June 21, 2010

The Culture Shock’s Undiscussed Stage

There are many books dealing with the culture shock, and generally they all agree that you go through these stages- euphoria, followed by disappointment and resentment, followed by adjustment and then, eventual relative peace and enjoyment,

I have discovered that after the resentment and before adjustment you go through the stage of sarcastic derision. The new country ends up looking ridiculous and its people seem so stupid that you start making fun of them and deriding them. It is not exactly resentment because derision can be so funny that you may actually enjoy it.

This is when you start making jokes about the natives that are funny to you but not funny to them. You start laughing at the way they walk and talk and think. You sometimes laugh so hard at the way they misunderstand you or make comments about you and “your people” that you come home with a big smile on your face.

The derision stage can last from several weeks to even several years and then you slide out of it into the adjustment stage. However, do keep in mind that when you deride the locals in their country, or even after you leave it and find the locals in your country, you are inviting trouble. People can get offended and attack you verbally or even physically. I have had it happen to me and since then, I keep my jokes to the circle of expats in bars and clubs and even then I watch the barman and stop talking when he or the waitresses are around. The locals’ ways are not funny to them and your mocking of their country may end up costing you dearly.

If you are one day laughing sarcastically, or not so sarcastically in the taxi at everything around you in the new land, rejoice, for you are now out of the resentment period. However, do not tell anyone among the natives why you are laughing. Hold your laughter until you get back home and chat on the Net with the people back in your country, or call your mom and tell her just how ludicrous these people can be. If you can, do it in some language that your hosts cannot understand.

The derision stage is real and you will go through it. Hold on to your seat and enjoy it. It is part of the culture shock and you will soon be over it.


Can They Get You a Working Visa?

In some so-called developing countries, the enthusiastic employers who want to hire you can exhibit gross ignorance in how they are supposed to go about issuing you a working visa or a work permit.

A case in point is Thailand. It is a constant complaint of many expatriates there that they would be hired only to find out that their employer had no earthly idea as to what is involved in the immigration formalities that you need to go through, and that he/she is now beset by as many headaches as you are. Some are not even sure that you are qualified to get such visas and permits. How would they know? They are not foreigners and they have never gone through the process themselves.

Some supervisors who knew something about the immigration procedures may have gone on to bigger and better things, and you are now facing a personnel officer who cannot even speak English and who has been hired through personal connections, but is completely incompetent. You then end up at the mercy of his/her incompetence. That means they send you to the Immigration and the Immigration sends you back asking for this and that paper and then you keep going back and forth and the assistant that the boss sent with you adoes not now anything about how to obtain the paper.

How about, in the worst case scenario, you find out that you are not even qualified for a work permit? That is after you have moved to the country and spent several months there. And if you are working in the meantime without the work permit, you run the risk of breaking the law and being fined.

Eventually, in most cases, such immigration nightmares end with you getting all the visas and permits you needed; however, if the bosses are in the dark as far as the procedures are concerned, it is a very unpleasant situation to be in.

So, whenever you get hired to work by a local employer or even a foreigner, please find out if he/she can properly process your papers and if he/she has done so before. If this is a small company and they have never done it, think twice about accepting employment with them. It may not be worth the headache.


Always Prepared in the Middle East

Working in the Middle East can be lucrative, but it can also be uncertain. One never knows what may happen from one day to the next. I guess uncertainty is universal nowadays, but it is especially so in this part of the world.

I am not talking about political uncertainty alone. It may happen that you may not be rehired for the next year’s contract. It may also happen that someone does not like you for some reason or that you may have some incident at work involving a local that may end up in your early repatriation.

When I was in Kuwait, there was an employee that had a run in with a Kuwaiti which pretty much sealed his fate- he did not have his contract renewed. Prior to that, his wife had had a child and he had bought an apartment full of furniture. Now he was stuck with all the furniture and had to think how to get rid of it before the departure- not an easy task if you ask me.

I had another coworker on a Saudi military base that had bought a car and rented a luxury apartment in Jeddah. Some time later, he had a run in with a Saudi supervisor who afterwards had him kicked off the base. He was then transferred to Dhahran and had to rack his brains over what to do with a lease on his apartment as well as the loan on the vehicle. Eventually, it all worked out but why the headaches?

Then, we had repeatedly received consular warnings from the US diplomatic missions urging us to leave the country. Many people have consequently left. And those who were traveling home light went without much headache.

So, while in the Middle East, I have learnt to always remain as unattached as possible. I would rent cars instead of buying them and tried to live in company -provided housing or those places where no lease was necessary- where you simply paid month to month. And the places were furnished. People would say that it was very wasteful of me to do that but for me that was the price that I paid to keep the peace of mind in the face of uncertainty.

I also did not buy any expensive goods and, instead, acquired all kinds of cheap Chinese products that I would not miss if I had to go. I did not have a personal Internet connection or a landline. My phone was prepaid and I went to cafes to send emails. They had some pretty good monthly deals and I found it to be a refreshing experience to go out to surf- just like one goes out to eat. The fewer attachments, the better. I also ate out at cheaper local restaurants interspersing my diet with once- a week hotel buffets. The rest of the money I stashed away. When we were finally laid off and not rehired for a long time, I left without headaches and with plenty of cash in the bank to tide me over till the next contract.

