A stereotypical Cape Town day for Xu Jinglei


Xu Jinglei at Vergelegen vineyard

Maya Alexandri is currently traveling as part of actress / director / blogger Xu Jinglei’s entourage in South Africa, and will file reports about the trip for the next week.

At the start of our tour of South Africa, one of our handlers from the Department of Foreign Affairs told us: “When Chinese people hear ‘South Africa,’ they think of diamonds, gold, wild animals and gambling. By the end of this trip, I promise you that you’ll have a different view of South Africa.”

But stereotypes are interesting. At least part of the reason why we have them is because they’re useful. They’re also difficult to escape. After all, having gone on a game drive in Pilanesburg National Park and visited gambling-heaven, Sun City, our group would be hard-pressed not to associate South Africa with wild animals and gambling.

Today, our group added another stereotype to the list: wine. South African vineyards, particularly those in Stellenbosch, a renowned wine region, are well-known world-wide.

We visited Vergelegen, which is owned by AngloAmerican, a South African gold mining company. Touring the vineyard, we saw the fermentation vats, posed for pictures in the wine cellar, and participated in a tasting.

The nuance of the tasting was difficult for some in Xu Jinglei’s team to grasp. Aside from the weirdness of phrases like “bouquet of green pepper and gooseberry” and “mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,” the idea of a tasting — where you spit out the wine after swirling it in your mouth — struck some of our team members as less-than-ideal. One team member gulped down all four tasting glasses of his wine within moments of being seated.

From Vergelegen’s expansive grounds and gardens, we returned to the city center, where we stopped at a diamond cutting and wholesale / retail shop — diamonds being another stereotypical South African product. Between the vineyard and the diamond shop was a massive shanty slum, the result of sprawling growth in a nearby township. Passing by, your correspondent reflected that shanty towns were as much a stereotypical image of South Africa as were animals seen on safari and Sun City’s casino.

What isn’t stereotypical is the easy camaraderie between our two Department of Foreign Affairs handlers — one of whom is an Afrikaans man, the other of whom is a black South African woman. The elaborate hospitality and patient service they have lavished upon Xu Jinglei and her team isn’t stereotypical. Nor is South Africa’s sophisticated Department of Foreign Affairs public relations operation a stereotypical program. South Africa is among the very few countries that have included China’s bloggers in their strategies for improving media coverage and raising awareness about themselves with the Chinese public.

There’s nothing especially newsworthy about the fact that government officials — one white and one black — were welcoming to us and friendly towards one another; except that such person-to-person engagement is one way in which stereotypes are broken down. Similarly, South Africa’s government bureaucratic programs don’t make good headlines; but the openness and forward-thinking that the Department of Foreign Affairs has displayed in organizing this trip has facilitated the opportunities for engagement with South Africans necessary to develop a more complex understanding of the country and its relationship to China.

In the end, then, our Department of Foreign Affairs handler seems likely to fulfill his promise to our team. However stereotypical the activities on our itinerary, our engagement with him, his colleague, and the other South Africans we meet, makes personal each team member’s experience of South Africa. Replacing a pre-existing notion of a far-away land with a first-hand experience of the place will, without question, give us a “different view of South Africa.”

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