Archives For Capetown

Cultural Insensitivity?

April 20, 2012 — 2 Comments

Cape-Town-mug, South-Africa, arts-and-craftsI’m a good, fairly liberal resident of a Northeast blue state. And I’ve lived in San Francisco. I consider myself well-versed at being politically correct. But enjoying my morning coffee, I’ve begun to worry… “Was buying this mug culturally insensitive and, well, a little tacky?”

I’ve been on a quest for a new coffee mug for some time — one that’s oversized and fits comfortably. Too often a large mug has a handle that emphasizes form over function. I don’t need cutting-edge ergonomics, but my fingers should fit the handle and the mug should sit comfortably in my hand. So I was thrilled to find this mug at a kiosk when visiting Victoria Wharf in Capetown with Mtuseni.

Like any teenager, Mtuseni’s enthralled with malls. They do nothing for me — especially after flying 17 hours to see Africa. But the trip was to spend time with him, and if he was happy, I’d accommodate him. But if I’m going to be in a mall, I need to make a purchase to justify strolling through the banality. And of course I wanted to have something to remember my trip: A mug for my morning coffee would be just the thing.

The kiosk sold handcrafted ceramics made by local South Africans, and the colors and quality immediately caught my eye. The mugs had a variety of designs, and I spent some time looking for just the right one. I loved the ones with the little houses and kids playing. Mtuseni watched and weighed in as I debated the color of every house and kid’s outfit. This would be my daily Capetown memory, and I wanted it to be perfect. (And I’m a Libra; I do the same thing buying an apple.)

I love this mug. But one morning a couple weeks ago it hit me, “What did Mtuseni think as I oohed and ahhed over these cute mugs depicting ‘life’ in South Africa?” I was partly drawn to the scene because it reminded me of his settlement — although the illustrated shacks are better than his: at least they have windows. Did Mtuseni see me as somehow being elitist? Or as an American dumbing his life down to a quaint cartoon?

I also bought an essential oil burner that looks like a traditional rural hut. I never saw South-Africa-hut, Kwazulu-Natal, Durban-hutany real huts, but Mtuseni had sent me pictures of them when he traveled to his mother’s home province of Kwazulu Natal for his brother’s funeral. He was taken with them, and we bought one for his mom. He told me she loves it.

I still love my mug. It fits nicely in my hand and reminds me of that afternoon in Capetown, which is exactly what I wanted. But now I feel a slight twinge of guilt when I use it. Maybe I was insensitive buying the mug with Mtuseni; maybe it’s a non-issue. Being politically correct can make life difficult sometimes.

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With a Capital P

April 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

A while back Mtuseni sent me a quick chat message with an attached photo that said, “Buddy, yesterday I got my first polo shirt!” I thought to myself “What do you mean? I sent you some polo shirts last spring. What’s the big deal?”

Then I opened the picture. He wasn’t talking about generic pull-over, golf-type shirts with a button V-neck. He got his first Polo shirt… with the little man on the horse embroidered on the chest. We’re talking Polo with a capital P!

teen-in-Polo-shirt, South-AfricaSouth African postal restrictions limit how much I can send to Mtuseni. And when I buy clothes for him, I’m trying to balance style and volume. I want him to be able to compete with his school peers on the fashion scale, but he also just needs a lot of stuff. I’ve found some pretty cool threads, and with the Southern Hemisphere on opposite seasons from the US, I clean up at clearance sales here. If I saw a cheap Ralph Lauren at Marshall’s, I’d get it for him. But they’re not that cheap, and I can buy him three cool tops or a jacket for the same price.

For any teen, clothing and brands are important. For my mother it was poodle skirts. For me it was Levi’s — but all I ever got were Wranglers or Toughskins. (I’m still scarred!) But for a kid from very poor circumstances going to college in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg, those labels have extra value. That first Polo shirt he got was a hand-me-down, but he loved it.

When I went to visit him in January, I brought along my classic Ralph Lauren cream canvas jacket with the embroidered horseman. I don’t wear it often, but figured it might be good for cool summer nights. And I knew it wouldn’t be coming back with me.

I only wore it one windy night in Capetown, and in the carnival-cafe atmosphere of Long Street, Mtuseni didn’t take much notice. So packing up before my flight back home, I told him I rarely wore the jacket and he could have it if he liked. He gave it that noncommittal teen once-over, then noticed the Polo man. His eyes lit up. “Oh! I didn’t see that before! That’s nice!” And it was his.

So the jacket brings Mtuseni’s Polo count up to two. It’s fall there now. He tells me he’s worn it, and it looks good and so it “must be filled with integrity.” Can’t ask for more from a canvas jacket!

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April 8, 2012 — 2 Comments

angelMany years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I bought a couple of pocket angels at Green World Mercantile, one of my favorite and now long-gone stores. Since then I’ve always carried one in my pocket for a little extra strength, protection, and confidence in the face of whatever the world has in store that day.

When I had a first opportunity to send something to Mtuseni (South Africa’s mail service is a nightmare), I included one of the angels so he could always have a part of me with him. We showed each other our angels on a webcam chat, and it was very cool to see it on the other side of the world. He loved it, and carried it everywhere. Then one day he admitted with great guilt and despair that he had lost it at a youth camp. I was sad, but it’s smaller than a quarter and easy to lose. Mine has gone missing now and then, but it always shows up. I told him not to worry and I’d get him a replacement, and he asked to have it put on a chain.

Finding another wasn’t as easy as I thought. It took weeks of local and online shopping until I finally found the exact same design. Then a small, local jeweler drilled a hole in the tiny space above the angel’s head and added a metal link. I found a chain, wrapped it all in tissue, and slipped it into the pocket of a pair of pants I was sending to him. He was so happy!

Camps-Bay-overlook, South-Africa

Camps Bay, Capetown

When we met for the first time in January, I immediately saw the angel around his neck. I took mine out of my pocket, and it was a bit of a “moment” to introduce our angels. He wears it all the time, and has swapped the silver chain for a leather one.

The angel is an emblem of our shared bond and a point of strength. Whenever he’s feeling nervous or insecure about something, I tell him to hold on to the angel and know I’m right there with him. And before I boarded the plane for the endless flight to South Africa, he told me to have a safe flight and that my angel would protect me.

I wonder if that angel knew what incredible experiences would unfold when she caught my eye long ago in that little shop on Polk Street?

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