One should always not be paranoid and live in constant fear. That is another extreme that is simply not advisable. Instead one should, as they say, hope for the best, but be ready for the worst, and that includes being able to get out quickly and effortlessly and not getting too comfortable with all sorts of middle class trappings in a country whose permanent resident you are not. If you look and think hard enough, you will be able to live a very comfortable “portable” life and quickly get out should circumstances change. Then, if you try and get another Middle Eastern job, you will be able to being in a new place while using OPT- other people’s things- that is: rented cars, rented furniture and apartments coupled with cheap Chinese appliances and clothes. I found that to be the most headache-free way to live and enjoy my life in the rather unstable Middle East,


More Miscellaneous Notes


One of the tragedies of Van Gogh was that during his life time he could not sell but very few of his paintings and it was only after his death that he started selling and became famous. Most artists go through that stage one way or another. Most do not become famous even after their death. And most cannot sell.

I am an artist and I have found the reason why I was not selling a lot of my works- they were either not good enough or not cheap enough. So I made them better and then I made them so cheap that people simply could not refuse to buy them. So, this year I was able to sell over 20 paintings.

As far as becoming famous, with the Internet and all, if you could post yourself on enough bulletin boards, you could achieve a semblance of “fame” that is, in a way, worldwide- people can access your website all over the world.

The main task remains making a living of your art. That is definitely a tough thing to achieve. However, selling art and becoming ‘famous’ (sort of) is not a problem.


In the West, they make fun of the Taliban, and how it allegedly ‘uglifies” people by making women dress in all these weird hoods, covering their beauty and, basically, depriving them of the joy of dressing well, among other things. However, one can say the same thing, albeit to a lesser extent of the modern Western culture, particularly the British one that derides those who dare to dress well. To think of it: I have repeatedly been told by British coworkers that I should wear subdued colors and even avoid designs on my clothes and would be given dirty looks if I tried to dress half-way decent. Every time I saw British people, they would all be dressed in grey and denim; and if you did not dress as they do, you would be a declared a freak or a queer. The exception to the rule would be if you were an obvious ethnic minority- then they would lower their gaze in guilty respect. I mean, if you were a West Indian with dreadlocks and a colorful knit cap, they would usually say nothing. I did not look ethnic enough to them, so they would give me a hard time.

And many of the former British colonies around the world suffer from the same “sparrow syndrome”- its inhabitants dress in the colors of that most unsightly bird. I guess, if the Brits come from such a grey country with so little sunshine, it is most natural to them to look drab and insipid. But exporting their dull dressing habits to other countries is most uncalled for.

Sometimes, I also think that the modern sneakers-and-jeans culture destroys female beauty as badly as Taliban does. At least, in many of those Eastern nations women wear colorful clothes under the veils and reveal them to their family members once they come home. However, a dull-looking, sneakers-and-jeans-no-make-up girl stays the same when she comes home and is unlikely to change to anything more appealing.


In many countries around the world whose people are known for being tolerant, incompetence reigns supreme. Why? Well, because who screw up are usually forgiven and given too many second chances. Actually, they are given infinite chances. Hence, they do not dread being punished for their deeds. So, they screw up all the time. Services are bad, products are not delivered on time; people do not come to appointments on time and are forgiven. Hence, over decades, such tolerant societies fall behind those countries that are less tolerant and who give their incompetents hell if they do not shape up. After some time, the intolerant societies end up conquering the tolerant ones and making them their economic or political colonies.


Thailand used to be a very friendly country, accepting of foreigners and tolerant of people of all races and religions. It used to be that if you came to the country and learned the language, the society would be very open to you. It also had the name Land of Smiles, the name that its tourist authorities desperately try to preserve.

However, as it developed, it became more materialistic than even many Western countries and people there tuned down their smiling as they saw their forests wiped out, their cultural values trampled under the new, money –worshipping culture and as life became tougher and tougher for an average person there.

Many more foreigners came to live in Thailand and also, the prostitution industry developed to unprecedented heights and sex tourists from all around the world streamed into Thailand in droves. Thai people have consequently begun to feel squeezed out by all these invaders and the only relationship that remained between them and the foreigners who would arrive would be that of money. Integrity and honesty that used to form part of the traditional Buddhist culture became replaced by greed, envy and money-grubbing insincerity. Foreigners would be ripped off, taken advantage off, lied to and used in the same way as they used the Thais. The advent of AIDS did not help.

Right now, I would rate Thailand as one of the least friendly countries in SE Asia to live in. The people are not what they used to be- they have become xenophobic, jealous, and it has become a shame for a Thai girl to be seen with a foreigner. Who would blame them? With hundreds of fat Westerners parading daily with their Thai hookers down the main street of Bangkok, which decent girl would want to be mistaken for one? And with so many obnoxious and smelly Western tourists of the lowest possibly classes misbehaving in all possible ways, the locals have become more and more suspicious of the Fa-rangs (the white people). I would thus classify Thailand as a formerly-friendly country and would like to give it a wide birth as far as it becoming my residence. I will still go there on vacation and to hang out but I no longer feel good as far as living there goes. There are still Westerners residing there but they are clinging to the old version of Thailand in their minds- the friendlier one-not realizing that the country has changed for the worse in so many ways.

There are other countries to explore in the region and those who like authentic Asian culture should head to Myanmar, Cambodia, even the Philippines. I would not waste too much time in the over-hyped, too modernized and too commercialized Thailand.


Sometimes I wonder if a bad reputation of a country in the media could be the divine way of protecting it from invasions of modernity which begin with throngs of tourists and investors. Places like El Salvador or Nicaragua or Myanmar are not as bad as they are painted in the media. However, tourists give it a wide birth. The same can be said about so many prosperous African countries where life is quite normal, and one can live very well but because of a bad image of Africa on TV and in newspapers, people just do not go there.

Also, sometimes bad events that happen on one isolated place can damage the reputation of the whole country or region, effectively keeping so many people out of it. Say, if there is war in Sierra Leone, people will not visit Cameroon. Or any place in the Sub Saharan Africa, for that matter. If there is a war in Lebanon, people will not go to Jordan. Hey, it’s the Middle East. Lebanon, Jordan, what’s the difference?

When there are kidnappings in a remote area of the Philippines, it makes the whole country look dangerous and people cancel their travel plans to Manila.

Pity! One needs to do some research and ask around. Dangers are often greatly exaggerated and bad events in one area do not have to mar the whole region. Personally, I like going to places that are in close but somewhat safe proximity to the danger zones. They are usually virginal and pristine and if you calculate your odds well, you will have nothing to worry about.


Asian sex sites have been proliferating on the net for over a decade now, and they are getting very many visitors. I will not pass any moral judgments here, however, after having lived in Asia for so many years, I often laugh at some of the stupid things the owners of those sites try to pull on the unsuspecting surf-for-porn public.

They say that the site is updated weekly, but many have the same models month after month and year after year. They try and pass American-born models as “pure” Asians from all these different exotic locals, whereas I can immediately see if they are or they aren’t. And many aren’t from Asia at all.

But the funniest thing of all is how they try to dump all Asians together under some kind of common porn culture. They have Filipina models with ornaments around the site that represent Chinese food containers or, worse, they try to palm one Asian off as being another. Some sites pretend to have girls performing lurid acts in Laos of all places. I know what Lao people look like. I also know that it is a Communist country that would not allow such things. But even if they somehow used Lao models to create pornographic images from them, how come they have the Japanese “ washibana”- aguiline noses, that is? I can clearly see that the faces of the models are as Japanese as they can get. Are the rest of the sex surfers as stupid as to confuse those two?

Some sites who promise Vietnamese sex actually have all these Thai models on them. I know what the Vietnamese people look like. The ones they have on some of such sites are all Thais. Dressed like Thais, with Thai faces and movements. I have seen enough of both ethnicities to know which is which.

Sometimes you have one model on one site, who is presented as a Korean, pop up on another site as a Vietnamese. Lol!

And guess what else? They have newer and newer sites with the same models and the same movies in them. They must be raking in big bucks and the average Joe six pack is probably satisfied. Heck, they all have slanted eyes and yellow skin, so who cares where they come from?

Those Asian sites are laugh, for sure. Don’t waste your money on them.


If you ask me what the most beautiful language in the world is, I will say to you that it is Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Actually, I used to like French and Spanish and Italian but when I first heard Tagalog, I was completely awed by it. It sounded just like someone was playing a piano. Try and listen to it - when you have many Tagalog speakers, like on the streets of Manila, it sounds like a piano concert. Not many other languages can sound like musical instruments, but Tagalog does. I could sit and listen to it for hours. When I began studying it in earnest, I thought that it and no other language should be called the language of love. There are so many expressions to convey love, and everything is so gentle and indirect. The entire language is basically based on passive voice with verbs being inflexed from within. Instead of saying “I love you” you say ““Endeared I am by you”. And even when you say something like “Take it” it is expressed as, “Taken it be by you!” Kind of solemn and delicate. When you start learning the language and trying to put your ideas into their new piano-sounding shells, you will be amazed how beautifully they will come out. You are now Mr. Horowitz playing the piano with you mouth and joining the great concerto of the Filipino nation.

I think that any educated person should devote time to studying that beautiful language and its very rich literature. When information and human thoughts are expressed in Tagalog, they sound incredibly rich. Almost astral-like. Please study Tagalog, you will not regret it.


Do Not Turn Off the Foreign Song

When I was a kid, I used to listen to music from around the world. It did not matter to me whether I could understand the words or not. Actually, it seemed even better to me when I could not grasp the meaning of the foreign language because then, the voice would become a musical instrument of its own. A voice that I could not understand and the accompaniment to it sounded awesome and exotic.

I thought other people would enjoy the world music as much as I did, however, I found out that there were quite a few of them who thought it silly to be listening to songs whose lyrics were incomprehensible to them. Many even thought of it as a sort of an insult to their intelligence. Whenever I would put on a song in, say, German, they would turn away or start looking around nervously as if something seriously bad was happening.
In other words, they did not enjoy that experience at all.

Pity! There are so many musical treasures out there and they should not be just enjoyed by those who can have the comprehension of the language of the singer. A song is not exactly like a poem which needs to be translated for you to appreciate it. A song does not have to be translated to be enjoyed. Song is part of our musical heritage, not the literary one.

So, next time you hear a “foreign” song, do not turn it off. The voice may be telling you something even deeper than the actual meaning of the foreign language would be if you had it translated. There is a mysterious semantic undercurrent that runs deep beneath the singer’s consciousness. By not knowing what the words mean, you may be able to understand the song subconsciously, catching the profound significance that only those not familiar with the language could catch.

Can Chinese Junk save you money?

There are two types of Chinese Junks- one you see in the Hong Kong harbor and they will charge you an arm and a leg for a tour of the island. The other junk is the one you see in all these countries that have no quality control. Watches for $1. Electric shavers for $2. Sneakers for $5.

