html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Weak, vile people.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Weak, vile people.

Years ago there was a series of long posts on the Thorn Tree by an ex-pat in Alma Ata. He was amazing because he was completely upfront about being a despicable person. He was entirely aware that he was living up to the worst of himself; he’d resigned himself to the trap of living well in a third world country. He hated Alma Ata, thought it was an ugly soviet concrete city. He hated Russians and Kazakhs alike for being racist peasant gangsters. He was bored shitless at his do-nothing job for some aid agency. He despised himself for whoring, couldn’t remember the last time he’d fucked a girl who liked him or could have refused his relative wealth and power.

And yet, he knew he would stay as long as he could. He couldn’t resist the advantage he got just for being American; it was all too easy. In Alma Ata, he was important enough to include in the nightly drinking with the big boys. He was fucking more and more beautiful women than he thought he could even approach at home. He could live cheap and have a maid and a driver and eat well (except that he hated Kazakh food). He had no demands on him, no civic life in a land where he was an irrelevant stranger, no family to demand his attention, not even the daily chores of living.

For all that he truly was repugnant, (he always closed his posts by saying it was time to make his secretary lean over him as she poured him more tea. Or time to measure the length of her skirt again. Or…) in the end I felt for him. He was lost and he knew it. There was no place he would be happy again. Not Central Asia, which he hated for its ugliness and backwardness. Not any other developing nation, which he wouldn’t even know as well as Central Asia. Not his homeland, where it would be clear he was an irresponsible fuckup and he would have to work and live up to the expectations of having peers in his life. I couldn’t hate him, because he was aware enough to pay the costs of being who he was.

The ex-pats I hate with a deep and abiding hate, those floating, parasitic, venal fuckers, are people like him who smugly believe they’ve landed themselves a pretty sweet deal.

37 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Jenkins said...

Yeah, I guess I hate those people too. The ex-pats I know live in Germany and France and England. They seem pretty much like anybody else to me, pretty hard to characterize. The ones who live in France and Germany have better language skills than most Americans.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, I can't say I see why you find that so despicable? There are a lot of people doing the bare minimum they can in life. A lot of people who are just drifting along.

What is an acceptable level of contribution? Like, I don't volunteer anywhere, or donate any money. Well, except to the SPCA, I like random cats, but I don't really care about random people so much.

But, I do go to work. I guess I help out the people I know, teaching them the things I know and whatnot, and doing the general friendly helping that is common amongst friends.

But, then, that's pretty much the norm here, at least in the people I know. So, how is that really any better than these ex-pat people?

Justin

3:57 PM  
Anonymous justus said...

Yeah, I hated Kurtz, too. Everyone does.

Most expats don't live in developing nations, however. The overwhelmingly vast majority of expats are businesspeople working in Developed Nations. I know you dislike statistics but there are 4.1 million expats and half live in Mexico, Canada, or the UK. Three-quarters of expats live in one of ten countries: Mexico, Canada, the UK, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, Australia, France, and Spain.

The expats you hate are dicks precisely because they live in countries where expats are rare.

(Disclaimer: I hold an Australian visa, so clearly I think there is nothing wrong with being an expat.)

4:01 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Justus:

I put a bunch of disclaimers on early versions of this entry and took them out because they were slow to read. It's the people who move to gain an advantage in another country (mostly by being rich, white and English speaking) that they couldn't get by working hard at home that I can't respect. Ex-pats aren't rare in the Philippines; I met and hated those people personally. Also, because community is such a strong value for me, I do wonder at people who are willing to be in limbo and not fit in well anywhere.

Also, what is with Trader Joe having a juice named Heart of Darkness? Seriously! Nice, tasty, sweet descent into savagery? I refused to buy it for years, and TJ never did answer my paper letter asking for an explanation.

Justin:
Consciously contributing or no, you are still part of the social capital of your place and get tied into your web of people. I bet you make things happen and meet the demands of your friends and neighbors and add to the richness of your community. You can't do that if you float apart from your home and host country.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

Justin, millions of people like you just going to work is what is responsible for much of the material happiness the developed world enjoys. If you do choose to make charitable donations, I think those contributions will likely be far less than those you are probably already making. (not that you shouldn't donate too if it makes you happy.)

Megan's description makes me feel sorry for the guy rather than hate him. Even the smug guys who she refers to are probably equally helpless even though they are not yet admitting it.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow -- I had no idea people like that existed. Holy cow. -K.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah Bob I know that me working contributes. But, these ex-pats seem to have jobs too. So it seems like there's more to it than just having a job in her mind. She seems to be really into the community thing. I don't really understand that. I don't care about my community really at all. But, then I am friendly with other people involved in my sports, like climbing, so maybe that's similar.

Sorry, probably not totally coherent, cooking all night, which means drinking all night.

