Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thoughts About The Unheard

Quietly expressed.

Last night I watched a movie, The Quiet American, from a novel by Graham Greene. Greene wrote what they call "thrillers".

Thrillers are not considered literature in the way that murder mysteries are not, or westerns, science fiction, or romance novels.

Once upon a time, early in my college career, we had to pick an author to read a lot of.

Having just read Greene's The Power and the Glory I decided to go there. Greene was good.

Thrillers, throwaways, time-wasters? Nope. Not to me.

There is more to a Graham Greene novel than murder, confusion, misdirection, and a clockwork resolution. A world more.

In The Quiet American, the movie from 2002, Michael Caine plays a shabby foreign correspondent adrift in 1952 Saigon, doing little more than waiting for death to relieve him of the obligation to keep breathing.


One day a young American appears. Capable, cheerful, energetic, large. A man on a mission. Doing something or other with "aid".

Soon there is a first faint whiff of evil. Then darkness. Deaths.

I was surprised to learn, from the DVD commentary, that late in World War II the United States parachuted an Office of Strategic Services (CIA) team into Vietnam to support and train Ho Chi Minh's forces in fighting the Japanese. And French colonialists.

Later these men recommended that the U.S. help Vietnam achieve full independence and let it find its own way. They were ignored.

As was Ho Chi Minh.

For a while.

This movie was a reminder to me to look at Greene's novels again. I think he has things to refresh me on.

About what happens with allies like Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who followed the British-U.S. overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, and brought us Ayatollah Khomeini and much of today's fun.

Allies like Saddam Hussein, Fulgencio Batista, Manuel Antonio Noriega, Augusto Pinochet, and the ever-popular Osama bin Laden.

Like the police, army, and commandos south of our border now. Whom we train here to fight there to protect us here from the people there who sell us from there what we want here. The police, army, and commandos who work for the narcos. Those.

Today's world is still like the one Greene wrote about, I think. I don't know the full story. I'm still learning. No one does.

Greene knew Fidel. And Daniel. That Daniel.

In life as in fiction, Greene's taunts left Americans in a quiet fury

Killing people is fun. There is a feeling of power in slaughtering other human beings. -- Charles Bowden

The story of one of those we trained: The sicario: A Juárez hit man speaks, by Charles Bowden (From Harpers, 2009)

See the Charles Bowden archives at Hearing Voices . Some audio files are still live, some not.

And in case all the above is raving crap, at least see The Third Man. Better than Lord of the Rings with Avatar sauce. What movies should be. Better than almost anything else. Black and white, 2D, 1949, 104 minutes, complex, great ending.

Monday, February 27, 2012

With A Twist Of Lemon

Make it fruity and flavorful.

Banana Republic: Accessible luxury that brings modern, soulful, effortless and versatile style for men and women around the world? Maybe, if you've never been there. If you've only seen models wearing shirts and skirts on TV.

Or something else.

Like a politically unstable country heavily dependent on exporting fruits or raw materials, which makes economic sense only because those who do the work are impoverished.

Countries like this typically have two classes. The "lower class" and a very much smaller wealthy class which gets to do whatever it wants.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Distinct Difference

It's like transmission oil, but not so oily.

Differential: An amount of money that compensates for the difference in costs (e.g., housing, goods and services) between the home and assignment locations.

And then, when you get there, the home office calls and tells you they rethought it all, and you're coming out ahead by being in Elbonia, so they decided to eliminate the differential. And you don't have enough money to go back home, so you're stuck for two years.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hi. I used to be Ernie.

By Ernesto.

Well, I guess I wasn't paying attention. I just showed up for work every day, did what I was supposed to, had lunch, and went home. It was like that for 18 years.

Then one day my boss came over and asked me who I was and what I was doing there.

"Hal," I said, "Quit the joking." But he didn't seem to recognize me. It was like he'd been replaced by a robot. A Hal-bot.

He didn't really say anything else, just reached over with a pair of scissors and cut off my tie. His eyes were all glassy and empty, and it seemed like I heard some clicking noises inside him. That was about it.

The security team came and escorted me out of the building. They were actually pretty nice about it. They gave me a roll of toilet paper as a thank-you gift for my years of service to the company and then shut the door. A couple of weeks later I heard that they had all been taken out back and executed, so overall I guess I got off pretty well.

So after that there wasn't much going on in my life.