Is buying all these things worth it if you want to save money? They say that if you buy cheap Chinese products in 3d world countries, you are really wasting your money. They will break in a month or two and then you will need to buy a new one. You had better buy something of good quality that will serve you a long time, they say. Chinese junk is very wasteful.

But my experience is that it actually helps me save money. I alot myself a certain amount of money to buy things every month and those cheap Chinese things fit fine with my budget. Somehow, if I spend my cash on all these inexpensive items, even if they break and I buy new ones, somehow I still end up with more cash left. How? I don’t know. I haven’t figured out the reason.

However, I suspect that if I buy an expensive quality item, I will get sick and tired of it even before it breaks and then I will buy something new. Also, if I get used to buying quality stuff, I will start buying it in bigger amounts just like I am used to buying the “junk” in big amounts and feel “rich” in the process. Also, an expensive Japanese item may not break by itself, but I can end up breaking it myself. Then I will have to have it repaired and if it is past warranty time, it will cost me more money at times than buying a new low quality Chinese item.

Somehow, I still can’t figure out the reason. Maybe it is because I like to shop till I drop and still end up spending some $30 only on a bag full of all these gadgets and shoes. My shopping urges are satisfied and even if I do so once a week, I will still end up spending only a lousy $120 a month. Then, it is another $120 a month.

Now, will I ever be able to do that with expensive items once I decide to wise up and buy the real thing? Again, I don’t know. One thing I know for sure is that when I buy all these cheap Chinese goods as often as I like, I still save money and that’s how it works for me.

Does it work the same way for you, too?


Wild and Dangerous Kids

Living abroad is challenging as it is without the almost never-mentioned danger- wild kids. These kids can create all sorts of problems, some lethal, and make your life miserable.

In some countries kids are above reproach. It is simply not the custom to discipline them. Hence, the may go wild when the see someone who looks foreign or dresses foreign. And they can cause you embarrassment, ruin your mood for the day or even create a dangerous situation with which you may not be able to deal properly.

In Asia, kids sometimes taunt white people (and other foreigners) with horrible words. At the last KKK or Black Panthers meeting they would not use racial epithets of such variety. But since these are usually not uttered in English, I guess there is no one to call and complain.

The worst thing of all is that often such Asian kids will often be accompanied by their parents who will be looking at them with endearing smiles as they are taking the piss out of you and laughing at you all the way. And these parents will do nothing to restrain the kids.

Many kids are so spoiled; they sit in the middle of the road as your car approaches and do nothing to move away. Their parents probably never taught them anything about safety. Hey, these are kids; they don’t know any better’.

In some other countries, kids will throw stones at you while shouting racial abuse (which is not in English) or other objects such as tree branches or anything their hand can find at the moment. Sometimes, such kids could be those of the neighbors down the street. If you go and complain to the neighbors, they will probably deny it; and a visit to the local authorities will produce a tolerant smile on the face of such important figures. “These are just kids! What can we do?” In the meantime, they are getting ready for another attack when they see you. A stone at your car or at you personally, while you walk, can cause serious injury. And there is little you can do. Except move.

When abroad, especially in places where cultures and races are very different from yours and you cannot blend in, please exercise extreme caution with local kids. If there is a place where lots of children live, try not to move in there. Better yet, if you can live in a big expatriate compound, that would be even better. Just make sure there are not that many wild kids there, either. In some countries, kids will make Dennis the Menace look quite tame by comparison.


One of the most frustrating things about living like a skittering bird of unpredictable passage is the fact that some of your experiences cannot be applied as warnings to too many people. OK, you have made a mistake by making an assumption that something was going to be a certain way, and it turned out to be different, but what you have done is not something that that many people are bound to do if where you went is not the prime tourist destination.

One of such mistakes was to board a dhow in Dubai for a so-called “creek cruise”. The Dubai Creek is sort of an artificial canal that runs around the business part of town. These are beautiful Arab boats- two story ones- double-deckers if you wish, that would be a welcome relief from the Middle Eastern heat if one would take a nice cruise at night in them. I especially liked the upper deck from the outside look of it - very wide, with wooden banisters. I could see myself and my mom, who was with me, walking around the deck at night, marveling at the skyscrapers in the distance and inhaling sweet breezes coming from the desert.

However, after paying the ticket and boarding the ship, we have found out that we could not go onto the upper deck as it was prohibited by the Dubai Port Authority. We then had to content ourselves with sitting at crowded tables while people were eating buffets inside of a sterile, air-conditioned interior. The lights inside were so bright that we could hardly see what was happening on the outside because of the glare. And we could not get off, and had to withstand the ordeal for the whole of 2.5 hours that we were aboard. The music was blaring so loud that we had to ask the waiters to turn it down twice. And they were playing “Killing Me Softly” over and over, as well as many other very obsolete British and American oldies from the 1970ies. Some Arab experience you’ve got there! We went around the downtown area as many as ten times without ever taking any other route. It was basically a closed- in, crowded marry-go-round that made us feel very claustrophobic as we could not stop it and get off.

This is what one means when one says that Assumption is the Mother of All Screw-Ups. Just because you can take such a tour in many other places in the Arab World, Egypt in particular, and enjoy walking on the upper deck and breathing in the river aromas, does not mean that you can take a tour like that in Dubai.

However, it looked like the other passengers were very excited and happy to have the buffet onboard and, probably that is what they all came for to begin with. Screw the breezes!

