Navigating expat-aidland

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

In expat-aidland, you save Africa during and week and get absolutely wasted in the weekend. Now, I do like a good party myself. I was going to say “but there are boundaries” (and I know this is Dunglish), which is exactly the point: there aren’t.

Navigating ‘the expat scene’ feels like being back in high school, yet worse. Getting drunk is a way of life (not only during the weekends, by the way), using cocaine is as normal as eating peanuts and sleeping around is the new religion. People behave as if they are in some sort of eternal puberty, and no one condemns it: everybody is part of it and in expat-aidland, there are no rules (except for those liberal values and ideas we impose upon ‘the locals’ through our own development programmes, of course).

This micro-cosmos of mostly white people living it up under dire conditions has of course not been left unnoticed in internet blogging and writing. One of my favourite blogs, stuffexpataidworkerslike, hilariously describes different expat-aidland phenomena. And yesterday I read “Expat Etiquette. How to look good in bad places” by Michael Bear and Liz Good, a recommended read (see here) even though I am not too fond of portraying country X, Y or Z as ‘bad’. Hilarious most of the time – I particularly liked the rebel name generator.

Authors like Bear and Good write about the expat bubble in a humorous yet cynical way and most people that have worked in ‘a bad place’ will recognise their stories. That’s all good – yet I do not agree with the justification they give for the drinking-sleeping around- expat way of life. And that is what I want to write about, because the issue annoys me. Bear and Good write about the ‘sensationalistic’ way in which some journalists write about “how the international community likes to spend its evenings smoking, drinking and sleeping around.” They call this sensationalist writing yet also agree that these stories are “more true than not.”

The explanation for this teenage-like behaviour?

“People like to drink. Even more when they’re stressed, need a distraction, and have absolutely nothing to do in the evenings.”

So, stress. Now unfortunately, I know far too well what ‘stress’ feels like and what it does to you, especially in ‘bad places.’ Quoting Bear and Good again: “Any number of people will take about the ways in which you should deal with stress. Exercise. Healthy living. Meditation. Keeping perspective. Which is all very well and true, but most of us aren’t quite that disciplined. Especially when you’re living in a foreign country, and even more when you’re in a not-very-pleasant part of a foreign country. Like, say, working in a refugee camp. Or living in a capital city with only infrequent electricity and hot water. Or slowly getting used to the sound of mortars, rockets and gunfire.”

Fair enough, those are stressful situations. Yet it seems to me that especially in those circumstances you should take care to deal with stress in the way the authors describe above (or anything that helps you relieve stress) – and discipline? I’d say this is just about being a grown-up in the sense that you came to that ‘bad place’ to do something – work, probably, and most probably work that somehow tries to bring about a change towards a more positive direction. Maybe, dare I say it? Maybe you believe in solidarity and trying to do good (or at least no harm). I’d say you are obliged to make sure you deal with your stress because if you don’t, you are really not of much use for whatever you came to do there. Discipline – or simply being professional.

But no, say Bear and Good. “In those situations, you’re much more likely to deal with stress by drinking, smoking, becoming increasingly cynical or emotionally removed, losing your temper with increasing frequency, and/or fucking everything that moves. Not that these are healthy, but they are normal, insofar as normal can be defined as “doing what everyone else is doing”.’

Another recurrent theme: things are normal ‘because everyone else does it’, things are not bad ‘because it is just the way it is’, things are good ‘because the alternative is worse’. The most unconvincing arguments ever.

Now I do not want to be too serious about something that is clearly written tongue-in-cheek. And I probably wouldn’t if I were not so annoyed by it. Same goes for ‘cool stories’ about all the bad places you’ve been to, the so-called ‘field cred’-stories. Being evacuated, abducted, and held at gunpoint, seeing people get shot: it is not cool. It is terrible. Apparently, there is an adrenaline-rush linked to terrifying moments such as these. But doesn’t that rush primarily stem from the fact that you are living a reality you can escape from? I wonder whether Congolese families feel that rush every time they have to pack little belongings and flee to yet another ‘safe’ place – if their belongings have not been burnt, that is. If they, once arrived at their next temporary home, tell their field-cred stories to their fellows. If refugees stranded at Lampedusa boast about their past attempts to enter fortress Europe, if Syrians in Lebanon sit around a fire discussing who has had the worst experience and which refugee camp is most appalling.

Anyway. Drinking, doing drugs, sleeping around because you are stressed and have ‘absolutely nothing else to do’: I do not only find it highly unprofessional, but also pretty sad and boring. Or maybe I am just unbelievably boring, thinking that reading a book, watching a good movie, having dinner with good wine (or bad – you are in a ‘bad place’ after all) and friends, playing board games, doing yoga, hell even doing karaoke, are actually not terribly bad ways to spend your evenings, especially when indeed you are stressed out because of your work / the bad place.

Naturally, not all of ‘them’ are like this. I have actually always managed to be surrounded by the loveliest people (and yes, we went out and got drunk), the only thing is that they are a bit harder to find. As they also just enjoy making gazpacho at home, watching movies, gossiping about newcomers, or just talk about life and the ‘bad place’ you all find yourselves in (oh dear).

Perhaps the burden of continuously having to make moral decisions renders people completely indifferent in the end. “Yeah, I promised to buy sports gear worth 300$ for this school, because otherwise I will just spend it on alcohol and the like anyway”, coming from people working for organisations who claim to develop this country.  

At least for me, moral decisions make up half of the thoughts running through my head every day (and night, to be honest) and it is not a particularly relaxing thing. On the other hand, that’s part of spending time in a ‘bad place’ so you’d better deal with it. (Thinking of it, it would be so great to have a bi-weekly discussion group on expat aid-land issues.) My sister told me about expats having drinks with well-off Lebanese in Beirut, having their cigarettes lit by Syrian refugees desperate to make some money. Now, realistically, this is better than earning nothing and starving – and whose responsibility are those refugees anyway? Sure not the expat’s. Yet morally, how can you justify this?

Maybe the absence of the rule of law as we know it makes it difficult for us to keep boundaries in sight. Perhaps expats simply earn too much money, do not know what to spend it on (ha ha ha. Not knowing what to spend your money on in a ‘bad place’. That is just hilarious), are in addition bored beyond belief, and spending it on drinks is their best option. We are all only human beings after all, and maybe this behaviour is indeed, given the circumstances, normal.

Or maybe we all just need to try a little harder.

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