By Mikhaila Alana Cupido
This essay won the first prize in the ‘World Beyond Stereotypes’ essay competition organized by Uni Leipzig
Pocahontas has always been one of my favourite stories as a kid, and at the ripe old age of twenty-three I realized how she must have felt when her ship boarded in England. When I arrived at the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof weary, very tired and already homesick I could’ve sworn that a million eyes watched me as I struggled to get my very heavy bag labeled with the South African flag out of the train. Then trying to guess which one of the millions of German woman standing around could be the one that I was looking for. To this day I am glad that a Coloured female South African along with an Afrikaner male South African conveniently sticks out in a crowd and we were found in no time.
I wish that I could say after having been here for so long that my daily dose of humour concerning where I come from has ended, but alas no. And on the upside it almost always makes my day, so I won’t complain. Here in Leipzig people often take the time to ask me completely random questions … but then again … as a student I have learnt that if you never ask, you might just never know. So I guess being asked random questions are a must, to keep in check what it is that German citizens or even Europeans think and know about Coloured South Africans.
In 2006 I very enthusiastically left my comfort zone to tackle a new continent and a new life. I come from Cape Town, and where I grew up everyone is Coloured and almost everyone talks like me, has my skin colour, and more importantly hair like mine. And then I arrived in Leipzig and not everyone knew this, much to my dismay.
One of my favourite experiences occurred when as a group of foreign, sad and cold (those of us stemming from the Southern Hemisphere were cold) students ventured out to Nachtcafé for the International Students Party. It was great fun, apart from the fact that everyone other than my classmates insisted upon speaking Spanish to me … That was not so much fun … Because I don’t speak a single word of Spanish. Thereafter I walked to the Hauptbahnhof and a drunken young man passed me and shouted “hail Hitler” and it was at that precise moment, that I thought to myself welcome to Germany the place of Hitler (hoping secretly that Hitler would stand up from his grave to protest against me being here), the Second World War, The Berlin Wall and every other historical sight that I made a point of seeing … This is why I left South Africa, and I was secretly satisfied by this young mans outburst.
I have given this essay a lot of thought, what is meant by stereotypes, and how I experienced everything and what is it that I think of stereotypes. At the University of Colorado it is defined as “… generalizations, or assumptions, that people make about the characteristics of all members of a group, based on image (often wrong) about what people in that group are like …” I like this definition, but it poses one dilemma for me. People had no assumptions; everyone assumed that I was Latin American or Indian. And when I made the effort to correct them, I think the expressions are still ones of sheer disbelief.
Coming to Leipzig, has given me a greater interest in my family history. Because it is here that I have had to over and over and over and belief it or not over again, had to tell the story of where my ancestors actually come from. So that I can look the way I do, speak the way I do, celebrate the things I celebrate and come from Cape Town, South Africa.
So for the sake of interest let me reiterate my story albeit the shortened version. It’s a multi-cultural one and I think it’s the one that sets peoples mind at ease concerning me. My mother’s family comes from India, my great grandfather first came to South Africa as a shoe salesman. I always joke that it is from him that I got my shoe fetish. My father’s family traveled from Ireland and Italy respectively. I am not sure why they made the change from Europe to South Africa, but I like to think that I got my bad temper from there. When I end this story, it is usually followed by an “aaaah, now that makes sense” and European and Americans alike are always satisfied by this. But my fellow African friends, they usually burst out in refrain of “so your father is white”. Both these responses have always been weird for me, because why can’t it be that my mother is white? Or is it that male genes are just stronger and therefore my father had to be the white one. Well I will take this platform to say that my father is South African, and considers himself to be as Coloured as what I am.
I later on learned that Coloured in German is “farbige” and I felt a hint of relief because having to say from “mixed race” was beginning to annoy me. However knowing the term “farbig” did not help me at all, because even when I said I was “farbig” people looked at me as if to say “and your point is?” So all I can say about “farbig” is that it’s only academics that use the term. But is it that “farbige leute” have a traditional dress?! I once met a young man in class who with greedy eyes invited me to a party insisting that I should come in traditional clothes; he only invited me when he heard that I was from Africa … Somehow I always feel that when people here say Africa I can hear the drums roll and the lion roar in the background. But I accepted the invite went home and considered what to wear. I decided on jeans and t-shirt not to mention the millions of other layers that I had to sport. This bloke was devastated, he expected me in traditional wear (for me that outfit was what I would ‘traditionally’ wear). I later heard that he assumed my traditional outfit to be “what I was born in” as a friend put it. Because I didn’t want to hurt this young mans feelings I simply stated that it’s best when he look at the weather, it was just not the best time for me to sport “my traditional outfit”. And it was there that I realized I might just be able to make money by starting a trend in Cape Town that Coloured youth could call traditional, thereby not disappointing so many people when they too make a trip to Europe.
And because I am sure that everyone still wonders about me I will put to an end a few myths about me.
- My hair is real, I know that television almost only shows shampoo advertisements with blondes but yeah my hair is mine, and it no longer makes me uncomfortable when people asks to touch it. It’s just weird, why would Europeans think people in Africa don’t have hair?!
- I do blush, when I get nervous and by blushing I mean that my cheeks go rosy. This also happens when my cheeks are cold. I always assumed this happens to everyone. I was as stunned when my friend said “look Mikhaila your cheeks are all rosy wow”
- Yes I can tan it’s what happens when I get too much sun
- No I have never seen a lion well except in the Johannesburg Zoo
- I don’t speak with a click, whatever that is supposed to mean. I always assume that BIC pens go click and not languages.
- And have never danced around a fire, though when ever that opportunity arises I will sure take it
- I also sweat, I am not sure why I was asked this question but it always makes me laugh when I think of it
- There are cars in South Africa, and we know how to drive
- I don’t have wild animals as pets back home
- And I have never eaten Kangaroo mainly because I am not Australian
These are just a few of the questions that I have been asked, there are millions more. But one thing that I have learned is that stereotypes if we should call it that comes about mainly because we phrase things wrong. For instance I get asked really silly questions when I say that I am from Südafrika but when I say I am from Kapstadt all of a sudden the proportion of Germans that know what I am talking about increases and all I hear is that I come from a beautiful city.
So everyday that I am in Leipzig or Europe at large people learn more about my home country and people, they even make the effort to watch documentary programmes concerned with my city and my people, which I am always grateful for.
And I have also learnt a thing or two about Germans, and that is not all of them are as tall as the green giants (or so we called them) that one finds walking around the campus of Stellenbosch University. Most of them don’t like shorts and braces and the pictures one sees in German magazines about the ‘80s are still pretty much true for some youth living in Leipzig … Oh and something that surprised me was that Germans do have a sense of humour, it usually only comes out when the sun is up but there is one … And they are a people the same as mine that I can have a good laugh with.
So on the up, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without stereotypes, because what I assume I know is always rectified when I come into contact with someone from a group that I think I know the world of … And I too have learned, just as I think my friends from all over the world have learned to walk a mile in different culture’s shoes … And I am better for it … Even if (and forgive me Germans) I will always think that quark pretty much tastes like QUARK …
 Inaccurate and Overly Hostile Stereotypes. International Online Training Programme On Intractable Conflict. University of Colorado USA. [Online] http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/stereoty.htm Available: 16 May 2009.