May 13, 2010

Stuck in A Developing Morass

One of the most important reasons why it is so easy to succeed in 1st World countries is because of the infrastructure both technical and human. Most 1st Worlders are so used to it, the do not even notice it. They take it for granted that phones work, that faxes work, that courier shipments will arrive on time, that the mail will not disappear; that you can quickly and easily obtain products and services that you need, albeit they may be costly at times.

When you work in the 1st World, you can see that you work and efforts bear fruit quite easily. When you make an appointment, people come and usually do so on time, when they tell you they will do something related to business (in which they have vested interest, of course) they usually do it.

When you get to other countries of the so-called Developing World (the modern Euphemism for Underdeveloped World) your first question is always: “Why are they still developing? They have been around for so long. What’s the problem?” Soon, you will see what the problem is. If you start doing business there, you will come up against many obstacles that did not exist where you came from. People do not come to appointments or if they do, they come late and unprepared. When you call and ask the secretary why her boss did not show up, she tells you that he has left for a luxury resort (probably with his new mistress). You want to send a fax, but no one even knows what a fax is. If you do see a place that has a sign that says“ Fax”, and park your car near it (if you are lucky to find a parking spot), you will be met with a dour clerk that will tell you that there is no fax machine at the store. “So, why is there a sign?” Sorry, there may not be any laws there that govern false advertising. No one simply cares. One year later, you pass by the same store and the “Fax” sign is still hanging and again, there is no fax there.

In addition to that, if you want to have lunch and are lucky to be given a menu, and, then, you make your choice and ask the waiter for this and that item, he will just tell you that the item is not available. “Then why is it on the menu?” “Well, it was in stock but it is now out of stock”. “Well, you knew that the stock was getting smaller, so why didn’t you order it well in advance? “ They have nothing to say to you. They simply do not care. They do not know how to think ahead.

You get into a taxi and the taxi driver does not even know where many places in the city are located. He is there because his uncle got him a job and he is in training as he works.

Then, you are stuck in the traffic for hours and hours trying to get from place A to place B. All this takes toll on your nerves and general well-being and you are starting to see that the country you are in is still “developing” and is not “developed” because, basically, of the more lax culture, less discipline inherent in the people’s behavior, less foresight and a general happy-go-lucky attitude that permeates the whole functioning of the country. Everything is full of unnecessary delays, laziness, and gross incompetence.

You may be an aggressive go-getter and an organized, responsible person, but if you are in country that is limping along in a haphazard and devil-may-care rhythm of its own, you will soon be stuck in a morass similarly to how Napoleon and Hitler got stuck in Russia and that was the end of them.

Modern politically correct interculturalists claim that there are no inferior cultures and that we are simply different. I say: let them spend a few years as businessmen or investors in one of those dysfunctional societies, step into human excrement on the side of the road, choke on black exhaust fumes for a few hours a day in countries that do not believe in smog checks, get stuck in a pot hole in the middle of a busy street and get cheated in business a few times by unscrupulous and corrupt partners whom you cannot even sue (local courts are so corrupt, they will most probably always decide in favor of locals vs. foreigners) and see what they will say then. I am sure that they will reluctantly admit that, at least, from the business standpoint, there are countries whose cultures are very, very much inferior.


Dangers of The Middle East and Stereotyping

There are many ignorant people out there both in your country and abroad. After 9/11, a Sikh was killed at his gas station somewhere in the South Eastern US. He had a beard and was wearing a turban. Close enough to Bin Ladin. Never mind the Sikhs are not Muslims.
The man is now dead as a door nail. End of the story.

When the US attacked Iraq, certain extremists in Saudi Arabia started targeting Americans. So, a few years ago, an Irishman and a German were killed in Riyadh. They were not Americans, but they were close enough to being American to get killed.

When I was in a certain SE Asian country, I was dating a lady whose neighbors were avid TV watchers. And there was a program on TV in which a foreigner (a white one; what other foreigners are there, anyway?) had been arrested for practicing “white slavery”. Actually, it should have been “brown” or “yellow” slavery since no victims were white. In other words, he owned a bar there with bar girls dancing on stage. Some bar girl complained and he was arrested and then either deported or released after paying some bribes.

I was immediately a suspect since I looked like him. To them, that is. We all look alike, anyway. The lady’s neighbors young son came in rushing and screaming that he had seen me on TV being arrested. The lady was cursed, threatened and told to stay away from both me and the daughter of the neighbors (who was her friend) or she “would pay for it”. A relative was there with a gun, too, and he said he would not hesitate to use it. On me, that is.

You may be traveling in a distant land or living there and then there could be news on TV and someone bad who belongs to your “ larger group”- white people, Muslims, black people, etc. would be shown. You can then be threatened, attacked or even killed. And verbal abuse will become commonplace.

Be careful and be aware of how the locals see you and what category the common person there will put you in. Are you now a Gringo? In Guatemala, there were rumors of Americans kidnapping kids for body parts and Americans and anyone who looked “Gringo” was under threat of retaliation. That would mean a Canadian, too.

The farther away you travel culturally and geographically, the broader the classification you are assigned to, and if some representatives of that qualification do or say something bad, you will be in danger of ostracism, abuse and even violent physical action.

Are you now a “farang” in SE Asia? You can be abused verbally when there is news of some person who is a farang like you, and who has been found to have the HIV when he applied for work somewhere. You will now be shunned because of such news on TV.

Also, in countries where people are simple and kind and are of the charming peasant variety that so fascinates Westerners for its warmth and hospitality, there is also an ever present danger of such people displaying horrendous ignorance, stereotyping and generalizations that can lead to your injury and death by virtue of mistaken identity or inclusion in some hostile tribe that you had never had anything to do with. Populaces around the world can turn from friendly to unpredictable. US humans have changed little since tribal African times. Please watch yourself!


May 6, 2010

The Curse of Illusory Respect

In quite a few poorer countries around the world, a white-skinned foreigner is an object of automatic admiration. He is presumed to be extremely cultured, sophisticated and fantastically wealthy. Aren’t all white people born with $1,000,000,000 in their trust accounts? Aren’t all white people movie moguls living in sunny Hollywood? Isn’t it true that only poor people of color are doing work in the great countries of white people?

Some tourists and expats enjoy the attention that such ignorant natives bestow upon them. They are now honored and exalted without having to work hard for decades- they are now high status people without even trying- only by virtue of their skin color; and through the illusory perceptions that the natives have of the Western world, which, accidentally, to them, includes Macedonia, Russia and Bulgaria- heck, aren’t they all part of America? And aren’t people there as rich as heavenly gods?

Yup, that’s what they think. However, such respect that is based on incredible ignorance and lack of understanding about the world is fraught with embarrassing moments, mostly for you, that is. You will be overcharged for many things and services that the locals pay very small prices for.” Aren’t you a millionaire? Why are you being so mean? Come’ on, pay up!” The fact that you can be budgeting your expenses in a foreign land where you often do not even have the right to work will never be understood by many of the local people.

