For Xu Jinglei and her team, shifting perspectives on South Africa


Xu Jinglei on the waterfront, Cape Town

Maya Alexandri is currently traveling as part of actress / director / blogger Xu Jinglei’s entourage in South Africa and has been filing reports about the trip for the last week. This post is the final installment in the series.

On the occasion of our last night in South Africa, your correspondent asked her fellow team members whether and how their opinions about South Africa had changed over the past eight days. Many of their comments were similar:

In general, people said that they didn’t know much about South Africa before this visit. Xu Jinglei’s documentary cameraman said that Egypt was the only African country that he’d studied in school.

A number of team members expressed astonishment at the extent to which South Africa had already developed as a country. Xu’s make-up artist said that she’d thought South Africa was a backwards country because of all the economic aid Africa receives from China. One of the equipment assistants said that he’d assumed that South Africans were poor, didn’t have enough to eat, and would be begging him for money; he said that his opinion had completely changed on this trip.

In terms of the difference in development between China and South Africa, one of Xu’s employees observed that, in South Africa, the divide between the rich and poor seems extreme, whereas in China, her perception was that the benefits of economic development were more equally distributed. Meanwhile, Xu Jinglei was impressed with the fact that, despite its development, the cost of living in South Africa remained reasonable. Further, she admitted that she’d been worried about security in South Africa before her visit, but now she felt that the country was safe.

Another common theme was the beauty of South Africa. Opinion seemed unanimous that its perfect weather, deep blue ocean, and varieties of plants and animals made South Africa a brilliant vacation spot. Xu’s father, who’d accompanied us on the tour, didn’t think the distance between South Africa and China would be an impediment to tourism. “America’s far away, but many young people today travel to America. So the distance of course won’t be a problem,” he reasoned.

Many people were especially enamored of Cape Town. Xu’s manager opined that she could stay a long time in Cape Town because it had so much to offer. Xu’s documentary cameraman said that Cape Town was an international city, and that he felt very comfortable there. “It’s exactly like Amsterdam,” one of Xu’s photographers insisted.

The people in South Africa struck many members of our team as friendly, relaxed and harmonious. Xu Jinglei remarked that, in many developed countries, there’s a great deal of social pressure, and people are constantly racing around. In South Africa, by contrast, the pace of life seemed slower and the people didn’t seem to be operating under the kind of social pressure that prevails in Beijing.

A couple of Xu’s photographers said that their opinions of South Africa hadn’t changed at all: they’d thought the country would be gorgeous and fun, and it was. “What was the basis of your initial opinion,” your correspondent asked, “newspapers?” “Friends,” said one photographer. “Photographs,” said the other.

The positive impressions seemed to be mutual. When your correspondent asked one of the Department of Foreign Affairs handlers whether — and if so, how — this tour had changed her opinion of Chinese people, she said that previously she’d only had exposure to more formal government delegations, where everyone wore suits and seemed inaccessible. Xu’s team, by contrast, was composed of “people like me,” she said. “Despite all the differences, there’s a common place where I identify with them.”

When your correspondent pressed the team about any faults, drawbacks or downsides to South Africa, one person called out, “There aren’t any.” “At that first market, the sellers were rude,” offered Xu’s make-up artist, “but they’re like that in China, too.”

“We haven’t spent enough time in South Africa to discover the faults,” explained Xu’s manager. “Good point,” said one of Xu’s photographers, “can we stay here two more days?”

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