OK, so what’s the conclusion and the lesson derived from it? It is basically, if and when you go to Dubai, and decide to take a creek cruise to enjoy fresh air, go in a small, open boat with only one deck, not the double-decker dhows. If you opt for the latter, you will end up imprisoned with a huge crowd of buffet- hungry passengers who could not give a hoot in the Hades for romantic whiffs of the desert on the upper deck.

Dubai- bound anyone? I hope so. I hate to think that we have suffered in vain and cannot warn other people now.


June 2, 2010

Five Indian Minutes

Throughout many years I have worked along side people from the Indian subcontinent. I have met few people more pleasant than these- they are polite, non-confrontational and rarely angry. It is a culture that emphasizes harmony and humility above all.

One cultural peculiarity that I would like to describe is the time-stretching phenomenon which Indian people include in their business practices. It is their " five minutes" phrase, which is probably as sincere and truthful as the Anglo-Saxon " How are you?".

To illustrate my point: let's say I visit a travel agent who says " I will be with you in five minutes". You relax and wait five minutes. However, the time drags on. It is now close to twenty minutes, but he still has not finished his other thing, and is still not paying any attention to you. The same with an Indian cab driver: " How long is it from here to there?" "Five minutes" ." That' s not far, I can deal with that". The ride turns out to be 30-35 minutes if you are lucky.

So, if an Indian man tells you it is going to take five minutes, please do not take it literally, but automatically multiply it by six. 5 x 6 = 30. That is how long it will take. However, telling you that it will take 30 minutes will make you angry. So, why not pacify you and tell you what you want to hear- “five minutes“? Punctuality is politeness of kings. Fake punctuality is politeness of Indians. Just as fake concern about your health is the politeness of the Brits.

Incidentally, by the same token , “10 minutes” also needs to be multiplied by 5 or 6.

With longer time periods - from say, 40 minutes to a day, multiply by three or four. If an Indian man tells you it takes 40 minutes, it is going to take three hours. If he tells you that it will be ready tomorrow, add another 2-4 days. Such seems to be the culture and other Indian people do not complain. They probably know about this rule and never take these numbers literally. They simply calculate the real time in their minds. The speaker never actually means "5 minutes" and is probably surprised that you think he does.

It is just like the American " We should get together one of these days" - do not bet on it. Or " I'll call you" - meaning- "I do not need you". Or the Japanese "It is a little bit difficult" meaning "Impossible". If you understand that people say one thing and mean another, you will be able to plan accordingly. After all, they do not act like this out of malice, but they expect you to read between the lines and schedule your time in accordance with the time frame they indirectly give you.


Second childhood in Saudi Arabia

I had a happy childhood, and for many years thereafter, I always longed to be a child again. After all, I did not have to work, all of my needs were provided; I did not have to pay rent or worry about finding a mate. Up until puberty, I lived a life of absolute contentment. I had no sexual urge and all the troubles resulting thereof, and I was simply happy to read my books, travel to new places, or just be alive, walking around the city, admiring architecture, and devoting the rest of my time to hobbies- collecting butterflies, playing with my pet hamster, doodling on a piece of paper or going out with my friends. It was a blissful time which I thought would never come back to me again. Little did I know that it would come back but with a weird twist- in the shape of the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 1997 I lost my job, a relationship and also suffered severe economic setbacks resulting from unwise investments. Me debts were $27,000 and mounting. A day actually came when, after I had made payments to yet another creditor, I discovered that I had no money left to buy food. This was when I got on the Internet and started doing some serious job searching. A company in Saudi Arabia advertised for a position. I applied and got a call from the recruiter. Within two months I was on the next plane to Riyadh with mixed emotions going through my head. What was I to expect there? Were they going to await me at the airport with daggers and sabres screaming "Death to the Infidels!". You know, the usual stereotypes.

Well, it turned out that the place was actually quite good. We were housed on a military base, all our needs were met- we did not have to pay for rooms or utilities, and food was free. They provided us with clothes and cars, and free gas. The work load was very light- if we had to work 5 hours each day, it was considered a hard day. On some days I did not have to do any work at all, just sit around the office and chat with my friends. After work, we went out in groups, some guys went to the US embassy for parties there, some watched satellite TV, which, again, was free. Some borrowed books from the base library - actually they simply took them with no stubs, no registration; and then, after they were done reading them, they returned them. There were no women around, the weather was nice- it was February, and the air was fresh. In addition to that, there were very few people around, and lots of open spaces.

The absence of women had many good points. I was no longer "on the make" all the time but could chill out and do my own thing. I did not have to worry about looking good. If I did not shave for one day or did not wear nice clothes, it was OK- who would care? I was not thinking about dates and was not planning to have any- hence, the economization of time and money resulting from it was significant- if before, every day I was thinking about where the next date was coming from, this time I was no longer worried about it- I was now looking towards a next walk in the desert to observe the stars, the dunes and other new phenomena.

I also started going into the sandy wastelands around the base and studying local insects and small animals, just like I did when I was a child. I once caught a hedgehog and brought it to the base, and we all had fun with it, especially the Filipinos who had not seen such an animal before. I started taking Tagalog classes with the Filipino guys paying them 10 Saudi Riyals an hour- about $2.60 cents. I am now fluent in teh language, by the way.

