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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2 responses to Cultural Insensitivity?


    Do you happen to know the kiosk company name? I also bought a mug from there a few years back and it just broke while doing dishes. I’m heartbroken and would love the opportunity to purchase a new one



      Sorry, I can’t remember. It was a few years ago. But it was in a center atrium in the Victoria Wharf mall. Maybe the main office will tell you if you write them. Actually, the kiosk sold little round ceramic thatch roof huts that are essential oil burners. Very distinctive. Maybe that will help them ID the kiosk. Good luck!


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