You will be approached with outrageous offers and expectations. “Hey, would you like to buy my Internet CafĂ©? It’s only $50,000”. “I don’t have that kind of money! “ Come’ on, I don’t believe you!” “Why don’t you buy a condo? It’s only $100,000.” “Where on earth will I get $100,000? “You mean you don’t have it? What kind of American are you? All Americans are multi-millionaires.” “I am not an American, I am a New Zealander”. “You mean New Zealand is not part of America? And you mean you are not rich? How preposterous! You must be joking!”

“You are courting my daughter now. Hey, we would like for you to take our whole family of ten, and the daughter, as well, to a luxury resort. Buy the airplane tickets for all of us, too. You are the one courting, right? And you are an American. So, what’s the problem? The whole thing will only cost you some $10,000. Why is that a lot of money for you? You Americans are loaded with trillions of dollars”.

You will soon realize that you are in a very awkward situation: you now have the rich man’s problem- you don’t know who your friends are and why people want to be your friend. You are constantly approached by smiling people and given looks of admiration that you really do not deserve. However, the nasty truth is, you are ‘not’ rich; only perceived to be rich. You cannot hobnob with the rich because you are not one of them and you cannot hobnob with the poorer and middle class people because they think you are rich and are constantly trying to rip you off.

And guess what? Once any of those poorer-to-middle class people see that you, in fact, do not have the trillion dollars in the bank, they lose all respect for you and start giving you scornful looks. “Hey, what happened to you?” How did you end up in such miserable poverty? I thought all Americans were rich and I had great plans for our friendship. And now you can’t even invest a lousy $150,000 in my business? “What on earth is wrong with you? You are not a real American but some kind of weirdo impostor and a bum!”

Such illusory respect will sooner or later simply vanish and you will be left without any friends, rich or poor.

So, what is the solution? I don’t know. I have not come up with any except keeping a bit of a distance and remaining as mysterious as possible to the local people without getting involved in any kind of meaningful friendship unless the people are extremely well traveled and a bit educated, in other words, unless they are , too, somewhat like me. Otherwise, if you get too involved with the ignorant locals and get wrapped up in all this false respect, you are bound to get hurt sooner or later when their perception of you gets burst like the delusional bubble that it was.


How international experience can work against you

One of the examples of how an international person cannot be understood by a non-traveler was when I started working in the South Central LA as an elementary school teacher.

I had done my practicum in Puerto Rico, and I was used to being respected as a teacher. In the Spanish-based culture of that Caribbean Island, respect for teachers is something that is ingrained from a very early age. Those who choose to teach are seen as someone who has made the right choice and are held in high esteem by many.

On the US mainland, there is far less respect towards educators both from the public and the students. There is even a proverb that: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This view of teachers along with low salaries does not seem to attract the best category of people to that profession.

However, my biggest shock was when I went from a very humble, well-behaved classroom of young Puerto Ricans who viewed their instructor with awe to the mainland American classroom where kids were nasty and arrogant, and very rude to boot. Mainland kids would not obey me, and I was repeatedly approached by the school staff and advised to: “get tougher on the kids”. After about two weeks, my classroom, which in the times of my Puerto Rico practicum was a place of silent contemplation of students by me and unquestioned obedience, became a bedlam. I definitely felt that cultural differences played a huge role in the behavior of children in class. Mainland Americans were VERY different from Puerto Ricans.

Eventually, these mainland kids became so rowdy in my class that I could no longer control it. I was then told that I was “too nice” and called on the carpet. When I faced the principal, I shared my concern with him and said that I had successful completed my practical training in Puerto Rico and that the kids there never ever behaved in such a rambunctious manner.

His response was “Children are children are children”. He had obviously never traveled and lived in a pure Hispanic environment and could not relate to my experience at all. To him, the world was like LA and the US and people everywhere were the same. But he was the boss, the one with the money and the one paying my salary. Other teachers were also giving me unpleasant looks. I was then asked to resign, my name was put on the Board of Education computer and now I would have problems being re-hired to teach in California again if I ever re-applied.

People who travel and get international experience may not always have it to their advantage. It can actually significantly stymie your ability to deal with things in another country. Call it reverse culture shock or by whichever other name, I was severely handicapped by it.

Eventually, I got a job teaching Hispanic adults and from then on it was smooth sailing more or less. However, I made a good note of that experience. Once an international person, you will never be the same again. And experience obtained in one place may not be applicable in another. And people who do not travel do not make very good bosses to those who do.

Happiness by Comparison

When you arrive in a new country, you feel happy because it has many things that your old destination does not. Some SE Asian countries have many beautiful women that you can look at every day and be just happy feasting your eyes on them. Some VNese refugees to the US would say that ‘every day in America was a holiday” for them. Many people from Egypt living in Australia would be ecstatic about how uncrowded and organized the country was.

However, happiness and joy by comparison does not last. OK, you are happy because the new country has so many new advantages but very soon you start taking them for granted and stop noticing them. Six months down the line you start remembering the good things about the old country that you used to take for granted there but they do not exist in the new one. American expats in the Third World begin to realize just how inefficient everything is, how bad the customer service is, the food and other products are of low quality and that there is no place to go and complain about it.

Those moving from Third World countries to the First World ones; after half a year or so, begin seeing just how cold and impersonal everything is, how hard it is to make friends in the new place and how utterly boring life there can be. They also realize that many things that were either free or very cheap back home now cost big money. Sure, they now own a car but they can no longer buy a cheap boat, for example or have servants as they used to back home.

As always, happiness by comparison only lasts for so long. A wise PT expatriate learns not to be swayed either by the initial ecstasy or by the disappointments that set in later. He or she take everything, good and bad, for granted and since he/she is always on the move, the ability to take the good and the bad from every country in stride becomes their shield from serious disillusionments when living in all these different places.


Same Language Misunderstandings

Same Language Blues

Just because a country speaks the same language that you speak, does not mean that it cannot create misunderstandings and embarrassing situations. I was once bounced out of a bar in Australia. This is how it happened: I saw a bar in Sydney as I was walking down the street, and heard music coming from it. I became curious and decided to check it out. In front of it, there was a Fijian-looking bouncer. As I approached the door, I heard him say something that sounded like “right, right”, and I assumed that he wanted me to go in through the right part of the door. I pushed it and walked in. As I was looking at a singer and for a place to sit down, I suddenly felt a strong hand on my shoulder and felt that I was being pushed outside. He was actually very brusque in his behavior and treated me as a bum or a troublemaker. After I was kicked out in such an unceremonious and barbaric fashion, I stared at the bouncer in amazement. He told me that I could not come in in my track pants (I was wearing them because it was very cold out). He said that people inside were all nicely dressed (sneakers and jeans) and that I was not dressed appropriately. I got very upset and told him that I was a tourist and a college instructor and not a bum. He looked very apologetic, and I went back to my hotel, changed into something more decent and went back into the bar. He did let me in this time.

Only one month later I realized what had happened. The words that I thought were “right, right” were in fact “wait, wait!” The Aussies pronounce “wait” as “white”, and my brain automatically converted it into “right” as I boldly stepped into the bar only to be shoved out of it for being inappropriately dressed and not following the instructions of the bouncer.

I also remember vainly looking for a pharmacy in Sydney until it dawned on me that there are no such stores in Oz. They are called “Chemist’s”. And few ladies respond to “ma’m”. I remember trying to get the attention of waitresses and sales clerks and they simply would not respond. I had to yell so that they would simply turn and look at me just because my voice was loud. Aussies do not understand that term, for the most part.