Every day was predictable and was very similar to the day before. My life acquired the same rhythmic quality that it had when I was a child. I lived for the present, in the present, enjoying the simplicity of every day.I started noticing the beauty of naturearound me, started listening to the wind, admiring themoon and watching sunsets. The Western people on base were very friendly and we did not have to compete against each other since each one of us had a separate contract and his own duty. The Saudis on base were also quite friendly and very welcoming. Most were big jokers, and always in a good mood. Surprisingly thus, the feeling of happiness that left me at age 13-14, with the advent of puberty, came back full force.

I could now understand how monks could live happy lives, cut off from the opposite sex and the temptations of society. They could obviously see great benefit in living their simple and predictable existences free from constant demands of the flesh. Being in Saudi was similar to being such a monk. And it was just as well.

As months and years rolled by, I paid off all of my debts, was transferred to Jeddah, learned diving, and, if I wanted to date, I was able to do so during my long vacations which took place every five months. If I average my conquests over the years, I did not do so badly- in fact I did even better than back home.

After 4.5 years in Saudi I was a changed man, in good humor, with a sizable bank account and with a good, warm feeling towards mankind. However, things changed with the wars and the coming unto the scene of many terrorists who were targeting the thousands of Westerners residing in the Kingdom. So, I left. Now, when I look back, I recall those years as happy ones. As happy as the years of my childhood. I can now rightfully say that I had a second childhood in Saudi Arabia, without the accompanying senility, of course.


Saudi Arabia- an oasis for us, losers

That's right. Losers by society's standards. So, if you have no place to go and nobody wants you, come on over to Saudi Arabia- you will be in good company. What's more, you will rediscover your dignity as well as save some cash.

How so? OK, I'll give you an example. Let's say you are a glamorous young man aged 20-35, handsome and popular with women. You are a party animal , exercise freak , are quite good-looking and given to flirting with the opposite sex. Or, you are an up-and- coming young executive set on succeeding in the corporate world. Saudi Arabia should be the farthest thing from your mind. Do not come here! You would be nuts if you did.

Now, if you are a balding, paunchy, middle -aged loser, past his physical prime, and with a life full of disappointments in every area, including romantic and financial, with a divorce or two behind you, who is feeling that the world has largely past him by, come on over- you are going to love it!

By coming here, many things will be working in your favor: you will be one of the few Westerners in a country filled with Third World laborers on low salaries. Your wages will be higher than those of these workers, and most Saudis for that matter. Also, because there is no sales or import tax, everything here is cheap. You can rent a good car for some $400 a month, including insurance. That is , if your company will not give you a car. You can take taxis for next to nothing, if you do not want to drive. Food of all kinds is plentiful and everything else is Chinese-made and dirth cheap. You get SR ( Saudi Riyals ) 3.75 to the dollar. Within the local Indo-Pakistani laborers' economy ( these are the people that provide work force for the Kingdom) one Riyal has an almost the same buying power here as one dollar in the US, or one pound in the UK. If you shop where such drudges shop, which is almost everywhere, you will be able to live the same lifestyle as you would if you had a salary of $10,000-$12,000 a month back home. I mean it.

Tired of seeing the younger generation pushing you out of your job? No more. All people here have individual contracts and jobs assigned to them. Westerners here rarely compete against each other, but are supportive and helpful to one another for the most part. In a place like Saudi, a guy that would cut your throat back home will most often than not become your best friend.

The economy is based on oil revenues, not taxes or credit. Money is rarely a problem. As one of my co-workers used to exclaim with his toothless smile-" Let the petro dollars flow!" And they do flow. You will stop losing your sleep thinking of how you are going to pay your next month's rent. Housing and utilities are usually provided and paid for by employers. Work is easy- no one is worried as much about getting fired for under-performing or not going the extra mile. You can look forward to an enjoyable and rather easy day at work.

Worried about your retirement? I guess you should be as you are not contributing to Social Security here, but, instead, every month at least two thousand dollars is deposited into your bank account back home. After three years, it's a lot of money- buy a house, rent it out, and you can retire somewhere nice.

Fed up with watching all those attractive young couples back home making out in the parks and walking lovey-dovey down the street while you are putting Rogaine on your bald pate and wondering where all those years have gone? No more! There are no such couples here, only married ones, and the wife is covered in black robes, head-to-toe. They are not holding hands or anything like that. Most of the time you do not see women, period, so, that eliminates any feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and forlornness on your part. Everywhere you look, you see male workers from the Indian Subcontinent and the Philippines. How do you fare compared to them socially and economically? Not badly, I must tell you.

You can now dress any way you want, shine your bald spot unto the world and feel just great! You are no longer keenly aware of the fact that women do not pay attention to you anymore- there are no women to pay attention to anybody in Saudi Arabia. You are among millions of lonely middle-aged men here most of whom are happy to be making their $300-400 a month and sending it back home to Bangladesh. Except that now you are seven to ten times richer than they are. A truly enviable position to be in.

As a Westerner ( “Khawaja“- that is how they will call you, my Gringo friend) you are seen as being high-class even by the Saudis, let alone the Third World nationals working here. When you walk into stores, people smile at you and say "Salaam Aleykum". They know that you have power and money- at least they think you do and that is how they perceive your status here-you are a rich ambassador of the West.

When your (paid!) vacations come rolling around, and these are usually at least twice as long as what you get back home, you head for exotic destinations where a man's age does not matter as far as women are concerned. A fat, bald, ageing Western "loser" is a highly desirable boyfriend, husband ( and customer) in many S. E. Asian or E. European countries. Once you hit those famed night spots in Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta or even Kiev, no one will see you as a loser anymore. Not there , anyways.

