La Perle des Antilles

This may sound maudlin, but sometimes hate does turn into love and sometimes, if you’re in the right frame of mind, a challenging situation is indeed an opportunity.  By the time I left home at 18, I had moved house 17 times in 3 continents, 4 countries, 3 US states and the District of Columbia.  One of those places, for better or worse, was to have a major influence on my life.  In the early 70s my family moved to Haiti for what was supposed be “a few years”.

If nature abhors a vacuum, it’s equally true that young children abhor uncertain, chaotic situations.  So let me reiterate what I just said in the paragraph above – it was the 1970s (an era, in retrospect, when everyone was seemingly flying by the seat of their pants) and I had just landed in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, a 3rd world country ruled by secret police and a “president for life” dictator.  Oh, and we didn’t speak the language (creole).  My parents spoke French and my sister and I had spoken French as younger children but at that point had forgotten it after a few years in inner-city DC.  (Haiti was\is considered a francophone country but the reality is that the vast majority of the population do not speak French.)

My father’s job allowed us to have a comfortable life of a higher standard than we’d just had in DC, complete with a pool and servants.    I was in a new school (again), and as per usual most of the kids had known each other since infancy.  While it was an “American” school, most of the kids flat-out spoke creole amongst themselves outside of class.  I was told we’d move again in a few years so it seemed sort of pointless to learn the language and otherwise get attached to this place that I wasn’t overly fond of.

It wasn’t all bad, of course, because in spite of extreme poverty and political corruption, Haiti was – and is – a country unlike no other.  There is natural beauty (including the best beaches I’ve ever seen anywhere), an extremely vibrant culture and great cuisine.  I might have been a moody little git, but it’s hard not to like pate, poulet creole and fresco gwenadin ak pistache griye (shaved ice with grenadine syrup and grilled peanuts – trust me).  However, what really burned Haiti into my memory, and not in a good way, was the final breakdown of my parents’ marriage and also a fairly scary health issue my mother encountered.  I had made friends and was doing OK in school but I really couldn’t wait to see the last of that country.

Leave we did, and for a few brief years my sister, my mother and I ping-ponged around the US Midwest and East Coast.  Somewhere along the line I made a fetish out of “normalcy”.  I longed to fit in, to be as vanilla as possible, to blend into the crowd.  Finally, we ended up in incredibly small-minded town in the metropolitan Boston area as my mother worked ridiculous hours, raised 2 kids and pursued her degrees in arguably the best university in the US.  My “normalcy” campaign was an abject failure.  Sure, I had made a few friends and had become reasonably proficient at baseball but I was far from what you’d call popular.  In fact, I received more than my share of shit, straight up bullying, at school because I was a shy, geeky, pimply new kid (entirely on me) but also because of my family situation (beyond my control).  At roughly the same time I discovered the martial arts and latched on with laser focus.  I trained 4 hours a day 5 times a week so after a year or 2 I began to get fairly proficient.  The better I got, the more local notoriety I received and, for the most part, the bullying stopped.  After a fight or 2, kids decided to pursue easier targets.

Nevertheless, I was miserable anywhere outside of a dojo, and school, especially, was the 9th circle of hell.  I began to skip obscene amounts of school.  Towards the end, I was skipping every Monday and Friday.  To this day, I’m not sure how I got away with it, but let’s just say that my middle school was a bit of a chaotic, Lord of the Flies situation for students and teachers alike.  Most kids probably would have fallen in with a bad element at this point but honestly, I was too geeky to be accepted by the “bad element”.  Skipping school was the limit of my rebellion.

