Being exposed to people from different nations may teach us something about our own, this dad finds.
‘What do Germans look like?’
The question from Tom, my 10-year-old son in the back seat, cut into my thoughts as I watched a woman selling Homeless Talk and flags from a United Nations-like bushel she held against her chest.
I followed his line of sight to the cluster of what appeared to be young foreigners standing under the traffic light at which we were waiting to turn right.
The group was young and black and dressed well, but not too flash; no sneakers and pants around their ankles - more preppy and conservative: smart clean jeans, brown leather shoes and short-sleeved shirts in the warm Cape Town winter.
I guessed they were well off kids from Zambia or Angola; Dads and Mums back at a hotel somewhere in town and the boys and girls out on a mission to get to the fabled V&A Waterfront, see what all the fuss was about. Something like that.
Jessie, 14, obviously also following Tom's line of sight, bursts out laughing.
‘They don't look anything like that, dude, that much I can tell you. For a start they are a little more blond.’
‘I know Germans aren't black,’ Tom shot back, irritated with his relentlessly dismissive brother. ‘I'm not saying those guys are Germans; I'm just asking what Germans look like... because I was wondering if all foreign people look different.’
That left a moment of thoughtful quiet in the car; a peace that was unsurprisingly broken by my cynical 14-year-old son.
‘Like I was going to say, your basic German is blond - and beefy and fuzzy and he wears leather shorts and braces and drinks beer and ...’
‘Jessie!’ I interrupt unusually sharply. ‘That's stereotypical ethnic profiling. Germans don't look any different from you or your brother.’
The light turned green but not for long enough for us to make our turn. But, in one of those chance events that look scripted in the written word but happen surprisingly often in real life, we stopped directly beside the group of young people.
Tom’s open window was directly opposite the group and their voices flooded the cab.
‘Nee man, ons moet reguit loop. Tot onder. En dan links draai by die bruggie...’ They all hunkered down around the one in the centre holding the map.
There was a pregnant moment in the car during which I worried any one of us - or all three - might burst out laughing.
After a moment I stuck my head out and asked: Where’re you guys going?
‘The stadium meneer, we just want to see the stadium,’ said the one holding the map.
‘You just go along directly behind us, where we’ve come from. You can’t miss it. About a kilometre down the road,’ I said indicating over my shoulder with my thumb. ‘You’ll see it long before you get there.’
The young man folded up the map and, smiling, thanked me for the help. Then he turned to Tom and Jessie and said: ‘Enjoy the World Cup, boys.’
He put his head back and shouted into the mid-morning Cape Town sky: ‘Go Bafana!’
The light turned green and I called after the group as they walked away towards the stadium: ‘Where are you from?’
‘Joburg!’ Then he shouted: ‘We're from South Africa!’ He let out a whistling cheer and skipped a few steps. He grabbed the arm of one of his companions he set off deliberately towards the stadium.
We drove away across Cape Town looking her finest; which is very fine indeed. All around us visitors and locals thronged through the pristine new roads and highways and across pedestrian walkways and footbridges.
‘Everyone looks different,’ Tom said after a long silence during which all three of us grinned inanely to ourselves. ‘Even South Africans look just as different as the ones from other countries.’
That made no sense but we knew what he meant and it explained, mysteriously, why we felt so good and proud of our country, our city and ourselves.
Do we have preconceptions about what people of various nations look like?
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