Friday, April 25, 2014

Wednesday in Wine Country: A Sip of Pinotage and a Taste of How South Africans Really Feel About Americans

During my nearly eight years living abroad, I've spent so much time sighing over preconceptions about black men and misconceptions about gay people that one of my other distinguishing expat characteristics has often gone lost in the shuffle inside my head.

Yes, folks. My name is Jeremy Helligar, and I'm an American.

To be honest, I seldom admit it outright. I realized this yesterday during a wine-tasting excursion at several vineyards in Stellenbosch. Nearly all of my fellow tasters seemed to be from Germany -- not Cologne, not Düsseldorf, not any of the country's myriad well-known cities (no European country outside of Italy has more of them), at least not until someone (usually me) prodded them to name their specific city of origin.

I've noticed that about travelers and expats abroad. Unless they're from London, their geographical allegiance is usually to a country rather than to a city. Any German will tell you that Berliners are unique, highly unlike Germans outside of the capital, and they'll list the attributes that differentiate various German cities and regions and the people who live in them. But at the end of the day, they're all Germans first.

Ditto Australians (despite the ongoing Sydney vs. Melbourne rivalry), including the bartender at The Power and the Glory in Cape Town, who probably figured I'd never heard of the Gold Coast. How was she to know that I sometimes live in Melbourne part-time? Then there was the young Parisian couple that I first spotted on the train from Cape Town to Stellenbosch with whom I ended up spending the entire day. When asked by anyone where they were from, they always said France.

Americans are different, though. Most of them will answer the name of a major city or of one of the 50 states before saying "I'm from the United States" because, presumably, being from Iowa and being from San Francisco are such completely different things, not unlike being from Portugal and being from Belgium. Americans abroad will proudly call themselves "American," but they won't necessarily say they're from "America."

It wasn't until yesterday that I noticed that in conversation with strangers, the words "America" and "United States" rarely leave my lips either, as doesn't "I'm American." Where am I from? "New York City... I'm a New Yorker." I announce it proudly and defiantly, almost like I'm daring anyone to consider me anything else, despite the fact that I haven't been in NYC since 2010, and I haven't lived there since four years before that. I'm probably subconsciously trying to prevent people from forming any more preconceptions and misconceptions about me than necessary. Don't most people from other countries think of the United States and New York City as two separate entities?

For years, it's worked. Usually I've been able to bask in the universal admiration for New York City, the greatest show on earth, and sidestep most of those pesky stereotypes about Americans who are from anywhere but there. Then yesterday in wine country I met my driver, a middle-aged man of mixed ancestry who may have been the first South African I've encountered who was not impressed by my adopted city of origin.

"Oh," he said, his voice suddenly turning somber. "Are you OK? Is everything alright over there?"

"Over where? In New York?"

"In America. Is everything okay?"

"Why wouldn't everything be okay?" I thought maybe I'd missed some breaking news while I was en route from Cape Town to Stellenbosch.

"I've heard that things are very bad there. Very bad. It's almost like being in a country run by communists. The government controls everything, and they're taking away all of the people's rights. Things are supposed to be very bad over there." He was talking like it was some imaginary hell, a figment of someone's nightmare.

"Well, it's not perfect, that's for sure. But unless something happened in the last few hours, people there aren't suffering any more than usual."

He didn't appear to be convinced. I prayed he would drop the subject -- the French couple looked concerned for my well-being! -- but he just getting started.

"And what about the people there? Are they like they are on Jerry Springer?"


"Jerry Springer. You know that show?"

"Yeah, I do. But what does he have to do with Americans?"

"Well, you have to understand: We get shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake and all of your talk shows in South Africa, so that is the way a lot of us who have never been to the United States see real Americans."

I was horrified. I'd always thought that people abroad thought badly about Americans because of George W. Bush (as had been the case in Palestine last year), or the haughty behavior of Americans on holiday (as is typically the case in Europe), or just out of habit (see Brits and Australians). It never dawned on me that those loud, obnoxious Americans on TV shows like Trisha and Cheaters (both of which I discovered in Cape Town), the ones who think nothing of airing all of their dirty laundry while the cameras are rolling, might be the ones who are setting a standard by which all Americans are judged.

I wanted to tell him that those people are nothing like me. I'm well-educated, I have perfect grammar, and if I want to air my dirty laundry, I do it in writing, not on reality TV. But I didn't bother to say anything in defense of Americans, which of course, led to an afternoon of accusations.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, genuinely concerned, when he picked up our group after the tasting at Beyerskloof, the first winery. "I know how Americans like to drink too much. They usually end up getting sick and acting really crazy."

"Wait: Are you confusing us with the Brits and the Aussies."

"No, Americans are always drunk, aren't they?"

I wasn't yet, but he was making me want to be.

At Simonsig, the second winery, a group of us -- the French couple, a German couple, a German soloist and me, the New Yorker -- enjoyed a 45-minute sit-down lunch during which everyone talked about places they'd been to on this and previous holidays. (Do strangers in strange lands ever talk about anything else amongst themselves? Get them together, and it's like everything in the world outside of travel ceases to exist.) When we were finished, the driver was outside waiting for us.

"Did you have enough to eat?" he asked, looking directly at me. "I know our portions here are very small. In America, they're so big. Everyone there eats so much. It must be really hard to come here and eat our tiny portions."

Well, at least he didn't call Americans -- and by extension, me -- fat, but I was still hoping he'd move on to something else, and after the sit-down tasting at Delheim, the third and last winery of the day, he did.

"Do you know George Zimmerman?"

Ah, finally! What would a conversation in South Africa be without race entering into it? Interestingly, as much as I've discussed Trayvon Martin in other cities and countries and as frequently as race has crept into my conversations in Cape Town, it was the first time last year's big international U.S. story had come up since my arrival in South Africa last November. I'd spent so much of the afternoon hearing Americans this and Americans that, I'd almost forgotten that I'm black, too, which might have been a first for me.

Although the Pinotage that had gone to my head made it a less hospitable environment for the contemplation of weighty matters, at the very least, I knew I wasn't in for an "Americans are racist" screed. No South African could possibly defend a statement like that with a straight face.
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