All miserable things must come to an end so, eventually, the day came when my mother sat my sister and I down to announce that we’d be going back to Haiti for a brief period so she could finish her doctoral thesis.  Looking back, as the divorced parent of 2 children, I  appreciate the courage behind her decision.  As a self-involved young teenager, naturally, my first thought was “WTF, why me and why, of all the places in the world, there???”  And I didn’t want to leave my dojo, the one place that I fit in.  Soon thereafter, however, the school administration finally noticed my laughable attendance record and the dragnet began to close in.   Suddenly, a few months in the Caribbean didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

In no time at all, we were back in Port-au-Prince.  This time, though, the experience was going to be radically different.  My sister and I were older and there was less “family drama” to complicate things further.  On the other hand, we had very little money and were operating well and truly without a safety net.  Money equals power everywhere, but even more so in desperately poor countries.  The 3 of us lived in 1 rented room for the first few months.   In adult terms, we had only been gone for a few years, but as an early adolescent it seemed like decades.

It was like “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” in reverse, only I was painfully skinny (we all were back then) and incredibly “blan”.  Even  my Irish-American schoolmates in Boston used to give out to me for how pale I am…so while my school in PauP reflected all the colors in the rainbow, I selflessly anchored the far gringo end of the chromatic spectrum.  The similarities with the book, however, outweighed the differences: it was the very early 80s, I was on the island of Hispaniola and, oh yes indeedy, was very socially awkward.

My mother had managed, by dint of a level of hustle one rarely sees these days, to send us to our old school.  This was notable because it’s a private school and as I mentioned above, she had very limited funds at that point.  (In fact, I’m fairly certain her income was poverty level by US standards, but in Haiti in those days it was “middle-class”.  One didn’t often see an entire “blan” family with limited means (and, at the time, limited connections) so it’s accurate to say we were a rarity.)  My classmates were an interesting mix of Haitian elite (the 1 percent), embassy brats, some missionary kids and a few odd-ball cases like my sister and I.  It was a weird mix by anybody’s standards.  The 14 year old kid on my left might have a Patek Philippe on his wrist and had driven himself to school in his BMW while the kid on my right could be a snuff-dipping South Carolina redneck in training.  Every high school has cliques and subcultures, but this place added class and a wider range of socio-political issues to boot.  (We had, for example, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis in our school – which made for an interesting period after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982).

I also searched around for a new dojo – one that I could get to via public transportation (aka Tap-taps, camionettes and “publiques” (ancient communal taxis of a sort) and we could afford.  We eventually found one and I began training with my new dojo mates.  It was my first real re-introduction to unadulterated Haitian culture.  Nobody spoke English, just Creole (mostly) and French (sorta).  It was a real old school dojo, with the old-school “recitation of the credo” before every training session, all counting and technique names in Japanese and, distressingly (for me) they insisted on wearing a full gi at all times.  Wearing a full gi while performing intense physical exercise in a stifling, non-air-conditioned dojo in a tropical country was, shall we say, challenging at first.  I puked a few times and passed out at least once before my body adjusted.  That being said, my dojo mates and instructors where really cool guys and surprisingly accepting of the goofy “sans-ave” “blanmana” that was deposited in their midst.  Oh, and they were the most flexible bunch I had ever run into, capable of doing full splits with little or no warm-up.  Long after I finally gave up the martial arts, I’d often run into guys from the old dojo whilst out and about in PauP/Petionville and they were always extremely cool.

In spite of a very modest living situation, a certain amount of culture-shock, a high-school environment on steroids and being the new kid once again  I couldn’t honestly say that my level of adolescent angst and general miserableness was worse than it was in the States.  Still, I longed to return to Boston and continue training with my original dojo. This might seem strange but as I’ve said before, karate was the only thing in my life that was entirely mine in which I had achieved a certain level of success and notoriety.   However, as the months wore on, it became increasingly obvious that a “short stint” in Haiti was becoming a longer, more open-ended affair.

It’s fully to my mother’s credit that she allowed me to return to Boston and my old dojo.  Much credit also goes to first instructor and mentor, P, as he agreed to do the heavy lifting transportation wise, waiving the already cheap monthly fees, etc.  Be that as it may, I was essentially a young teenager living with very nice strangers back in the same damn town.   I realized 2 things very quickly: a) I missed my mother and sister a whole lot and b) man, did I ever hate that town.  I had always thought the fault was squarely on me but I realized the town sucked, too.  It seemed to dislike me, and I , it.  I remember a visceral feeling of suffocation and it dawned on me that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of its’ philosophy.  As much as I hated to leave my original dojo, I felt, surprisingly, a very strong desire to return to Haiti.