I am sorry, I have no change!

In many places around the world, countries experience shortage of cash. You hear the expression “cash-strapped countries” quite often. That can affect you even if you have plenty of it. It basically means that you need to watch what notes you get at the local exchange offices once you arrive there

So, after you change your hard currency into local money at such an exchange booth and the smiling clerk hands you wads with 500s or 1000s, you will soon realize that you now have a very annoying problem- people outside just have no change for all these bills.
Which, at times, may mean that you practically have no money, so to speak?

Most people have problems because they do not have enough money, but now you have a problem because you have ‘too much’ money, or rather, you have such large denominations that the locals who only make some $2-5 worth of local currency a day, simply do not have the cash to give you the change for your transactions with them. You gave them $20-$40 in their money which can be a few thousand or so. How do you expect them to fork out the difference to pay you back?

Please get smaller notes. This will not be said to you anywhere at those booths as they are happy to get your dollars and send you on your way, but it is a very valid advice. Get as many smaller notes as you can so that you would not be held up at all these different places while the owner is running around the street visiting other stores in the desperate plea to break your 1000 pesos, kyat, baht or whatever currency you gave him into something more “malleable”.

Worse yet, is you being in a taxi and giving the driver your money and him declaring “I have no change” to you at your final destination. Usually he means it. You have a business meeting to attend to, people waiting for you and now you are involved in an altercation with the taxi man who does not have enough money. Yes, you can tell him that it is his responsibility to have change, not yours and he will often agree but the country just does not have enough money. And he has no such large money, either.

If you do not have smaller notes and are in a taxi, please ask the driver if he has change. If he does not have it, please ask him to stop at a gas station somewhere so that he could break down your “huge” bills. Better yet, when exchanging your money, get one half in large denominations, one quarter in smaller ones, and the rest in really small ones and plenty of coins. You will be doing yourself and the people who provide you service a big favor by having smaller bills.

The large ones can still be used at big departments stores and when paying hotel bills for a week or so. But even then, you will additionally encounter problems as some department stores may insist on smaller bills. Why do you think some countries are poor? They do not have money. As in having money for giving you change, got it?

Yes, I know, carrying wads of smaller notes can be a pain in the neck but not as much as being rejected for a product or a service because your 1000 currency unit notes are something they rarely see let alone can deal with.

Some developed countries have laws making it illegal to reject national tenders no matter what denomination they are, but in many other countries such laws apparently do not exist or are not enforced. “I have no change for your money so why don’t you buzz off- I am not selling you anything”.

Please get smaller notes or suffer the consequences.


Walk and Learn

Get Up and Go To Work

When visiting a foreign city, try and do this: one day that you are there, put on clothes that resemble working clothes- a suit or something, take a briefcase or a folder, get up at 7:00am, brush your teeth, have breakfast and “go to work”.

I did that in Auckland, Buenos Aires and a few other major cities. I joined the crowd of people walking towards downtown, me being part of it just like a small jet being part of a mighty stream. I looked at people to my left and my right, at their stern faces as they were rushing to their offices and looked at myself in the display windows. I too, was going to an office. I looked the same way they looked. Serious. Stern. My empty briefcase was swaying businesslike in my right hand. What office was I going to? Well, any office. Note some big buildings where everyone is going to, follow the people there, get inside the elevator, listen to people talking about their daily worries at work, again watch the strained expressions and sleepy eyes, get off on some floor, walk around, and then…split. You have played the game long enough. Less than one hour will do. Now you know what it is like to LIVE there. Even for a moment. And you can now go and have an early lunch. It was not real. The working part was a self-induced ‘nightmare’. You can now go back and change your clothes to something more casual and revert to being a tourist.

It was a simple exercise, but I loved it. The pretense was most profound and the reversal to the tourist status was like being awakened from some narcotic dream. Please try it on your next trip abroad. The whole experience may turn out to be more impressive than any guided tour to some museum ever could be.

Jaywalking can kill you

I must confess that I am guilty of occasional jaywalking when living in foreign lands. In many countries it is not a crime and many people do it and no one cares. You join the crowds bolting across the street and do as they do. Heck, some roads do not have pedestrian crossings for a kilometer or two, so what are you going to do? When in Rome, you jaywalk if Romans jaywalk.

There is a hidden danger, though if it becomes a habit. If you visit a country where traffic direction is the opposite of what you are used to, you may get hit by a passing vehicle because you will be looking in the wrong direction to check if one is coming. After having jaywalked in the countries of the Persian Gulf (along with millions of workers from the Indian Subcontinent) I forgot that it was not really a good thing to do and tried to do so in Australia. I looked to my left (as I would in the Gulf) and, having ascertained that there was no traffic coming my way, I was about to take the first step only to miss a bus that was coming from my right at a breakneck speed.

You see, I forgot that Australians drive on the left side of the road. And the huge bus missed me by about a foot. Had I taken the step, I would not have been writing this article now.

If you get used to loose regulations in many Third World countries regarding jaywalking, please be careful when you go to other countries, Third-or Second World or, whatever, where traffic moves in the other direction. You need to keep in mind that now you have to be looking to your right, not to your left. Better yet, do not jaywalk. The cops can give you a ticket or, in worse cases, doing so can cause serious injuries or death.


May 3, 2010

Living Like a Millionaire Now

When I hit my mid twenties, I realized that getting rich was harder than I thought. I also realized that I was not motivated enough to be rich. And not smart enough. And not have the right background/connections. Etcetera, etcetera. So, I asked myself- Can I live rich without being rich? What can I do that the rich do, and still not have to sacrifice a big chunk of my life trying to get rich.

The answer is this- obtain a middle class status in the First World that enables you to have about $2000 disposable income, and spend it in the Third World. It took me some years to achieve it and then, once I did, it was smooth sailing from then on.

The rich enjoy respect and admiration- this can be obtained by moving to various Third World nations where a Western face at a local department store commands the same respect as Donald Trump’s face would at a New York department store. They think all western people; especially, the ones who had money to come to their country are billionaires. Let them keep their illusions. At least they will respect us for that.

The rich live in a big house/villa on the beach - these can be rented cheaply; we are talking a few hundred bucks a month in many Third World nations.

The rich have millions. You, too, can exchange your hard currency and become a millionaire. Nineteen thousand dollars is one million Philippine pesos. One thousand dollars is ten million (!) Indonesian rupees. So, you can now be talking about all these millions you have in the bank. And you can have them NOW!

The rich have boats and practice expensive sports. You can do the same. You can also rent a boat for very little or have a boat captain for very small money every month in some cheap out-of-the-way nation. You can rent a jet-ski for very small money, too. Golf memberships in the West are astronomical, but not in some small Third World country where you become an honorable member of the local golf club for peanuts. You can now go and play golf like a pro and pay very little for the pleasure. And a safari in Africa nowadays is a bit over $1000 excluding the airfare.

