Living the stereotype

1 March 2010

As an American in South Africa I’m often the brunt of snarky anti-American comments. I’m no novice traveler, so I’m well aware of the name Americans have made for themselves abroad…and I’ve even become accustomed to hearing these stereotypes all over the world. But I say, in all of my travels to date, with maybe only England as an exception, blatant anti-American remarks from South Africans have been the most intense.

Friends will introduce me to new friends and say “yeah, she’s a dodgy American, but she’s ok.” (Giggle giggle, nod head, roll eyes.)

Here’s a conversation starter: “So Aubrey, what do you think of South Africa? I mean, Americans don’t know anything about Africa, do they, so this must be new to you.” Ummmm….yeah….where do I even begin with that one. Usually with “Well, from the time I’ve spent in Rwanda and Egypt and Tunisia…and my business in Ghana….and my studies of African culture and economic development….”

I’m not even exaggerating. This stuff is said TO ME: “Well you’re an American so you can afford it.” (Yeah, except that it’s cheaper in New York City.) Or “Oh, you’re on the 11th floor; did you think you’d be living in the African bush when you came here?”

This was really amazing: “Oh wait, so you actually had a passport before you came here?”

Or my personal favorite: “Did you even know there were white people in South Africa?” Wow. Ummm….Yeah…..Did I mention what A MILLION COLOURS is about?

These kinds of conversations come up all the time. I do my best to show that I know a thing or two about the cultural and historical nuances of this place, and I try to disprove any comment that starts with “All Americans.” So when a friend recently said “All Americans think that because we live in Africa, we have elephants and hippos and other wild animals in our backyards,” I just laughed. I mean really. These stereotypes are just getting ridiculous. Or are they?

Well. Let me tell you something. I spent Thursday night on the film set, a location about 45 minutes from Johannesburg. Yes, it wasn’t the city – more of a rural farm area – but it was still not quite the African bush or jungle. There were baboons everywhere!  And yes, it was the “backyard” to more than a few estates.

These baboons were a hyper bunch. You could see them on the hills, maybe 30 in a group, chasing each other and shaking all the trees. You could hear them for miles – a surprisingly high-pitched squeal as opposed to a low guttural noise that might seem more fitting for a creature of their size. They went all “ape” on the set, and it had to be completely rebuilt, then they moved on to the catering. One baboon bandit made off with a huge bag of sugar. Unfortunately for him, he punctured a hole in the bag, leaving a white sugar trail the whole way back to the wood. He probably didn’t have any bit of the tasty treat left by the time he got there.

Baboons are notoriously brutal. I didn’t know that at first. Assuming they’d be cute and maybe even pose for a photo, I went walking down a path in the direction of their squeals. I was spotted by two of the special effects crew, and they immediately came running and yelling at me in Zulu. I understood “Baboons!” and got the hint. I mean, these guys blow stuff up for a living, so if they are telling me to steer clear of a baboon, I will.

Needless-to-say, I don’t have a single photo of a baboon. But I do have this story. May it keep the “Americans think we have wild animals living in our backyards” stereotype alive and well!