So, in very short order, I found myself back in funky ol’ PauP.  My living situation hadn’t changed, it was still as “challenging” as ever, but my attitude had.  I was still miserable, but I realized that non-stop moaning wasn’t solving anything.  I eventually learned creole, made a number of friends (many of them outside of school) and, hell yes, even met girls.  I returned back to my PauP dojo for a time, at least.  After a few years, we had a very small, old school traditional shotgun style house on a hill overlooking downtown PauP.  It was filled to the tin roof with books that we had brought and that various of my mother’s university colleagues had left which was key as we didn’t have a TV.   Hell, the phone didn’t even work half the time.  Those books saved my sanity and gave me a painless “by osmosis” education that saved my *ss in school.  Boredom is a very powerful motivator, one that is increasingly rare these days.  My sister eventually left for college, leaving just my mother and I.  My mother’s various jobs often took her into countryside for days at time which effectively left me, by this time an older teenager, alone.  I know what you’re thinking, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong (see above re: friends and girls).  I learned a number of valuable lessons, like it’s possible to get by on 2 gourdes worth of fritaille a day in a pinch and who I could sell my clothes to if my friends and I had prematurely blown the food budget on parties.

It’s worth noting that in some respects the Haiti I am referring to no longer exists.  At that time it was far safer than most US cities at the time.  While I did run into some issues whilst literally running in the streets, it was pretty tame.  I routinely cut through slums, on foot, at all hours of the day.  We’d do things like hop a tap-tap (or hitchhike) to Grand Goave (a town on the coast outside of Port-au-Prince) to watch a voudun ceremony, drink rum and return back home the next morning.  Crime and insecurity was not really a factor in those days, as crazy as that sounds now.  I often wonder if our ultra low-budget, no connection having re-introduction to Haiti as described above would do-able these days.  I’m not sure it would be.

Haiti is a complex place, one that you hate and love simultaneously.  It’s “The land of unlimited impossibilities” that’s always capable of breaking your heart.

 

Been down so long looks like up to me

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To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

5 hard-earned tips for alleviating culture shock

As a seasoned traveler and a person who has lived in 12 fairly different countries, I tend to embrace a bit of culture shock and see it as a positive experience.  I embrace it precisely because years of experience has taught me the potential pitfalls and also the hidden joys of being immersed in a new culture .  For those who encounter culture shock for the first time, it can be a disorienting, isolating experience.

How one reacts culture shock is entirely dependent their frame of mind.  Yes, travel can broaden the mind, but only if you welcome the experience.  Here are the top strategies I’ve used to make encountering a new culture an enriching experience:

  1. Open your mind – Obvious advice, I know, but absolutely critical.  Most of the people I know who had negative expat experiences left their host countries almost entirely ignorant of the country’s language, history, cuisine, culture, politics, etc.  If you travel for extended periods of time and/or live in a “foreign” country,  you will enjoy the experience more by learning as much as you can about that country before you travel as well as during you stay.  Opening your mind also means realizing that travel is as much about new experiences as it is visiting places.  Don’t leave your common sense at home, but at the same time try not to judge every single thing through your own cultural lens.  Know that some hard work is required on your end, but that the ultimate reward is a much richer, more positive experience.
  2. Learn the language – Another obvious piece of advice that is nevertheless not followed by quite a few Anglophones who live in non-English speaking countries.  Nothing makes you feel more isolated and helpless than spending extended periods of time surrounded by people you can’t understand.  English speaking countries generally do not place a high value on learning a foreign language and, as a result, many Anglophones mistakenly think that one has to be a genius to learn a foreign language.  In the country where I live, almost everyone speaks at least 3 languages fluently and knowing up to 5 languages is not uncommon.  Telling somebody here that you can speak another language would be like telling them you know how to drive or that you can read.  My point is that almost anybody can learn,  at the very least, the rudiments of a language.  Most people positively react to foreigners who try to learn their language so even the potentially awkward act of, say, asking for directions in a new language can be a more pleasant experience that you’d imagine.  There are no downsides to learning a new language other than the effort you will need to put in.  And, yes, when you return to your Anglophone country, people will think you’re a veritable genius.
  3. Enjoy the sheer novelty  –  This is the hidden gem.  When you first arrive in a country that is unfamiliar your mind will kick into overdrive.  You will notice everything; the sights, the sounds, the smells, how people behave, how they dress, your new surroundings and so forth.  Some of those memories will be so new that they will be imprinted on your brain.  If I had to guess, it’s survival mechanism that evolution has bestowed on us.  Your mind is trying to familiarize itself as quickly as possible with the new parameters.  For some people who have never experienced this phenomenon, it might be stressful at first.  To be honest, adjusting to a radically new situation can be tiring.  The positive side is that, for a short time, you once again have the hyper inquisitive mind of a child.  Your brain is absolutely alert.  You see the world with eyes that are not so jaded by experience or the same old drudgery.  Know that this period does not last for a long time.  Eventually your mind reverts to homeostasis, so enjoy the feeling while it lasts.
  4. Enlist your baser instincts –  It’s a cliché but I tell you it’s 100 percent true.  The FASTEST way,  bar none, of learning a new language and/or culture is via one’s romantic partner.  If he or she is from the country in question, you have both the motivation and the means of broadening your knowledge.  Barring that, I find that attraction to the lifestyle, potential “romantic” partners (i.e. “Wow,  Barcelona is full of amazing women”) or the cuisine are pretty significant motivators.  Food and sex are, after all, primal needs.  As an aside, I arrived at my current situation in Europe fueled by a passion for my then girlfriend but also everything related to the world of wine.  Double-whammy.  I am no longer into the former and not as much into the latter , but the momentary motivation they provided me with made a big impact on my life.
  5. Continue to pursue your interests – The benefits of continuing to cultivate your interests in a new environment are twofold.  Firstly, it will give you a familiar anchor in an unfamiliar situation.  More importantly, in my opinion, is that shared interests offer opportunities to meet new people in your new country.  If you are truly passionate about your interest(s) and search out like-minded people, new doors will open to you.

Continue reading “5 hard-earned tips for alleviating culture shock”

Stranger in a strange land

In my first post I touched briefly (albeit not very coherently) on the the notion of nationality, cultural identity and, I suppose, the idea of diaspora.  What makes it strange for people like me is that Americans think of themselves of the immigrant nation par excellence.  People, according to this narrative, are literally dying to come to the US.  The notion that Americans would choose to live elsewhere, perhaps permanently, does not register as if it’s some sort of fringe activity.  Yet there are millions of us: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_diaspora

If you take the lower estimate, that means are more US diaspora than the current population of the Republic of Ireland.  Nevertheless, even if we take the higher estimate of 9 million, that is a small fraction of the current US population. As globalization continues, the phenomena of US diaspora may one day be more than a blip on the US cultural radar.   My point is that having lived quite a bit in countries that have a very large diaspora population, I know what the general consensus tends to be from the folks in the home country:  Yes, they’re like us, but not entirely.  There’s something a bit off about them and, besides, they aren’t true citizens of (fill in the blank) because they haven’t been living here, sharing our experiences.  This is a fairly common sentiment that I’ve seen in many different countries.  The flip side of the coin is the experience of the diaspora – he or she is the perennial outsider.  They may master the language and culture of the country where they live, they are “not from here”.  And they aren’t entirely accepted back home either.   For now, most Americans don’t have an opinion regarding diaspora simply because they’re not that aware of it and don’t know anybody personally living outside the country.

So, I’m not saying my experience is analogous to an economic migrant.  Far from it, most American diaspora live outside the US due to circumstances other than economic.  For me being the outsider is sometimes curious state of being but it never weighs heavily.  At worst, on a rare trip back to the US I feel like a character from the Twilight Zone – somebody who fell asleep in 1997 only to awake in 2017 to a country that is both familiar but at the same time radically changed.