The rich shop for nice clothes, luxury motorcycles and other things. You can visit some countries where markets are flooded with tax-free Chinese clothes as well as Chinese motorcycles and a huge variety of every possible type of item at rock bottom prices. Almost every luxury item has a cheap Chinese version of it. Shirts or pants for $3-10 a pair. A jacket for $6. Brand new Harley Davidson-type motorcycles for some $1200 only (brand new). Used motorcycles can be had for as little as $200! Household appliances can be bought for one fifth of what you pay for them back home. I once saw electric shavers for $4. Not a bad deal.

The rich fly around the world and stay at luxury hotels. You can do the same. There are ways to accumulate miles and fly around the world either for free or at very discount rates. Shop around for cheap airfares. Or get a courier flight where you pay one half of the fare. Then, you can even fly around the 1st world, but stay at youth hostels- some $22-27 a night. After you check into the fleabag hostel where you leave you clothes and get a bed to sleep, you can now go to the lobbies of luxury hotels and have a meal, walk around and absorb the atmosphere. You can go to night clubs and order a drink and check out how things are there.

The rich stay at luxury resorts. Check out some unknown resorts in the most mundane vacations spots- some industrial city in Cambodia, some small town in Africa. A beach in Albania. Try and get a hut there and stay on the beach. You will have the same sea, same white sand, and even a swimming pool nearby but instead of paying $1500 a night as the rich do, you will be paying $15 a night ( if not a week). You just need to know where to look.

The rich have luxury vehicles. Oops! Here I cannot help you. There are no knock-offs for BMWs or Mercedes Benzes. However, I have been able to get a chauffer to take me to a hotel from the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (and back in the morning) for some $27. Not a bad deal. The Mercedes Benz was old, but it was still a Benz. And I was sitting in it like a VIP.

I have seen some places where you can buy locally assembled vehicles such as jeeps with re-built Japanese engines for some $3000 or less “brand- new”. There are ways to do that.

The rich date gorgeous members of the opposite sex. Again, there are many 3d world countries where women and (men) would love to date a 1st world citizen no matter how old or ugly. There are places in the Arab world where a blond 50+ year old European woman can hope to find a passionate young Arab stallion in his twenties or thirties to be her lover. The same goes for Western men who are now a hot item for young East Euro and SE Asian girls. All they have to do is place themselves in those circumstances and, instead of busting their behinds trying to get rich for 20 years, just realize that they are already rich/ and famous if they put themselves in the right place on Earth.

If you follow you that formula, you will have a wacky but successful and extremely interesting life. You will not be admired by an average subway-riding, 9:00-5:00 Joe. You may not even be able to have a family in the normal 1st World sense. And you will have very few people opining you are doing the correct thing with most of them actually thinking that you are insane. Let them. It will be a life in which all things will be had, albeit temporarily and sometimes almost illusorily, but hey, isn’t reality and illusion and isn’t everything temporary, anyway? The idea is to approximate a millionaire’s lifestyle so much that when we reach the end of our lives, we will see that his/her life and ours have not been that different.

So, if you are ready, start working on how you can get some $2000 a month of disposable income. It is not easy but still easier than trying to make a million dollars and spending a few sleepless decades trying to achieve it. We can start living like millionaires now if we play our cards right.


May 2, 2010

Toilets that Don't Flush

When visiting the so-called developing countries, one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to you is encountering a toilet that does not flush. Forget about toilets that do not have toilet paper- that is a given. That is why I carry tissue with me. But the ones that do not flush can leave you in a really unpleasant predicament.

Think about it: you are invited to dinner at someone’s home, or are a customer at a small restaurant or a hotel somewhere, and then, after having eaten, you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, and do your thing only to discover, to your utter dismay that their toilet does not flush. What will you do?

“Excuse me; your toilet does not flush!” No, I’d better not say that. I will embarrass the host. “Excuse me; do you have a bucket somewhere?” Sometimes, there is one in the toilet, but it takes time to fill and while you are filling it, you’d better close the toilet seat since the odor is filling the room very fast, and what will they think of you if the bathroom ends up smelling like a zoo cage? And what if there is no bucket? ”Excuse me, do you have a bucket?” Please give me a bucket fast!

Now, they are looking for one while you are standing there half-naked, peeping through the half-opened door, and then they bring you a small can, the one they put paints in, you know the kind, and then, you grab it with one hand while your body is inclined at a very awkward angle so that they would not see your private parts, and start filling it up. You are all crouched up in the bathroom with your pants down, but the can is not big enough, the water is splashing, the waste is swiveling inside the bowl and not going down as quickly as you would want it to. Do not give up, fill it up again, and again and again, but you are all wet by now and sweating. Finally, after several attempts, you have managed to send nature’s deposits on their way to the sea, but your host is giving you funny looks like you are the one who is acting funny and are weird.

I cannot think of anything more humbling, or an experience that renders you more helpless than coming in touch with such a toilet. Actually, being in a rural area or a slum is much less likely to allow you to run into such a situation since their bathrooms are basic- either they are holes in the ground , or they are bowls without a tank with a big dipper that floats in a huge bucket that is especially provided for such purposes. The problem starts when you move into the so-called upscale areas where the toilets are supposed to be flushing but they aren’t. They start when you visit your accountant friend’s home for dinner or go to a new restaurant in town or stay at a new hotel they have just built.

So, what should one do? If you feel that you are in a situation where a non-flushing toilet is likely to be present; go and check their toilet. Excuse yourself and go and try and flush it. Flush it two times. Why? Well, because, sometimes, there is no water in the pipes and you are just flushing the left-over water from the times when there was water in those pipes; and next time it may not flush. Your host may be surprised at hearing the toilet flush twice ( if it does), but hey, at least he will not be there after one hour watching you make an Aquarius out of yourself with pants down and your nose stuck into the crack in the door and beseeching lips mouthing the words “ Bucket please!” “Do you have a bucket?”

Better yet, if you can do it at all, try and get rid of bodily wastes at home or where you know a functioning toilet is present. That will save you a great deal of embarrassment when you are out there attending to more important functions than being an odorous Aquarius in a WC.


Miscellaneous observations2

While working in the Gulf I have decided to create classifications for the types of money here. There are LVCUs and HVCUs which stands for “lower value currency units” and “higher value currency units”. For example, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait have currencies that are higher than the dollar or the pound- and each one has 1000 smaller units instead of cents. Qatar or the UAE, on the other hand, have smaller units that are lower than dollar or pound. You get 3.60 something for every dollar in the UAE, but $10 will only get you some 3 dinars in Kuwait. So, if you work in the UAE and your salary is say, 15,000 dirhams, you would get some 1500 in Bahrain for doing them same job. Of course, both sums are identical if you translate them into dollars, but somehow I have always felt more comfortable with LVCUs because they made me feel “richer”. It just felt better to have 500 dirhams in my pocket than 50 dinars. 50 dinars does not feel like much, and you spend it faster because, subconsciously, you probably feel they are “dollars”. I have also found out that I have been able to save less in HVCU countries than in LVCU countries even though I have had similar salaries.


It is useless to try and determine where the “Center of the World” is on its surface since Earth is a sphere. Hence, the center is somewhere deep underground, and cannot be anywhere on its surface. This does not prevent various nations or cultures from proudly announcing their big cities or some places of significance as “centers of the world” or even worse as “capitals of the world”. It does make the locals prefer to stay home, puts a smug smile on their faces and a spring in their step, and keeps hordes of tourists coming. As long you have the means to convince millions that your capital is “the capital of the world”, they will gladly swallow the myth.