I couldn't find another job because I didn't have any marketable skills. That's what you get from being employed for a long time. I guess it's true because I can't remember anything I did at work. I have a box full of pay stubs, but no memory of what I might have been doing there for two decades.

Then my wife left me and my dog died.

For a few months it was just me and the TV. I spent my evenings drinking beer, eating potato chips, and watching reruns of Mary Tyler Moore. I remember when the show first aired. Things were different then. For me it was the golden age of television. Mash, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and The Bob Newhart Show ran back to back on the same evening. Those were my glory days.

That, and having a job, and being married.

I missed my wife. And my dog. And an income.

After a few months of this I got pretty tired of it. I had enough money to live on but every day was the same.

I put an ad on Craigslist. I offered myself as a dog walker. At least it would be something to do.

I got a call from Joan.

Joan didn't have a dog but she knew me. She met me once. At work. She recognized my name on Craigslist. She was looking for a friend. Just companionship. We started seeing movies together. Sometimes we had coffee or went on walks. That was in the fall. Fall is a good time for walks. I like walking.

One day Joan asked how I felt about Surlandia. I'd never heard of it. I had no idea. Then Joan started talking. Surlandia is a country. Who knew?

She was thinking of moving there, and asked if I'd want to come too. I didn't really know what to say.

That was eight months ago. If I remember right. Remembering isn't my best quality. It can be a blessing, not remembering. You can see it that way. I kind of like not remembering too much.

What I do know is that now I'm in Surlandia, actually. With Joan. We're renting a small house and I'm learning Spanish. I never expected that. Things happen, you know?

Life is good. The days are warm but not hot and the people are nice.

They don't do things the way people do back home, wherever that is. But they seem to get by. I'm not sure how they manage but they manage. Maybe I'll learn from them. Knowing the language should help. I'm working on that.

Some others, I'm not so sure about.

Last week I was at the bank. It's different here. It takes about half a day. Which is strange if you're expecting something, but not so strange if you just go there and wait to see what happens.

There was a guy in the next line. He wasn't from here either. He looked a lot like the people I used to work with. After standing in line a half hour or so without moving, he just started yelling.

"Let's move this line right now," is what he said. What he yelled. Several times.

All right. We'll see.

No one much paid attention to him but I noticed a lot of people looking at their shoes. If shoes were lethal weapons then a lot of shoes got cocked, and had their safeties flicked to off. Or not. I'm not too sure how they really think around here.

I hope I don't do that, what the guy did. I've thought a couple of times. About doing something like that. But then I stop. I think again. Maybe look at the ceiling. Wait. See what happens. After a while, something does. Somehow it works.

So far, not that bad.

I'm learning. I feel like I might belong here some day.

I'll have to wait and see.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cross Me Up, Cross Me Down

There and back again. And again, and some more...

Cross-cultural training: A formal educational program designed to enhance expatriation success by improving expatriates' understanding of and level of comfort with the differences in culture, living conditions, and business environment in a foreign location.

Cross-cultural training: Learning to buy groceries, do your laundry, stay on good terms with your neighbors, and keep out of the newspapers.

Cross-cultural training: Being constantly embarrassed in public while being stared at, and coming to understand that it isn't about you. It is you. And always will be.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Skillz, We Looks For Em

Learning to know your left hand from your other left hand.

Skills: Competencies. Specific, learnable capabilities required for effective performance of a variety of work functions or activities.

Skills: What keeps your head attached to the rest of your body. What keeps you functioning. The characteristics by which you are recognized as human.

Phase one: Getting everything wrong.

Phase two: Getting everything wrong, and knowing it.

Phase three: Getting some things right, but by accident.

Phase four: Getting most things right, and still being regarded as terminally odd by the locals. And not going hungry.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

So What Else Is New?

It's weird here too, and I grew up with it.

I read and hear about differences between Latin America and the United States. People move away and find things they don't expect, expect things they don't find, and don't find things they do expect. And so on.

There are differences. So far, for me, these are hypothetical. I can imagine, I can guess, I can suppose. And read, and listen, and think.

But some things aren't all that different.

The United States isn't static, nor is anywhere. A case in point is that the United States that I am in now is radically different from the country I was born into, and since I've been thinking about it I realize that the United States I'm in isn't the United States I've been assuming I was in.

Many things are going on. