This article first appeared in Marklives.
I’ve just returned from my first-ever visit to New York, full of that delightful feeling of discovery and adventure that only comes when one is in an unfamiliar place for the first time. And as I explored the city — from yellow cabs and cocktails bars in Manhattan, to grungy dive bars filled with dogs and tattooed artists in Brooklyn — there were a couple of things I thought about that we back here in South Africa could take on board as a learning and an inspiration.
The first is that the Americans have done a damn fine job of PRing their lives and their lifestyle.
Before going there, I thought that the people and scenes I saw in the movies were exaggerations or caricatures. But when I saw them unfold before my eyes — the chunky NYPD cop, with a drawling, nasal accent, digging into a Dunkin Donut next to a manhole spurting steam; the blinged-up guy rapping to loudly to himself as he strutted along the sidewalk; the struggling actors/models/waitresses, sipping cocktails on the rooftop of a small inner-city apartment, all waiting for their big break — I realised that this wasn’t a movie. This was real life.
The way that America has owned the entertainment that has infiltrated the whole world has meant that their lives have become so familiar to us that we understand and recognise everything about it instinctively.
Is that something we could emulate? We couldn’t ever own the global entertainment the way that the US has, but perhaps there is something, as a country, we could do to showcase our people and culture in a way that is less contrived and expected than we currently are.
Think of what people outside of South Africa see or hear about us — images of questionable politics; gritty dystopian landscapes (à la District 9); freakish caricatures of a questionable sub-culture (à la Chappies); or “rainbow-nation” MultiChoice-type collages of safari parks, sunsets over Table Mountain and smiling locals.
So far, so predictable.
But think of the incredible work done in documenting culture and real people that we see in things such as the local shnit International Short Film Festival — wouldn’t it be amazing if that could be portrayed in our tourism communications, instead of the usual pictures of penguins and djembe drums?
This links into another realisation. When I arrived in New York, I was overwhelmed by the amount of information on what to do and see. Although I was vaguely interested in seeing the sites (Central Park, Rockefeller Centre and so on), I really wanted to see the local haunts, the little side-street bars, the ‘hidden’ gems. And it was hard to find out where these are — without having a local to tell me what the secrets were.
We know that “local travel” and “experiential travel” are growing trends for internationals visiting SA. How do they get past the safari brochures and beaded knick-knacks to find out about our hidden secrets and local haunts? Is this a role that our local bloggers and media could (or should?) be championing — developing the kinds of guides and content that visitors can easily navigate and share?
Lastly, I was struck by the incredible self-confidence and patriotism shown by everyone in the States; not surprising, I suppose, for a culture that has grown up being told constantly they are the best in the world in everything.
This has spread to more than just hanging flags all over the place and a belief that they truly do live in Utopia. There is a sense of confidence in everyone and integral in everything they do, from initiating conversions with strangers on the street to their inherent belief in their convictions.
Coming back home, I was struck by how apologetic we are, how quick we are to shoot ourselves and our country down, and how eager we are when anyone outside of SA gives us praise or likes what we have to offer.
Wouldn’t it be great if our schools constantly told our children how clever they are, and taught them to be proud of and hold dear all that our country has created and how far it has come?
So, what else have I learnt about the US?
You can start up bizarre and hilarious conversations with pretty much anyone on the subway, be it an aged professor, loud frat boys, or homeboys from the hood.
That many people hear our accents and think we are British.
That hipsters definitely aren’t a dying breed.
That America is surprisingly old-fashioned/ behind in some areas. For example, they still *gasp* take credit cards away to swipe in some back room, and the only proof of authenticity is a scribbled signature. When I explained chip and pin codes, and things such as SnapScan, I was met with awed disbelief.
That our international airports beat JFK hands down.
And that despite it all — the glamour, the fun and excitement of the unknown — I couldn’t wait to get back home again.
Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.