Justin

10:02 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Megan, that reminded me of what Hugh Brody wrote about settlers cp. people of the land (excerpts on my blog, 'nomadic thoughts')

You guys must hate capitalism as well because: 1) it allows and encourages people to move about more
2)it destroys the whole notion of "place"

community = social capital...the language gives it away!

10:58 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

See, but they don't have real jobs. They have pretend jobs so they can be trotted out to speak English. They do no productive work, patronize the locals, drink all the time and fuck around. Anyone genuinely working in another country is already exempt from my description of ex-pats.

11:12 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Hang on a sec, are you saying that those who do "productive" work don't drink, screw around or patronize the locals?

Holey moley! The Protestant ethic really *has* struck deep roots:)

2:07 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

1. What are you doing reading the Thorn Tree if you hate travelers?

2. "She seems to be really into the community thing. I don't really understand that. I don't care about my community really at all."

I am starting to love Justin.

4:49 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

Billo--Capitalism destroyes the notion of "place?" Strange, the more money I have, the more places I can choose to live. And most of the neighborhoods in any city with a lot of character and history are expensive places to live-- Greenwich Village in NY? Georgetown in DC? the Back Bay in Boston?

The more capitalism you have, the more people can live where they really want to and where they really fit in, rather than merely where they were born.

6:56 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

Also, are the ex-pats you describe really parasites? I admit, in the terms you put them in, they are not very admirable. But by purchasing local art and hiring drivers, maids, and companionship, they are providing employment where none may have existed before. Much like CEOs or Wall Street traders, the very things that make them despicable may improve the economies of the countries they've adopted. Perhaps the $5 tip to the whore of the evening allows that woman to pay her daughter's school fees that month.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes yes! But you forgot about the desire to be above the law. So that if a 16 year old ODs on heroin in your house, it is no big deal, really.

Emotionally, I equate American ex-pats to people who just spit in their mother's face. Caveat, caveat, caveat, whatever...
-dithers

7:26 AM  
Blogger billo said...

Theolonius, could I suggest a reading of Raymond Willimas ?

Capitalism does indeed work on destrying "place" and continuity . Marx saw that over a hundred years ago: all that is solid melts into air. A "home" becomes a house ..i.e capital or collateral, just as land becomes a commodity.

Capitalism cannot succeed without first changing people's perceptions to the land. Have a look at Hobsbawm's chapter on land in the age of revolution or E.P.Thompson in customs in Common.

I don't want to go down the whole Romantic line of the relation between place and temperament, suffice it to say that it is very much part of the capitalist mentality that nothing is given, that I can choose my own "place".
the link between habitat and habitus is strained.

Kavannagh is good on this (some quotes somewher on my blog if you're interested). Also, if you get the chance do look at Hugh Brody's book, the other side of Eden, where the settler mentality is actually portrayed as having no attachment to the land ("place")

7:46 AM  
Blogger Ananda said...

Good lord, what a lot of hot air. "All that is solid becomes air"? Is that supposed to be an argument?

It is thanks to capitalism, or more precisely the notion of private property -- a notion to which Marx and Hobsbawm are 100% opposed -- that anyone has an incentive to think about the future, to take care of what one has, and to look past oneself.

And what is the alternative? Hobsbawm preferred dictatorship and gulags. Gulags are real good at instilling a "sense of place", I suppose.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

eDubin!:
I told you Justin is a favorite. And dithers has never once said anything I disagreed with. And Ananda is funny as hell.

I read the Thorn Tree in the old days, before I took the way-too-long trip that killed my taste for extended travel.

Other friends:
Why are you arguing capitalism on my blog? You can't convince anyone in this format. You should be chiming in with stories about annoying ex-pats, or telling me how being wrong about this means I'll never get laid, or cracking us up.

Honestly, I don't believe people change their core values or the beliefs that manifest those values, and certainly not through argument. So why we gotta read all that?

Do you want me to do serious posts, so we can have serious conversations? Speak up if you do, and I'll see what I can muster. Speak up if you don't, and I'll tell you more about my breasts.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both those options are kind of boring. Breasts are only fun to look at, and touch, but not so much fun to talk about.

You should make a point of doing something exciting every weekend, so you can come back and entertain all of us with exciting stories.

Justin

9:58 AM  
Anonymous sarah said...

More breast posts!

10:01 AM  
Blogger Ananda said...

You are right. Absolve me.

But admit it: this thread makes you less nervous than the Marginal Revolution thread on martial arts. I always cringe when I see more than 2 comments on a martial arts thread. I think the equivalent of Godwin's Law for martial arts threads is that they all invariably devolve into "Everyone should do Brazilian jujitsu ftw!!!!"

