Beyond Borders

What Americans know about SA

2010-11-05 08:34
Jean Barker is currently studying in the US.

Jean Barker is currently studying in the US.

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Jean Barker

Contrary to popular belief, not all Americans think we have lions roaming our streets in South Africa. But when I first arrived in the States there really was a tiger called Panjo on the loose near Springs.

I couldn't believe my luck.

But everyone I told gave me a slightly insulted look. "Oh please!" the look seemed to say. "What do you think I am - some kind of dumb American?" "No really!" I'd insist, sinking rapidly in the social quicksand. "This farmer, he wanted to take his tiger to another farm and so he put it in the back of his bakkie and..."

I lost them all at "bakkie". The only Afrikaans word they know starts with a "p" and ends with "oes". Thanks, Die Antwoord. I'm so proud.

To escape from the crushing awkwardness of a conversation with a foreigner who clearly doesn't speak English too well, most Americans quickly change the topic. Some of them opt for "Your accent sounds..." or my favourite: "You're white. Are your parents white too?"

Remembering the old days

When I first arrived, a few people wanted to know if I was there for the World Cup Soccer - like there was any way I'd have missed that moment in our history. I learned not to look shocked. I also quickly learned to be careful when discussing District 9. Many pro-Israeli Americans believe it is an anti-Semitic allegory for the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis.

Hello... like... apartheid? Anyone? Not ringing a bell at all?

They paid more attention to us back in the bad old days, of course. I met one person who remembered that far back. I was in a costume shop buying a sheriff's uniform and fluffy handcuffs from a man covered in blurred tattoos.

"You guys must have been really bummed out when apartheid ended," he said, picking a bit of scab off a blue lopsided heart tat oozing clear fluid on his fore-arm. In a new country, any new country I suppose, you spend a lot of time finding the people who understand where you're coming from. Clearly I'm not quite there, yet.

Those who do get me are usually immigrants themselves. They know how it feels to be refused service in a Stater Bros, a discount store who proudly refuse to accept South African passports as ID. They know what it's like to constantly be asked for your social security number, or to be told you can't have a lease without an American credit record, or to be forced to miss your connecting flight when you haven't slept for 36 hours so that Immigration can take you into a small glass room for a while. 

They're just like us

On the rare occasions that you hear news about another country, it's really news of what happened to An American in that country. Kill 3 000 Africans and nobody cares. Kidnap one American. Just one! Even an ugly old fat one. And KA-BOOM! Instant celebrity.

So yes, they're just like us. We all prefer to ignore things that disturb us, and we all prefer stories that affect us directly. It's human. And though America gets plenty of flack, I haven't met a single person who'd turn down a free trip, or a green card. America is awesome. America is huge. America is rich. America is fun. America is beautiful. America is just like in the movies. And California is welcoming, once you've crossed the border legally.

And you quickly begin to see why citizens of the USA ignore the parts of the world they're not bombing. After three months here, I'm not even done exploring Southern California, let alone the rest of the USA.  I discover something new about this place every day.

And one of the first things I learned about Americans really early on is that they really believe in their right to hold an opinion... about anything, even stuff they know nothing about. It's like nobody ever told them to shut up as kids; not even once.

They're especially confident in themselves when discoursing on meteorology, or "The Weather" - to use the layman's term.

Smiling and nodding

"It's hot in South Africa, right?" They tell me.
"No," I reply. "Well in most places it's fairly warm in summer. But various weather regions ... bla bla ... Mediterranean ... bla bla ... subtropical ... bla bla ... Savannah highveld ... bla bla ... snows sometimes in... bla bla..."

To which they'll usually respond: "But it's hot there, right?" Sometimes they'll mention as evidence a movie they've seen. Sometimes they don't feel the need to justify their opinion.

During my first weeks here, I bravely begin to explain all over again. But these days, I just can't bear to wrest from someone the littlest bit of knowledge they have about my home country. It feels cruel, like stealing candy from a kid. Or telling your wife her arse does look fat in that dress.

So now, most times, I just nod, smile, pay and go.

The more Americans talk, the less I do. The other day, I even let some guy in Trader Joe's believe Mandela is still our president. "What the hell", I figured. "It could only do the economy good."

- Jean Barker is the former editor of Channel24. She's in the USA doing her Screenwriting MFA at Chapman. Follow the ins and outs of her life on her blog, Sign Language or on Twitter.

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