Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.

 

 

Divorce and dating across cultures.

restaurant-alcohol-bar-drinksRoughly 7 years ago I had one of those “damn, we’re really going to get a divorce” moments when you realize that something you’ve pondered so often is actually going to happen. Even if part of you welcomes the divorce, it’s a very strange feeling, especially after many years of marriage. It was a mutual decision and, while I was well aware of the disadvantages (we have 2 kids) I realized that, at the very least, I could start dating again. At this point I will put my cards out on the table: I never cheated on my ex-wife, not even close. If you think that enthusiastically searching out sexual partners(at least in short-term) is lame and shallow than you, dear reader, have never lived through the last few years of a dying marriage. So, yes, I was overdue and was I ever motivated.

There are many reasons why I have lived in this city for the past 20 years but one of the nicest is that it’s extremely cosmopolitan, the sort of place that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some sort of expat or immigrant (I guess you could say I’m both). It’s very similar to some neighborhoods in New York or London, only on a smaller scale. It’s the sort of place where you can constantly meet people from literally all over the world. This meant that in my roughly 3 to 4 year stint of post-divorce dating I met women from enough nations to get a quorum call at the UN General Assembly.

Disclaimer: What follows are some personal very generalized (the better to protect the privacy of everyone involved) observations. Certain examples might cleave to a cultural stereotype of that person’s nationality and, if they do, it’s because I did indeed observe this behavior. Nobody is walking national stereotype but culture is very strong force. If you belong to a culture you will share at least a few characteristics with people in that culture. Also, this particular post will be stupendously shallow. You have been forewarned. OK, so now on to the good part…

  • General Dating strategy – You’ll have realize that I was many years out of the game so my dating game was weak. Even in my earlier single days, my game was pretty bad. I was able to date some pretty fantastic women, but it was almost in spite of myself. I quickly realized a few things: a) I’ve more money and lots more life experience than I did in my 20s b) I managed to stay in shape and consistently look younger than I should do in spite of ingesting a Lake Superior of booze in my lifetime c) I was going to learn from past experience and not date people from work and d) I was going get out of my comfort zone and be more outgoing. So I did what just about every one does in the situation; I looked up old girlfriends, I did online dating and I forced myself to widen my social circle by meeting as many people as possible. What follows are the results of those strategies.
  • Looking up Exes: I don’t care what anybody says, this works like a charm. If you were decent person in the relationship, the sex was good (or great) and it just so happens your Ex is not in a relationship at the present moment, your chances are excellent. What’s more, no surprises and no illusions about the future. I have had newly single Exes look me up, and vice versa. You therefore have a pleasant time together (sex and companionship) and eventually go onto to other things. It’s more a friends with benefits sort of relationship. I have moved on, as have the Exes in question, but in most cases we remain on very good platonic terms.
  • Online Dating: This might be the most interesting facet, especially given the multilingual/multicultural angle. One complicating factor is that I am really not a fan of getting my picture taken or the whole Selfie phenomenon. The best pictures of me are invariably “action” shots taken while I am doing something else than waiting for my picture to be taken. I eventually found 1 or 2 recent pics and worked on creating concise tag-lines in 2 languages. While I find this sort of blatant hard sell abhorrent I find the idea of being celibate ever more so thus I jumped in with both feet. It was a funny experience and I met loads of women that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I certainly don’t regret it but I won’t do it again because a) it takes a lot of time and b) the type of people I met in person tend to correspond more to what I am looking for. Dating sites are the shotgun approach to dating. I did met some great women, some of whom remain good friends. I met a lot of characters and at least 1 or 2 women who had, shall we say, a somewhat tenuous grasp of reality. And I met some women who were just all about sex, asap (yes, ladies, it’s not just the men). Please note that I’m not complaining about that part as it’s one of my stated goals. However, when you walk into a cafe, talk for a few minutes or so and the woman says “Ok, let’s go, your place” (this actually happened to me once) alarm bells start to go off. I also met women who felt that a first date should be a “how serious are you” interrogation, seemingly forgetting if the date is not a fun experience, I’m not going to repeat it. I met women who, on a first date, would regale me with a litany of complaints about their ex-husband or who would try to grill me about my ex-wife. I learned a very valuable lesson from a few women, namely how to cut and run, done with class and consideration. Internet dating is a crap shoot and there will be times when you meet somebody and realize within the first few minutes that this person is not for you. At first, I’d suffer through a fairly long period (out of consideration) and then bring the date to an end. Women have much more experience rejecting the opposite sex and can usually do it decisively and tactfully if they so choose. Men, conversely, are much more used to rejection and we appreciate a “no thanks” when done with style. Bringing a non-starter date to a swift but considerate conclusion is a must.
  • Meeting women the old school way – This includes having friends introduce me to their female acquaintances, meeting women at parties, the tried and true method of going out to bars and clubs with friends and finally, from time to time, starting open, non-committal conversations with women in random locations . Considering all the time I spend in gyms, I’ve never dated or attempted to date women I meet at the gym. There are many reasons for this but primarily I work hard in the gym so I am a sweaty, red-faced mess most of the time. I met less women via the old-school methods than via the internet but there were distinct advantages. I wasted much less time and also I could perceive women (and they could perceive me) at face value, and not the result of some filtered internet search. In general, I find that I usually have more in common with women closer to my age. Via these methods, though, I often met and sometimes went out with women who were both younger and (a little bit) older than me. It’s easier to keep an open mind when the person is right in front of you.
  • Results: Bear in mind that during this period I was highly motivated. The end result was that I met quite a few women…and I slept with a quite few women. I easily slept with more women during this 4 year period than during my entire post high school/pre- marriage single period. In spite of no longer having the six-pack I did back then, I have a much more positive attitude which made an enormous difference. Concentrate on having a fun experience and chances are the sex will come. If I met somebody cool and interesting but did not have sex, that was fine too. Wasting my time on a dud date (no chemistry, conversation, negative vibe, etc) was really the only down-side. Conversely, rejection is not a big deal – everyone has the right to say no. Yes, some women I thought were cool turned out to not think the same of me. And that was fine – and makes me wonder why I dreaded that result so much as a younger man. Also, I was able to flip the script. A few times, as I attempted to politely say no to another date,etc , I’ve had a woman just lose her shit and get nasty. My loss, right, no reason to get worked up about it. It’s a virtuous circle, the less you fear rejection, the more fun you will tend to have. Final result I don’t necessarily feel the need to “met” women at any expense as I did “post-divorce”. If was fun (for the most part) and it pushed me out of several comfort zones which is something I think every divorced person needs.
  • Cross-cultural Observations (AKA is he really going to validate cultural stereotypes): I found that, in an extremely broad sense, cultural stereotypes tend to have some truth to them. Latin American, African, Asian and Eastern European women tend to expect and appreciate that you play the “man”, you take initiative make the decisions, open doors and, yes, pay for most things. No joke, You will reap benefits, shall we say, that would almost be unthinkable with upper middle class Aglophone (US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc) women but you must first Prove Your Worth. North-American women want their cake and eat it too – meaning that they expect full equality while at the same expecting you to pay for most things and still “take charge”. Sometimes. When, where and how to take charge is highly variable and woe unto he who misinterprets the signs. Western European women are somewhat closer to the North American end of spectrum meaning they appreciate their independence while still acknowledging that there are innate differences between the sexes. That being said, both groups tend to be lower maintenance which can be a real breath of fresh air.