Once I was in the Philippines and have observed a group of models checking into a hotel. There was a beauty contest, and I asked one on the girls what it was dedicated to. She said it was done for “Funds”. I thought it was great that they were doing fund-raising through beauty.

Then, several days later I saw a truck that was taking these girls to the place of the beauty contest and back. It said “POND’S CREAM”. Filipino people cannot tell the difference between “P” and “F” and pronounce a sound that is somewhere in between that really sounds much more like an “F” to Westerners’ ears than a “P”. So, they actually meant that it was a beauty show for the POND’S beauty cream company.


Rice Inside The Box

It was an unlikely place for the same ugly idea to raise its head, and I did not expect it to happen here. But it happened again.

I was at a Korean restaurant in Kuwait City. I had been patronizing it for some time now, a few months actually, and as in many restaurants around the oil- rich Gulf, the waiter was a young Indian gentleman. He was nice and polite and performed his service well.

It so happened that one day I arrived at the restaurant and noticed that the Indian guy was gone and, in his place, a pretty Chinese waitress was taking care of the customers. As usual, all of the customers were Koreans.

The waitress approached me, I picked up the menu and asked her to bring me some barbecue and some rice on the side. She stared at me with amazement: “Can you eat it?”

“Can I eat what?”

“Can you eat...rice?”

Oh, no not again. Not in Kuwait! I was so happy that finally people would stop asking me such idiotic questions. I went to an Arabian restaurant and ordered rice pilaf; no one even looked at me in any strange way or asked me questions. I then went to a Pakistani restaurant and got some Biriani rice and again no one said a word. It had to be a Korean restaurant with a Chinese waitress where I would again be asked the accursed question. But in Kuwait City of all places? I thought I had left that problem when I left East and South East Asia. I guess you can run, but you can’t hide.

You see, to an average East and South East Asian the world is simple. They probably teach it in school that people with narrow eyes eat rice, while people with round eyes eat bread. It is a fact that has been passed on from generation to generation just like the fact that animals have lungs and fish have gills, or that women have breasts and men do not. Or that at night, the Moon comes out, but during the day, it is the Sun that shines on us. It is as simple as that. “White” people eat bread. “Yellow” people eat rice. How can white people eat rice? It is just as abnormal as horses flying in the air or chickens diving to get pearls from the bottom of the ocean.

In parts of Asia I had people cheer me when I was eating rice in public, and college professors asking me if I had ever seen rice in my life. They would then proceed to explain to me what rice looked like. Never mind that the US is the second biggest exporter of rice in the world. Never mind Uncle Ben’s Rice. Never mind that Spain and Portugal and France and Italy use rice in their diet almost as often and most Asian countries. Never mind millions of Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants all around the Western world. Never mind that in Africa, the Middle East and other such places people eat rice all the time. To some two billion East and SE Asians, you need to have “narrow” eyes to deserve the privilege of eating the white seeds.

I looked at the waitress again with my teeth gnashing only to encounter a good natured concern and curiosity in her eyes. All she wanted to know was if I were sure that what I was going to order would be an edible commodity. She had never seen a Westerner order rice.

I could not hold myself back: “Yes, I can eat rice. Yes. Can you use this?” I raised a fork in the air. “ This is from Europe. It was invented somewhere in the middle ages somewhere in Central Europe. Have you ever seen this? It is a watch. Can you use it? This is not originally from China. A watch was invented in Nuremberg, Germany. Can you wear one? Can you drink Coke? Have you ever seen Coke? Coca-Cola. The American drink. You are not American, so why do you know Coke? Have you seen a hamburger? Have you eaten one? Why did eat it? Can you eat it? It is not Chinese food. It is not Korean food.”

I was beginning to foam at the mouth and was sliding in my chair and trying to control myself. “Yes. I can eat rice. If I could not eat rice I would not be ordering it. Please bring me some rice”.

That was all she wanted to hear and, shrugging at my anger, she walked away. Soon she was back with a bowl of rice.

I do not want to tell you what happened when I asked her to bring a pair of chopsticks.


Expat Real Estate Suckers

Don’t you just love getting into all these expat websites and clicking on all these colorful ads of real estate “bargains” in the Third World? Yeah the prices are not bad- $150,000 for a house, that’s cheap compared to California. Or Tokyo. But, outside of expensive states/ cities like that, I can buy a house in the First World for not much more than K150. So why would I want to invest $150,000 in some unstable country where a jealous dictator may nationalize my property any time a new anti- West/American government is installed? Or someone who does not like my skin color or name or the fact that I now have a pretty girlfriend that should be his?

And you know what else? When you get to those countries, you will see that you can buy a house for one tenths or one fifteenth or one twentieth of that. You just have to know where to look. The natives know. You don’t. That is why you get ripped off. Why do you think they are advertising to foreigners with all these multi-colored blinking web ads of a tropical paradise? Because they know that foreigners are dumb enough to spend $150,000 on a substandard house that a local would buy for much, much less.

You had better invest that money in a house back home and, on the proceeds, you could rent a house in the Third World and get a maid to boot. And have enough to live on, still.

But an expat sucker is born every minute. A sucker who does not know what the real estate situation in the country is like. And the dupe is shelling out money like there is no tomorrow.

A Japanese saw an advertisement for a condo in Pattaya, Thailand once. He requested the brochure and was marveled by how big and spacious the property was. It cost some $100,000. Cheap compared to Japan. So he went ahead and wired the real estate agency the money and, shortly, received a deed to his new home. When time came to go on vacation he flew to the Land of Smiles anxious to see what it looked like in reality. When he arrived and showed the taxi driver the map of the place, he soon found out that there was no such street, no such home, no such property. In tears, he ran to the police station to file a report. The police told him: “You want us to find the one who ripped you off? You will have to pay us another $100,000. Then we will look for them.”

So be careful when you look for “great buys” on the Internet that advertise colorful houses in various independent, forever-developing, tropical “heavens”. If you really want to go there, make sure you let a local that you trust ( such as your wife) to look for a house for you. Otherwise, unless you have money to burn, do not be tempted. You’ d better invest the same money at home.


Criticizing Your Host Country? Don’t!

One of the commandments of overseas living should be: “ Thou shalt not criticize the host country in front of its citizens even if the criticism is justified”.

When abroad, you may run into unpleasant circumstances, inconveniences, and culture shocks. You will often be tempted to vent your steam by saying negative things about the host country. Please never say those things when a native/citizen is present no mater who that person is. Even your spouse, if she is a national, would not like to hear those things from you. Well, maybe you can say it to her in a weeping tone of voice, as a victim and she may comfort you and help you out a bit. But as a rule, by moving abroad, you largely forfeit your right to such criticism.

You will also notice that the more “developing” a country is, the greater is the patriotism of its people. There are exceptions to the rule, but, by and large, that seems to be a pattern. And if the country is a developed one, the working classes in it will probably be the most patriotic group. But even its intellectuals will not like for you to make any non-positive comments about it.

That is one disadvantage of being an expat. They can sit and say bad things about your country while you are there, but you cannot answer back and criticise theirs unless both of you are expats in a third country.