10:07 AM  
Blogger billo said...

ananda: "that anyone has an incentive to think about the future"

What a completely vaccuous statement! As if that is *supposed* to be an argument!
What do you expexct in such a short space?

so, all of those civilisations that were pre-capitalist were not thinking about the future? What do you think civilisation is if it isn't the ability to think about the future. You might want to look at George Steiner's 'Real Presences' where he talks about the 'pull of the transcendent'. The great Jewish philosopher, E. Levinas, would say that it is the bourgeoisie's fear of the future that drives him (see his 'Escape').

"look past oneslef"! LOL. Are you serious. What do you think all the discussion about the demise of social capital and 'atomisation' is about then? Private property and capitalismm are based on the idea that following one's own self-interest leads to the best public interest but the motivation is not to look beyond one self. (Try sen's ethics and economics).

In fact , Hannah arendt would say that the focus on the "present" leads to akind of weightless irrelevance and there are plenty of arguments (from Daniel Bell to Z. Bauman) that suggest that late capitalism signifies a tension between a concern for the future and present consumption.

I do not say that you agree with what I say-that is of no interest to me. But to say that there isn't an argument is quite another thing...

10:13 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

That's awesome.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Interesting post....some expats are definitely vile. I used to work for a World Bank/USAID contractor that was staffed by engineers who would get drunk at lunch while they were in the States--one guy had spent 10 years in Pakistan, covered his walls with maps of British India, would recite "Gunga Din" when drunk, and always asked me if I'd slept with any local girls when I came back from a mission--he was 50 and married to a woman from the Pakistani ruling class. I left that job.

I just can't get worked up about it though. There's people like that everywhere. Like a guy I know from university (I went to a well known, north-east university)who moved to Jacksonville Florida, where he happily works very little but is a star reporter for the local paper, and spends his time screwing former cheerleaders and sorority girls...his background and raw smarts gives him the cache that English and whiteness does for expats.

It seems to me that your real issues isn't with expats per se, but with people who don't apply themselves, and you have an added frustration with expats because by virtue of their upbringing they can live the "good life" pretty easily?

By the way, I love your blog. I live in DC and was sorry I had to be away the weekend you were in town. Your writing about relationships/social dynamics gives me hope that there are some real people out there.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Ananda said...

The most interesting thing about your last post, billo, is that the number of typos is exactly equal to the number of pretentious name-drops. Did you plan that, or was it serendipity?

7:33 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Ananda: not ALWAYS right after all.

Play nice on my blog, or I'll add "boy-posturing" to the list of topics more boring than which martial art would win in a fight.

8:04 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Anand, why so much hostility?
You make a good point about incentives and the importance of markets. One could, quite plausibly , talk about the advantages of formal insurance and credit makets (De soto, Platteau).
Part of my Ph.D. (Econ) depends on such a discussion! But the idea of "place", though possibly parochial and narrow, is threatened in my opinion.

I only use references to other writers because I do not want to bore readers with detailed arguments. As for typos: the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life!

salaams,

b.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Ananda said...

Alas, Megan, I have my moments of weakness. Color me chastised.

But you must admit that temptation rarely looms larger than it did on this thread.

5:57 AM  
Anonymous Sean said...

This brings to mind a Chilean phrase:
better to be at the head of the rat, than at the tail of the lion.

Or, as we would say in the U.S.: better to be the big fish in a small pond, than the small fish in a big pond.

One thing is, expats (especially those to the 3rd world) will naturally seem strange to many people, as by definition they are open to a wider variety of experiences (many unknown ex-ante) than the average individual. This does not mean, however, that they are any happier or better people. It could mean, like you said, that they wish to get a quick, easy boost in the local status game by becoming the "big fish".

Also, I disagree strongly with Megan that "people (don't) change their core values or the beliefs that manifest those values, and certainly not through argument." In fact, I know many people who have changed in their core values/beliefs (albeit usually over time and in a series of small steps - a "sudden, drastic conversion" is very uncommon though it can happen). Although the argument between Anand and Billo may not convince either of the 2 to change his respective opinion, MANY bystanders/observers may be affected by certain convincing or unattractive points made by either one. These third parties are truly the ones who benefit from, and ultimately shift values because of, informed discourse. Of course, it is perfectly valid to say that YOUR blog should not be the forum for said discourse on certain subjects (capitalism) ;).

BTW, Megan, as a single of the opposite sex (admittedly, in a different age cohort) I, like Peter, highly appreciate your insightful commentary on social dynamics, especially from the female POV.

Have a good weekend :).

9:29 AM  
Blogger Ananda said...

That's certainly easier said than done, since those worldviews tend to discourage their being weakly held.

So, don't be shy. Give us a Randroid horror story. We've all got 'em.

