"Are you excited for the Super Bowl?" my friend Sandy asked, the day before I was to travel from New York to Cape Town, South Africa, where I would be staying for five months. "I'm not sure if they watch it there," I replied. Sandy laughed at this, telling me not to be silly and assuring me that "everyone in the world watches the Super Bowl."
As it turns out, ESPN is included in basic cable for the people of Cape Town, providing the opportunity to watch the big game live, without illustrious commercials, at 1 a.m. However, contrary to Sandy's belief, and as my host father would explain, "South Africans just don't
care about the Super Bowl." After learning I was right, I was proud of myself for being so culturally attuned.
In just a week of living in Cape Town, however, it has become apparent that my initial pride in understanding the foreign culture was premature. This became first evident while riding in the car, on the left side of the road, when the topic of speed arose. I was quickly embarrassed to have no familiarity with kilometers, or with any part of the metric system.
While one might find this lack of knowledge trivial, my ineptitude regarding the subject hindered my ability to engage in a conversation on more than one occasion. I noticed another cultural difference while reading the local newspaper, in which I was surprised to find rugby and cricket as the only games in the sports section. Basketball, hockey, baseball and football were nowhere to be found. I later discovered that rugby and cricket are really the only two popular sports in South Africa. As an avid sports fan back in the States, I was humbled by the need to have the rules of these sports explained to me.
The disparity in culture also came up in conversation with my South African friend Denver, when I referred to American household-name NBA player Lebron James. I was shocked when Den admitted he had no clue who "Jebron" James was. I wasn't necessarily surprised that he didn't know Lebron, the basketball player, for the NBA's popularity in South Africa is negligible, but I was truly surprised that he had never heard of Lebron James, the product endorser.
I had always assumed that American athletes or celebrities who endorse products in the U.S. also endorse products in other countries. But Denver explained that popular brands like Nike and Adidas are endorsed by local rugby and cricket players, as opposed to American icons. Here it becomes apparent that very few celebrities are relevant worldwide, the exceptions being those with the status of Michael Jordan. It amazes me to think that I could misunderstand a concept so seemingly obvious.
I am not ashamed of myself for not fully grasping South African culture before I came here, but it is worth pointing out that one must be aware of the many similarities and differences between cultures worldwide. While I've only been here for a week, I advise that maintaining an open mind and avoiding making assumptions are two essential ways to ensure a successful experience traveling abroad.