As soon as you learn to compartmentalize your international life and see Saudi as a place to work, while other countries as places to have fun and romance, you will have finally understood the formula to success- assign duties to countries and do not wait for countries to assign duties to you. That's what it's all about. Each place should be appreciated for what it's worth- not more, not less.

So, if you feel like a loser back home, and you have let happiness slip away from you; if you feel like you got beaten in the rat race, come on over to Saudi Arabia. You will be able to put your vanquished history behind and start your life afresh among the golden dunes of the Magic Kingdom. Just watch out for those terrorists- they can get quite obnoxious at times.


Being a white person in East Asia is a strange experience

One is for all intents and purposes an eternal guest and is treated as such by the man on the street. You may be living in the country for 20 years but to the average Joe Asian, when he sees you, it is like you have just arrived. He starts speaking to you in English or if he does not speak English, he either uses signs or avoids you altogether. He asks you questions that one would only ask a tourist. Somehow, they simply cannot fathom the fact that one is living in their country permanently. You are just so unusual, they simply cannot accept that. They want to be a host and they want you to be the guest.

With very few exceptions, being accepted as "one of them" is an impossibility. You can never be Chinese or Japanese or Korean. Or Vietnamese, Thai or Cambodian. You can be seen as a Filipino or a Singaporean, though but it has to be among very educated classes- and they may, in fact, one day, see you as such. The man on the street, again though, will see you as this permanent tourist no matter what you do. From this point of view, even if you feel that the country has become your "home" ,the general population will have hard time accepting the fact that you now belong there.

Having said that, the group of people that you know, your friends and colleagues will come to accept you quite well. The people are generally quite polite and non-confrontational. The food is delicious. If you are a man, you will find it easier to score with local women than back home as you will be seen as someone exotic and virile.

Being poor in Asia is not a good thing but being white often compensates for it. In some countries, such as Japan, for one, not being rich may not matter so much socially but it may matter if you need to get a good place to live or send your kids to an international school.

In Malaysia, Thailand or the Philippines, being poor will not make you too many friends with the locals as they are not used to seeing poor white people and do not know how to deal with them. Mostly, it will be amazement followed by eventual feeling uncomfortable on their part.

Asians as a rule seem to be quite insular and have a view of the world and your role in it that may seem as narrow to you. They call you a “foreigner” but they do not call other Asians- foreigners. They simply call them Koreans or Filipinos but never “foreigners“. Also, they assume you to be a certain way even though you are nothing like that. As far as they are concerned, only people with narrow eyes and jet black straight hair eat rice and use chopsticks. All white people eat bread and use fork and spoon. Never mind the fact that you grew up on Chinese take-always back in New York- you will have hard time convincing people that in your country there are Asian restaurants and Asian people. It is a common thing to be sitting at an eatery in Tokyo, eating your meal and having a middle aged lady at the end of the room stare at you as you use chopsticks, and then watching her start clapping while smiling and nodding in surprise and admiration. Look at that foreigner! He is using chopsticks! Wow! Never mind that Asians can use all the Western utensils and wear jeans. That is normal. Your eating with chopsticks is not normal, however. These things get on one's nerves after a while, but there is absolutely nothing you can do about them as the number of people holding such stereotypes is simply astronomical.

You can become fluent in the language but, again, to a local stranger who has just met you, it is so shocking that he may not even register it. You will be speaking in Chinese or another Asian language and he will staring at you with his mouth agape and not knowing how to react.

I remember I was once sitting in a Thai restaurant and watching a program in Thai- a language that I speak quite well. Suddenly, an employee walks out of the kitchen and without looking at me or even saying hello, walks up to the TV and changes the channel to CNN. Then he walks out just as unceremoniously. "A white person understanding Thai is an impossibility, we had better change it to CNN- so that he could understand". Such is their train of thought. Again, not everybody is like that, but such an attitude is very common and is almost a daily occurrence when you meet people there whom you don't know.

I remember I was once in Manila in the company of two middle aged ladies, one Japanese and one Filipino. I had my guitar with me and proceeded to sing a Japanese song to them. I then translated the Japanese lyrics into Tagalog. There was a Japanese word "karasu" which means "raven". I explained to the Filipino lady that "raven" in Tagalog was "uwak". She nodded, then chuckled, and then, chuckled again. "Uwak"- "bwahahaha". She was nodding and giggling. I asked her what was the matter. The answer was " Because your face... it is American...but you say, bwahahaha- uwak, ha-ha-ha." It was a strange, almost surreal experience. Never mind the fact that their faces were not "American". It was OK for them to speak English, and I was not laughing, but as soon as I used the word "uwak: it evoked chuckles.

Some white people do a wise thing by not learning the local languages, speaking English to everybody and not trying to integrate. Unlike in America where such an attitude would be quite insulting, in Asia this is how many people expect you to act, and they accommodate you quite well if you behave like that. Many Westerners conduct themselves in just such a manner and act with superiority, and they gather nothing but admiration from the local population. Strange indeed.

One of my friends, an old Asia hand once told me, “One can never expect an Asian to treat you as an equal. Hence, unless one wants to be stepped on and scorned, one has no choice but to try and come off as being superior". Rudeness, of course is not tolerated anywhere, but being somewhat cocky pays off as people there seem to respect such a type. It also helps if one actually has the money and the power to justify such a self-view. Failing that, if one is on a short trip, one can fake being rich for the duration of one's stay.