8:05 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

Justin, there is a difference between doing the bare minimum (and in my experience, most Americans at least feel guilty about it) and being a straight up leech. I might feel differently if I could afford to travel anyplace where Americans have to make a meaningful contribution in order to make enough money to survive, but Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are where I've had most of my expat and traveller experiences. Where I learned to hate.

The expats you actually meet (oooh. political segue ... the guys sleeping on the street are what we think of when we say homeless people, but actually some tiny proportion of homeless people are sleeping on curbs, and there is a big difference in what they need, the visible homeless and the invisible homeless. So perhaps this is all grossly unfair because no one ever meets high quality expats in bars, they are too busy leading productive lives. It is just the vile, worthless ones who actually sit around telling their story? Very interesting. I might be onto something here.)

With that aside, I can't even finish my sentence. The only expat I really new well, she was actually quite cool. She started a bakery with the eventual plan of selling it to the Khmer staff. I don't know how that turned out, but the pint is, she saw an in and she took it: the town she was living in was bursting with backpackers and a whole lot expats were making a killing catering to their needs. Most Khmers didn't really "get" backpackers and so couldn't quite cater to them. Meanwhile, Cambodia is notoriosly discriminatory to people with disabilities. At the time, you couldn't get a desk job if you were an amputee. Like not having a leg would keep you from typing or something. So the bakery was primarily staffed by people with disabilities, but the real selling point was actual leavened bread and coffee in an airy, "asian feeling" cafe. This is what backpackers want, they want leavened bread, but they want airy. They don't want wierd chain cafes that are air conditioned and glossy and don't feel "authentic," but those were popping up everywhere.

She didn't revolutionize Cambodia or anything, but that isn't the point. The point is that, she was not vile or loathsome. But she also doesn't do a lot of writing about her life as an expat.

I don't usually think of her when I think of expats. I think of the absurd stoners playing Kurtz.

So there. I take it all back. Only some expats suck. Some of them are quite cool, they think about the impact of their lives on the community, the live responsibly. The second you find them writing about their experiences on some lonely planet message board, they've outed themselves as leeches.

PS, I am totally lying. I travelled all over France and hung out with a lot of Lebanese kids who were living in France, but I think that if your parents got you your French passport, you aren't a real expat. You're just a dual citizen.

PPS, this isn't funny or likely to get you laid. I apologize. Can we talk about water some more?

7:03 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Are you kidding? It was awesome. Yeah, water. I'll be right over.

10:44 AM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

no joke.

also, I hate when people screw up homonyms and I just did it. Knew, not new.

But water. I don't so much need an engineer as I need (want?) to know what engineers think about this stuff. Or do they not at all? That'd be fair. There's a whole lot of computer related stuff that I don't think about because it isn't what I do.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous jenn said...

Kurtz can't possibly be his real name. He sounds too much like a certain character in a particular novel.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Mr. Thorntree of Alma Ata is pathetic because he's too weak to tear himself away from a life he hates. As far as he's concerned the easy job, the social status, and the empty sex are just small consolation prizes. He accepts them, and his bleak existence because he doesn't have the courage or the drive to work hard and build a satisfying life for himself in his adopted homeland, but he's not prepared to go back home and be a nobody.

I would have thought the libertarians and Objectivists on this thread would immediately seize on this guy for being a pathetic loser.

1:11 PM  
Blogger GreenSmile said...

this man is morally the twin of overpaid engineers on defense contracts who make a huge premium because [a] they have a clearance and you don't and [b] they have skill Rummie will pay any price to misuse.
These same people would make as much as a 1/4th less at a commercial programming or engineering job and be under constant threat of having their job outsourced out from underthem but at least they'd be doing work that did not completely piss tax dollars away, they'd be making something somebody needed and could use without killing or threating third world inhabitants.

Those jobs in defense can be meaningful, but few of them make us safer or even stronger. corporate wellfare has forms that are not a total loss to the economy.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

When I lived and worked in Brazil for an oil exploration company, my coworkers were the usual bunch of hardworking, hard-drinking, whore-mongering riff-raff that work the hard jobs in oil. We would work 2 months on and get one paid month off. I was somewhat disgusted that a lot of these guys spent their month off basically face-down in the gutter, or in the bedroom of some bar girl.

But a lot of these guys ended up marrying their bar girls, buying proerty in Brazil, and basically becoming Brazilians.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's possible for the international scumbag type of expat to impriove--not reform exactly, but evolve.

(Of course it depends on the country--no one did this in Nigeria that I know of.)

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a sanctamonious cow! I found this entry on google...why it was there im not sure...but expats who like other countries and wait for it... like sex...how evil!!... I think you need to get off the pc and get out more...if your friend hates the country and the people yes..he should leave ...but loads do like other countries and YES may even like to have consenting sex there...so perhaps you should stay in some right wing theocracy like Iran or the deep south and limit the judgements!

6:18 AM  

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