Damn Americans,” said someone else. “They all think Africa is a country!”

We had been standing in the queue at JFK Airport for two hours, waiting to clear passport control. That may seem like a long time, and it is, but it’s only after you’ve been flying for 23 hours already that you really realise what a long time two hours can be.

The queue was so long it doubled back on itself over and again, like a piece of string that someone swallowed. We were a tangle of tired travellers in a bureaucratic intestine, praying to get out the other end before we were digested entirely.

It seemed pretty obvious to me what the problem was: there were 60 counters for clearing passports and only 20 of them were staffed on a Saturday night in New York when flights from every country in the world were landing all the time. If this had happened back home, all the South Africans in the queue around me would have been sighing and huffing and yelling and saying something like “Typical!” and “Banana republic!” I’ve heard people say that while waiting a minute and a half at OR Tambo.

Sometimes, for something to do, because standing in a queue can be boring, even if it’s only for a minute and a half, I’ve tried to argue with those people. It doesn’t help to point out that passport control at OR Tambo is actually pretty quick — these aren’t the sorts of people who respond well to hearing anything positive about South Africa. No, instead I point out that every airport screws up sometimes, that it’s in the nature of large organisations to be incompetent sometimes, and it’s not personal, even though we are champions at taking things personally. But it never works.

The South Africans at JFK queued patiently, the way they wouldn’t do at home, and assumed that there must be some deeper explanation: medical check-ups ahead, or something. The fact is, they all agreed knowledgeably, Americans have such little knowledge of geography that they don’t understand that Liberia and Durban aren’t next door to each other. Isn’t it funny how such an advanced society can be so ignorant? They had a good chuckle about that, and when one of them started sneezing we all took a step back, glancing around as though to tell any watching authorities: “We’re not with the sneezing guy.”

Before I left home, I saw a lot in the media about the American panic about Ebola. I saw endless clips and sound bites in which rednecks and blowhards called for blocking flights from Africa, and I was half-anticipating having to lie about my country of origin just to get cab drivers to pick me up.

At the very least, when I said I was South African, I expected to see people instinctively edge away from me and try to breathe more shallowly. I should have known better, of course.

Living in South Africa, where only the weird and freakish and unrepresentative make international news, I should have understood that the same is true for everyone else.

People don’t share clips on Facebook of all the thousands of American politicians and commentators pointing out the facts about Ebola and showing an appreciation of the geography of Africa.

That wouldn’t be very compelling clickbait, and it wouldn’t confirm anyone’s prejudices about American arrogance and insularity.

Instead, they share the clip of the one nut job who thinks Africa’s a country and that we all contract exotic diseases down here because we live with chimpanzees.

The fact is, South Africa really isn’t as mysterious and exotic as we think it is. There are enough people who have travelled here, enough South Africans living there, and enough South African paralympians have made international news that most people have a reasonable understanding that we’re a nation like any other.

When I got to the front of the line at last, I asked the passport controller about medical checks. He looked at my passport again. “You’re from South Africa, Sir,” he said. “That’s a long way from the hot zone.”

“I know,” I said. “I just didn’t know if you knew.”

“Sir,” he said reproachfully, “you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.

“Welcome to America.”

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