So what will happen if you do criticize? A polite person will probably agree with you verbally, but you will see from his body language that he is not happy to hear those things from you. He/she will eventually try to avoid you. A less polite person will ask you the following things: ” You mean, my country is no good?”. “If you do not like it, why are you still here? “. “What are you doing here if it is so bad?” And a more direct person still, will probably tell you to go back to where you came from. And he/she will be quite rude about it, too.

This principle does not apply to countries only. We do not like for people who are not from our city to criticize it, we do not like for people who are not our family members to criticize our husbands, wives, fathers, etc. even if everything they say is correct. They have no right to do that because they are not “one of us”.

Even making suggestions ( constructive criticism) is often seen as an insult especially in the most of “developing” countries.

Some foreign residents who are now considering the place where they are living their home think that they can now be liberal with dispensing analyses of current national events, political situations and other such things. But in many places, especially the really dysfunctional societies, such comments will not be welcome.

And it does not matter how right you are and how wrong they are. Unless you are a citizen, and/or are a non-citizen living in a really progressive, guilt-ridden society that will double over backwards to help a former victim of its colonial past, your negative commentaries and even positive recommendations may usually not be welcome.

In some so- called developing nations, (some of which have been developing for several thousands of years, but no cigar) neither the rich, nor the poor like to be reminded of the troubles the country has. The rich enjoy the status quo because they have a great pool of cheap labor and services.
The poor know how bad their lot is and do not want to be reminded of it, but are fed a lot of patriotism to revel in, in place of social benefits. Neither party makes for a ready audience for your complaints.

Those who were excessively vocal about their complaining have on many occasions ended up being deported. In many corrupt countries, a call from the right person to a friend at the Immigration Department will do the trick. And since all visas are discretionary, and usually no immigration in any one country is accountable to another country’s citizens, you will have no leg to stand on if you try to appeal their decision.

So, when in a foreign country, especially a non-first world country, keep your criticism to yourself ( or a quite whispering tone conversation in a group of your resident compatriots) and if the natives ask you what you think about their country, just smile and say “ I love it!”. You will save yourself a whole lot of trouble if you do.


Expat Newspaper Whiner (Preaching in the Desert Again?)

I remember once I worked in downtown Los Angeles, on a street where most passers-by were recent Mexican and Central American immigrants, 99.999% of whom could speak very little or no English.

This did not deter a lonely preacher who was standing on the corner of Broadway and 5th street, delivering a long sermon in English and telling everyone to accept Jesus. I plucked up my courage, walked up to him and tried to give him an advice: “Sir, wouldn’t it be better if you could deliver your sermon in Spanish? After all, most people here cannot understand a word you are saying. Maybe you could give out flyers in Spanish, as well?”

He took it as an affront and snapped back at me: “Don’t tell me what to do! I know what I am doing! Buenos Dias,Como Esta, Senor?!” He could not speak much Spanish beyond that. I, naturally, backed off and later would see him day after day standing on the same street corner and passionately telling the huge Latin American stream of people rushing past him about how much they needed to be saved, in English, a language almost none of them could understand.

Similarly, I read lots of English language periodicals all over the world since every country now has some kind of “Times” : ” The Moscow Times”, “The Korea Times” ,etc. and few things make me laugh more than another expat venting his steam in an English-language newspaper in a non-English speaking country somewhere. Take “The Japan Times” for one. Not a day goes by without some foreign English teacher or another “gaijin talento” criticizing Japan, making suggestions and /or appealing to the Japanese to understand that, say, the true meaning of internationalization (a catch word in that country for a long time) is to treat people of other countries as equals. Some get overbearing and cheeky: “You Japanese! Let me tell you what I think. I think your country is… this and that.”

“The Japan Times” likes those letters- they are publishable material, aren’t they? - and they let us see so many of them every week. The expat is relieved by seeing that now the country (and the world, he thinks) is seeing his name and his point of view, can share in his vicissitudes and maybe someone somewhere will take a step towards improving the situation.

What is the main problem here, though? It is basically the fact that most Japanese, even the most educated ones do not, as a rule, read “The Japan Times” since it is in English.” The Japan Times” is basically read by other expats, mostly Western ones, who are just as aware of the problems as the writer of the letter is. Hence, little of any change is happening in Japan as a result of all these ebullient and passionate letters except another foreigner is reminded of the same annoying fact of living in Japan once again.

Usefulness of letters to the editor is disputable at best, but one can hardly doubt the almost certain uselessness of a letter written in English in a nation where it will most probably never be read by anyone who would be able to make any changes related to the matter addressed.

In case of countries where the level of English is low such as Japan, Russia, Korea, Italy, etc. an amateur expat commentator would do much better if he/she would write a letter to a big national newspaper in the local language. If he/she cannot speak/write it well, it can be translated most often than not quite inexpensively and then, sent out to where most people, businessmen and, possibly, some decision makers can read them. In the language of the country which, in many cases, is not English.

Otherwise, one turns into that preacher on the street corner in LA: confident of his righteousness but not understood by anyone. What a waste of time!


Spanish language- Taboos and Complexes

I remember when back in the 80ies I was fascinated by foreign languages so I decided to learn a few. Spanish was my first choice as it was spoken all around me. So, I bought a book titled “Spanish in 22 easy lessons” or something like that.

Spanish to me was the language of Cervantes , Garcia Lorca and Julio Iglesias. It is the language of 300,000,000 plus people around the world.

The introduction in the book promised something of this sort: “An American who speaks Spanish will have an exciting future, and will be able to choose from many lucrative jobs”.

I took many classes and then tried to practice my Spanish on the streets of New York. The problem was this, though: I would begin speaking Spanish, and the people would answer in English. With a sarcastic smile and a sulk. Again, I would speak Spanish, and the people would again answer in English. Once I decided to go to a Spanish language movie theater, but as I was buying a ticket at the booth, the cashier looked at me strangely and warned me: “This movie is in Spanish!” (probably meaning: “What are you doing here?”). I said,” That is why I am here”. Once inside of the movie theater, I tried to buy some popcorn, and ordered in Spanish again, and the lady at the counter avoided all eye contact with me and kept sulking as she was filling the tall popcorn cup. I felt like I was intruding. The message seemed to be: “This is our territory. Why are you here?”

It was not until I went to Puerto Rico to study where most people began speaking Spanish to me, expected me to learn it and become fluent in it. However, the New York experience taught me something valuable: some people in the US feel offended if you try to speak “their” language as they see it as an affront to their culture and an infringement on something that is sacred to them. It was a bit of a shock for me.

However, after some two years of extensive study and having read a great deal of books in Spanish, I was becoming a virtually native Spanish speaker. It was a pity, though that I had to be in Puerto Rico to become fluent in it while there were so many Spanish speakers in the continental US. Too bad they were not too friendly.

But even in Puerto Rico I had some strange encounters. Once I was standing in line at a local supermarket when a middle aged man began talking to me. He was speaking to me in English and then, he pointed to a small TV magazine near the cash register. “You can’t read this!” he said proudly in English. Never mind that I was finishing my courses in Educational Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico with Spanish being the medium of instruction. To him, I was just another Gringo who could not even read a small TV guide in Spanish. Again, I did not look Latino, so how could I read in Spanish?

