Xu Jinglei on the meaning of “fei”

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Xu Jinglei at Clifton first beach, Cape Town

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 Cape Point, in Cape Town, the cold Atlantic Ocean meets the warm Indian Ocean. Your correspondent has been told of people dipping a toe in on the Atlantic side, deciding it’s too cold, and driving for ten minutes to find a beach lapped by the warm Indian Ocean waves.

Our team didn’t drive the extra ten minutes, and the side we on which we dipped our toes was decidedly freezing. Clifton first beach, where we spent today, is located in an attractive bay, rich with marine life, such as bamboo-like sea kelp and periwinkles. Table Mountain rises in the background, affording beach-goers frequent sightings of the tandem para-sailers leaping off it.

Because of the water temperature, sunbathing offered more of an attraction than swimming, and the group that gathered at dinner was well-tanned. It was an unusual experience for some on our team, to judge from the response of one member: she expressed astonishment at the dark shade of a passer-by’s tan, until Xu Jinglei explained, “That’s a black person.”

However unusual, getting tan would seem to be one experience that Xu, at least, associates with Africa. During dinner, the conversation turned to the question of what the “Fei” in “Feizhou” (Chinese for “Africa”) means. A team member expressed concern that fei (非) was a negative word, contrasting “Fei” — meaning “no,” or even “evil” — with the “mei” in “Meiguo” (“America”) — which means “beautiful.”

Various arguments were advanced to assuage this worry. A couple of people pointed out that “feichang” means “very,” and your correspondent speculated that the “Fei” might be a reference to the probability that the African continent was unknown to or isolated from the Chinese-speakers who coined the term.

Agreeing, Xu said that, when she hears “Feizhou,” she thinks of sunshine and black people — no negative connotations. Prior to this conversation, she said, she’d never considered that “Feizhou” might contain a negative implication. “But now that you mention it,” she laughed, “I’ll think about it.”

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