I should note that class differences were minimal. The women I dates tended to have the same level of education and professional development – if not more in some cases.

Pleasant surprises – Russian women are invariably pretty and expensively dressed, yes, but in my experience are also very cultured as regards to literature, dance and music. They can have dark, off-beat senses of humor. Romanian women are some of the most fun women in the world. They combine Slavic and Mediterranean looks while preserving a more sociable Mediterranean warmth. They can, and will, talk your ear off but it will never, ever be boring. Know that a 50 kilo Polish or Irish woman can drink your punk ass under the table, all day, any day. Anglophone women and women from Western Europe tend to be somewhat less drama prone than women from other cultures that I met.
Wow – didn’t really expect that: When I was freshly separated from my soon to be ex-wife, the idea that I could meet and eventually sleep with a decent number of fairly interesting, attractive women seemed, if not far-fetched, at least a tad overly optimistic. I soon learned that this is not the difficult part. The truly difficult part is the karmic price you pay. A quick example that happened to me no less than 3 times. Married female acquaintances made it clear that I could help add some spice to their daily routine. For so many reasons, this is a horrible idea so I didn’t…until, of course, I did, for all the usual reasons. 9 & 1/2 weeks territory, as in indulging in the majority of fantasies one has harbored for quite some time. I ended it before things could truly go south but in the bargain I felt like a real asshole for doing it in the first place. Gentlemen, know that if your marriage is going stale or on the rocks and your wife/girlfriend is attractive, well, she can indulge herself at the literal snap of a finger. To the “other guy”:  Don’t ever be the “3rd person”, ever.

Lessons learned – Do not take rejection personally, stay true to yourself and your morals, have fun and above all, “be in the moment”.  Don’t do things you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to do them with. 

Finally, the city I live in is sufficiently small and cosmopolitan enough that one meeting and dating somebody from another culture was\is pretty much a constant. Everyone is doing it, not just out of necessity, but also because they can. It’s fun and exciting. Yes, long-term relationships between people who share a culture can be easier (less misunderstandings, for one). All I know is that I’ve never been one to take the easier path.