My next language was French, but since I was not in the financial shape to go to France, I went to Quebec to study it. In the French part of Canada I was in for a big surprise- when people learned that I could speak Spanish, they would tell me that I was lucky and look upon me like I was a member of the educated classes. French Canadians think of the Spanish language as a status symbol, and many try to learn it to improve their social standing. It was there where I would have college graduates sit with me and talk to me in Spanish to show off how ‘refined’ they were.

Not only that. While watching Quebecois soap operas, I became aware of the fact that whenever there was a “romantic foreigner” in them (soap operas around the world love to have one), it would invariably be a handsome Spaniard who was speaking French with a Spanish accent. The Quebec ladies would sit in front of the screen saying: “Aaah” and “Oooh” while telling me how good-looking and sophisticated that Spaniard was.

However, back in the US, the status of Spanish was not quite as glamorous. When I told people about how romantic the French speakers up north thought the Spanish language was, the answer I received was: “There is nothing romantic about standing in welfare lines”.

In other words, in many parts of the US, the Spanish language is associated not with Cervantes or Garcia Lorca, not with the great European country- Spain, but with poverty, welfare, and illegal “non-white” immigration. Outside of Antonio Banderas, virtually no Spanish speaking person would be seen as “romantic” in America.

While I was trying to learn Spanish, many Spanish speakers in the US were either trying to learn English or only speak Spanish discreetly to other people who looked like them- meaning, like Latin American “mestizo” types. On the East Coast, when people said, “He is Spanish”; they would often add the words: ”He looks dark”. And it was seen by quite a few people as a bit of a taboo to learn Spanish as one would be associated with the poor classes of “dark” Hispanic workers.

When I finally graduated from college, I did manage to get bilingual jobs, but they were not as glamorous as the book promised. Mostly, they were social service jobs or receptionist jobs and I was only making some $1600 a month. Within the working environment, people did speak Spanish to me, finally. However, I was now on the West Coast, and most people I was working with were recent immigrants from Mexico who still had not acquired the “wounded pride” syndrome that the Spanish speakers on the East Coast so often develop.

However, in the eyes of the general population, Spanish was the language of ‘brown” (often illegal) people, while English was the language of white and black people. Socially, there continued to be a cautious and often mocking reaction when I tried to speak Spanish to many US-born Hispanics. And again, they would answer to me in English as if meaning to say: “Do not infringe! This is ‘our’ language!”

There are very few Spaniards living in the US, so the association of Spanish (and illegal status) with the “brown” ethnicity is very strong. One Spanish lady (who was from Spain and was in the country illegally) has told me an interesting story:

She was riding on a train in California when the Immigration agents stormed her car looking for illegals. She was sitting next to three Mexicans. The Mexicans were approached by the “Migra” operatives, arrested and pulled off the train. The INS people, however, gave the lady a friendly look, and did not even check her documents. They did not try to check whether she spoke English or Spanish or had an accent. She was an “American” in their eyes even though she was also another illegal Spanish speaker. Why? Well, she looked European, just like most Spaniards do. How could she be an illegal Hispanic immigrant?

No wonder that members of the “mestizo” ethnicities in the US as well as non-Spanish US persons would see a person like myself as another non-Spanish speaker, and consider the fact that I speak Spanish as something strange and even an affront to their “national dignity”. Spanish is the language of Latinos, not people like me.

On a recent trip to Argentina and Uruguay I saw something very refreshing: These were two immigrant countries where a similar to the US melting pot was brewing. Every possible race and nationality could be found in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. I saw Poles, Ghanaians, Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Japanese, and of course, Spaniards. There was no question about what was uniting all these diverse races and ethnicities into the Argentinean or Uruguayan nationality: it was the Spanish language. Everybody talked to me in Spanish (of course!) and everybody talked Spanish to each other. There was no how-dare-you!-you-are-not-a- Latino type attitude. I saw Spanish-speaking Scandinavians, Spanish-speaking people with names like Norman Tracey and even Spanish-speaking Rastafarians. How about Spanish speaking Hassidic Jews? That was a sight to behold. I was finally able to be my Spanish-speaking self without having to cringe in the expectation of another sulky look with pouted lips and an answer back in English.

The Spanish language in the US definitely has a strange status and even a stigma attached to it. It is usually not seen as a language that will give one a truly good future and a lot of money. It is also not associated with Spain which is its true motherland or the Spaniards of whom there are very few in the US, but is instead seen as a tongue of poor non-white immigrant classes from the Third World.

Many Hispanic groups in the US adopt the Spanish language as a symbol of their “national”/ethnic identity” in opposition to what they see as an imperialistic oppression of their culture by “white” people. Never mind that Spaniards are also “white people” – there are not enough of them in the US to make a valid point that they are the ones to whom this language truly belongs, so the cultural conflict involves two groups- white “John Smiths” ( the Anglos), and “brown” “mestizo” Jose Rodriguezes ( the Latinos). If someone is “white”, he is presumed to be an Anglo and often “denied” the right to speak Spanish by the Latino nationalistic types who quite often start smirking and looking down their noses at him/her whenever he/she speaks Spanish.

During recent demonstrations in California, there were groups that were asserting their right to be in the US by referring back to the fact that their Aztec ancestors had been there before the arrival of the Gringos but also, using the Spanish language as a source of pride in that heritage. However, Spanish is a European colonial tongue, just like English is. If the emphasis was on the Indian heritage, maybe they should have revived the Aztec language and use that as something to unite them. However, it is Spanish again that is being used as a unifying force for the Mestizo population in the US.

Facing all these problems, there are quite a few people who simply like the Spanish language, want to learn it and speak it. However, there are so many complexes attached to it that they sometimes make speaking it a very difficult undertaking.

It is a pity. Therefore, if I really want to speak Spanish and be in a friendly, Spanish speaking environment, I have to do so outside of the US. I could do it in the US, but I really do not feel like seeing another suspicious flash of the eyes, a puffed up chest, or a chin raised in defiance followed by a curt answer in English. All I am trying to do is speak the language of Cervantes, for Heaven’s sake! Why don’t you guys give me a break?


Traditional Japanese Song

I spent two years teaching English in Japan, and while there, I would pass a great deal of time being entertained by the Japanese staff, students and colleagues. Often, we would sit in a restaurant with soft music being piped in. Once, they were playing "Auld Lang Sine" and one Japanese student turned to me and with a solemn look on his face declared:

“ This is a traditional Japanese song!”. I was in shock and proceeded to explain to him that it was an old Scottish song, not Japanese, but got a blank look in return. Then, I learned that the Japanese called that piece of music “Hotaru” and it was about fireflies flying in the night. A very romantic song, for sure, except that very few of them knew that it was not originally Japanese.

On another occasion, I was teaching a class and decided to present them with my rendition of “Yankee Doodle”. I brought my guitar and thought that I was going to give my students a first hand experience in American folklore. As soon as they heard the notes, they exclaimed in amazement: “This is a Japanese song! It is about traveling in the Japanese Alps!”. They immediately started singing the lyrics in Japanese nodding to each other with nostalgic smiles, and obviously recalling their kindergarten times when they must have learned the song from their pre-school teachers.