The food is great and overall, notwithstanding the irritations described living in Asia is very enjoyable. However, after being there for months and years, it is quite refreshing to go to a place like Argentina and walk down the streets among crowds of people that look like you. In Asia, people will not approach you and ask you for directions, unless they are drunk. In Argentina they do. This makes you feel at home as people come up to you and speak to you in Spanish assuming that you are a local. But one becomes just one in many there. In Asia, although one is somewhat of a mild freak of nature, one can enjoy a weird semi-celebrity existence and keep tasting local hospitality ad infinitum.


Anglo- American vs. Latin- American racial issues

If you travel to and live in both the Latin and the "Anglo"- America, you will notice that the problem of racism in both parts of the world is expressed differently. In the US as a rule, the poorer the strata of the society, the more racism there seems to be in their general attitude in dealing with other groups. The worst place to be different in color or in nationality in the US would be some trailer park or some poor neighborhood. As one becomes more educated, it seems that it becomes easier for one to mingle with other people, as richer, more knowledgeable Americans seem to be more open-minded than the lower, less informed classes. Therefore, rich blacks will have much better time among rich whites than among poor ones. The same would go for Asians and Hispanics if one observes how they integrate into the US society. The poorer they are, the more discrimination they have to face from both poor whites and poor blacks. Lower classes in America are segregated into somewhat "angry" ethnic neighborhoods where each one associates with his own kind. Not so with the higher classes. One only needs to look at the US government to see how many minorities there are in power. People like Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powel come to mind, as well as people with all kinds of exotic and ethnic names who have come to occupy high positions in US politics.

In addition to that, America divides its population into five "tribes" - Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. These are arbitrary definitions for all intents and purposes, but people seem to take them very seriously and they form their personal identities based on those. Foreign visitors sometimes remark that while America is diverse, "the white guy", "the black guy" and other such "guys" seem to be very stereotypical models into which the US population is expected to fit in. Whites are supposed to act a certain way, blacks- another way, etc.

In Latin America things are slightly different. The first thing that catches one's eye is that the poor classes there are the least prejudiced. If one goes to places such as Panama, or Puerto Rico or Colombia, one will notice that there is almost no racial segregation among the lowest echelons of society. In addition to that, a Black person does not speak a certain "black dialect" as in the US, and you cannot tell on the phone if a person is Black or White ( same in Britain, by the way). There are not many cultural stereotypes of behavior that one needs to fit into. People seem to behave just like what their nationality dictates they should behave. A Colombian behaves as a Colombian. A Brazilian behaves as a Brazilian should. Not as a "Black Brazilian". Just Brazilian.

The Spanish ( or Portuguese) language spoken by the darkest African-looking person and the whitest- Northern Spanish/Euro-looking person is generally the same. One may notice that there are sometimes black neighborhoods in Latin America, but they are often such because slaves that worked in certain areas simply remained there- such as around the coast and the former plantations. Social interactions among poor working classes are very harmonious, and people of all colors mingle and make friends easily. Intermarriage between poor people of all races is very much accepted. However, once one begins going up the social ladder, this is where prejudice starts getting stronger and stronger. Whereas in the US you see many blacks in positions of power, you will be hard pressed to see them occupying such posts in Latin America. The higher you want to go, the whiter you have to be and the more you need to look like a European immigrant. There have been exceptions to the rule, such as Alberto Fujimori of Peru, but the Japanese are in many circles seen as "honorary whites" anyway .There has been an Argentinean president of Arab descent- Menem, but again, he looked very European, physically, and "acted" in a European way, too. Generally, to get a good job and to move up, being as white as possible helps a lot. That is the reality of life there.

It is like that in the US, too, you may argue, but, again, the US does have Affirmative Action and one can see all these Black judges and mayors and quite a few rich Black people who are very well integrated. College professors with Ph. Ds who are Black are quite common. Nothing like that can be seen in Latin America. Very strange, indeed.

In addition to that, within Latin America, racial definitions are somewhat different, too. Generally, a person who is part European and part Indian with a name such as Gomez, Lopes or Rodriquez will be considered “white” there. The "Hispanic" qualification naturally does not exist in that part of the world- they are just Peruvians or Mexicans. This creates confusion on the part of Latin American immigrants to the US whose identity changes to "Hispanic" as soon as they arrive. People of French and Italian descent from Argentina suddenly become "non-whites" in the US. However, a person of the same origin coming from Paris will be "white". Again, it shows how ridiculous the whole thing is and how arbitrary those definitions are.

Many Black people who came from Latin America to live in the US have felt that now they had much greater opportunities to advance and make something out of themselves. So did many people of Amerindian descent ( such as poor Mexicans and Guatemalans) who were able to benefit greatly from the equal opportunities awarded to them by the consitituon of this country. However, they all complained of one thing- it is so hard to make friends with the poorer classes of Americans who seem to be very prejudiced and angry as a whole.

The " white" people from Latin America such as Argentines or Chileans would, on the other hand, often bemoan their loss of status here and the fact that they are now no longer "white", but "Hispanic". This is probably the reason why if one sees people from Latin America in the US, most of them are not European-looking but either Native South American or a mixture of various races, because the States, after all is the best place for them to develop and grow, albeit not socially.At least not aslong as they are poor by US standards But, who cares?- social acceptance may not necessarily be on their priority list, anyway. At least, not immediately.