Saturday, September 26, 2009

SA Columnist Warns Readers of 2010 'Aliens'

Now, here is some genuine cross-cultural ... oh, humor? Attempt at humor? Proof that what outsiders don't know about South Africa and what a sports columnist doesn't quite know about foreigners ... is truly a vast tract of intellectual territory.

A columnist named Carlos Amato has done a bit of satire, appearing on the Johannesburg Sunday Times Web site, on some of the visitors South Africans can expect to see during the World Cup in 2010. The are described as "aliens" in the secondary headline, and we can be fairly certain we are meant to think of "extra terrestrials" even before we conjure up another meaning. That is, foreigners.

I admire writers/journalists who attempt satire. Being funny -- and there is wit here -- is hard. In any language. I've been there, done that, and not always successfully. American actor and comedian Steve Martin once declared that "comedy is not pretty," and he has that right.

Anyway, it's always a bit tricky when you start slinging national stereotypes. Missing the mark is a near-certainty, especially if the prose is examined from outside the writer's immediate readership. And it is his immediate readership that is, by far, best-positioned to recognize the South African terms he uses, and who are familiar with local-culture pop references that non-South Africans can only guess at. (Do the Spice Girls have some history with Nelson Mandela?)

But it also shows that we can be looking into voids of misunderstanding even when speaking in the same language, more or less.

Let's look at some of his (yes, broad and overstated) ideas about the fans of several national teams.

Starting with the English.

He opens with a riff on the Spice Girls, who he has decided should be known as the Spice Tannies, and those of us who can form a mental picture of stick-thin Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham can see humor in the author's suggestion that the "Tannies" can "convert their sunglasses into improvised shacks."

Then there is a bit about a presumably typical English soccer lout, this one a man named Barry who weighs 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and has passed out from over-indulgence and needs to be revived via mouth-to-mouth ministrations. (OK, gross humor; some comics make a career of it.) Meanwhile, the South African Good Samaritan tries not to look at the enormous breasts of this particular drunken soccer lout who has, on each breast, "a life-sized tattoo of Alan Shearer nailed to a cross." (Alan Shearer is a former English soccer great.)

The author moves on to American soccer fans, and his depiction of 18-19-year-old dreadlocked Coloradoans is peculiar. Very. Perhaps the only Americans the author has seen in South Africa are college-age backpackers? Amato suggests the Americans will be more interested in hacky-sack (a fad that seems to have disappeared years ago, by the way). "Already, these American kids secretly prefer hacky-sack to soccer, because they understand the rules better. You will see groups of them in Gautrain station platforms, kicking a hacky-sack. If you participate, they will befriend you, and bore the living crap out of you. Do not participate."

He also suggests that, in 2011, the dreadlocked American hacky-sack fans "will all go to college, where they will realise that soccer is a sport for socialists, Latinos and cannibals."

Hmmm. Well. Yes, some Americans are massively disinterested in soccer, but they will not be among those fans roaming South Africa next summer. Americans already have bought twice as many 2010 World Cup tickets as any other national group, and the people using those tickets will be quite serious soccer fans, actually. Have to be, to go all the way to South Africa from North America, at great expense.

There is a line about Dutch fans and hashish and mayonnaise, a suggestion that Italian fans will be interested in "seducing your mum," a riff about North Korean fans wanting to visit a power station (to spy on it?) and a half-sentence about how South Africans can expect to "hear Nigerian fans long before you see them."

And an unfortunate line about local citizens needing to make sure they "do not accuse visiting Egyptians of sleeping with prostitutes merely because you think it's possible they did." A reference to a Confederations Cup scandal centering around Egyptian national team contentions that players had personal items stolen while in a South Africa hotel, and South African authorities suggesting the problem was about Egyptian players inviting prostitutes into their rooms.

Actually, the piece is fascinating, in a cultural forensics sort of way. Because the Joburg Sunday Times is one of the best newspapers in the country, we have to assume that the author is considered amusing. And that he knows the boundaries of good taste vs. bad taste, in his community.

But, clearly, only certain bits of humor successfully cross oceans, or national borders.

The column does accomplish this: It reminds us that the sort of labeling/stereotyping most of us do when trying to boil down foreign cultures ... well, it's easy to be wrong. Maybe even offensive. (Anyone in Egypt laughing at the "prostitute" line?)

I don't want to be a scold, because I've been on the other side of a self-righteous scolding more times than I can count. Just saying ... this is the sort of subject to be approached with delicacy.

I recommend you read the Amato column. And, for your information, a "lilo" is an inflatable air mattress. And I assume a "stoep" is what we would call a "stoop" in America, Canada and England. That is, the Dutch-rooted word for "a small porch, platform or staircase leading to the entrance of a house or building."

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