It sounded pretty good in Japanese because the language is very musical and has a dynamic staccato-like rhythm to it. However, there was one major flaw that was grating on my ears- there was no rhyme. It went something like:

tata-tita tata-tutu

The Japanese lack Western-style rhyme in their poetry unlike, say, the Arabs who have it and rhyme very precisely. However, while to me it seemed almost sacrilegious not to rhyme that song, they were obviously not aware of its lack and were looking at each other while singing along happily.

On another occasion I was walking in Shinjuku- the equivalent of Manhattan in Tokyo while from the loudspeakers in the middle of a skyscraper, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was blaring all across the place. Again, it was in Japanese and unrhymed.

When I brought the real “Battle Hymn” lyrics to my class and began teaching them along with the tune. I again evoked the same reaction- students looking at each other, nodding and singing it joyfully. In Japanese. As a traditional Japanese song.

So, what happened? I guess at some time in the Japanese history, in the times before there was any copyright issues, the Japanese, in their desire to catch up with the West began adopting Western culture and technology, primarily those from the United States. The historic American songs became part of the Japanese culture and were never truly taught as American songs. Children grew up singing about the fireflies and the Japanese Alps without ever knowing about the true origin of those songs. And on more than one occasion, they will proudly announce to a foreign visitor that these are part of the Japanese musical heritage.

Somehow, the Japanese know that ‘tempura’ is a Portuguese import, but few if any know that Yankee Doodle Dandy is not originally Japanese. I guess no one ever told them that.


Puerto Rico- How to Eat the Cake and Have it, Too

I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was July something-something of 1983, and I was about to be sworn in as a new US citizen. I was at a Federal Building in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The building was as American as one can get, US flags all around, signs and all, but what was outside did not fit the parameters of what I expected the US to look like. I was on a Spanish- speaking Caribbean island, and whenever I went outside, and I tried to speak English to the people, they would just shrug and walk by me saying ,“No entiendo ingles”. Because of my light complexion people had been calling me a “Gringo”, a “Yankee” and “Americano”. Once, I was sitting under a tree relaxing when a local passed by me and flipped me the bird. He probably meant that my presence on the island was not welcome. Little did all these people know that they were the ones that were Gringos and I was the one who was not. How ironic!

In some offices at the University where I went to, I saw anti-American posters saying things like “We Resent the Colonial Yoke” and “Freedom for Puerto Rico”. There would a picture of Puerto Rico wrapped in chains emanating from an evil country northeast of it. On some buildings, on the way to the court house, there were graffiti in Spanish: “Long Live Puerto Rico, Free and Socialist!” There was even one that said: “Yankee, if you do not go, you will die here in Puerto Rico”. To me it was kind of logical: if a person does not go, he will, one day, get old and die where he is. That’s a given truism. I guess they meant “violent death” by a freedom fighter, a “Machetero”, though.

They had all been US citizens for almost a century, and I only had a Green Card and was about to become one of them, i.e., a US citizen. But all of this seemed so surreal that up until this day I cannot make heads or tails of it. Was I in the US or what? Whose citizen did I end up becoming?

The court room was half full, and small to begin with. There were no “Daughters of the American Revolution” waiting outside with doughnuts. The new citizens, maybe thirty of us, many from other Latin American countries even recited poems about their new country in Spanish. By the “new country” they meant “The USA”. Still, while it all sounded great, I somehow left with a funny aftertaste in my mouth. I guess, that is what diversity is all about. However, the Puerto Rican style of diversity was even weirder.

At the University of Puerto Rico, where I was taking courses with Spanish being the medium of instruction, people often referred to Puerto Rico as a “country”. Actually, to most local people, Puerto Rico was simply a nation similar to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The United States was a foreign country in the eyes of many, if not all, locals. That is why becoming a US citizen there and integrating into a society that was not even English-speaking and completely Latin American was truly bizarre for me. However, many folks were doing just that. There were Middle Easterners who were becoming US citizens and staying in the “country” of Puerto Rico; many Cubans also opted for that route rather than staying in Miami and then, there was I. I loved Puerto Rico, its people and its vehement culture. But I remained forever confused by its identity.

The official name for Puerto Rico was “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico”. However, Massachusetts was also a commonwealth, but it was a state of the US, whereas Puerto Rico was not. To add to the confusion was the fact that when the English word “Commonwealth” was translated into Spanish, it did not become something like “ Riqueza Comun”, but, for some reason, someone came up with the phrase: “Estado Libre Asociado”, and if you translate it back into English, it reads” “ Associated Free State”. So, it is a state after all or what? I was confused again.

Another thing that I had learned while I was there was the often repeated belief of the locals that while they were American citizens, they were not Americans. I always thought that the two were synonymous, but now there were thousands, perhaps millions of people who would tell me time and time again that they were not Americans even though they had US citizenship. One of my professors at the University of Puerto Rico explained that Puerto Rican was a “nationality”, a cultural concept, whereas “American” was “citizenship”, a political aspect. That is how political science would see it, he would say. He had also related a story to me of how when Puerto Ricans would move to the US, they would be asked on various government forms what their nationality was, they would write PUERTO RICAN in huge capital letters forcing the authorities on mainland to change the question on the form to “What country are you a citizen of?” giving the people only one choice- to put the letters “US” in the blank.

In Puerto Rico, they even have a term to describe people of Puerto Rican descent from New York as “Neo Ricans”, and they rarely if ever see them as Americans. However, when I asked Puerto Ricans on the Island whom they considered Americans, many would say “a person born in the United States”. For some reason, though, it would be everyone else except the Neo Ricans. Very strange. Say, a person of Irish descent born in the US would be an American to them, but a person of Puerto Rican descent born in the US would not be. It was again very contradictory and very strange.

I asked a librarian in Puerto Rico once what an American name would be, and she answered “Smith” without blinking. I guess they were still clinging to the old view of America even when America has undergone so much change ethnically and culturally.

Many Puerto Ricans who go to live in the US are routinely asked if they have Green Cards and “Americanos” who live on the Island are called “expats”. Why?

I also remember the days when I used to sit at the library of the University and find a leaflet or two on the desk with more and more political appeals to “Throw Out The Vile Yankees From Our Motherland”. I went to the bathroom then, and stared at another long appeal scribbled on the door of the cubicle by some local revolutionary to “Throw Out Foreigners From the Country, Burn them by Fire and Brimstone, and Establish a Glorious Republic”.

Having observed all that, I have also noticed that these outbursts were from a vocal but small minority. Most Puerto Ricans were very happy to live in their “associated free state”, while considering themselves a country, nonetheless, and enjoying the benefits of US citizenship, such as Affirmative Action and visa free travel to most countries of the world, and lots and lots of jobs on mainland. Who said that you cannot eat the cake and have it, too? It has been done in Puerto Rico.

It was a great experience to become a US citizen in San Juan, but I still feel that something was missing from that naturalization ceremony. Maybe I should have done it in a place like Pittsburgh or Toledo, Ohio? I just did not feel as special as I could have. Things were not quite logical all around me. It was too surreal. However, at the same time, having been called a Gringo before and after the ceremony, I did put a spring in my step. I was now a Gringo with full rights. Just like the islanders around me who had been Spanish-speaking Gringos for almost a century now without ever admitting it to themselves or anyone around them.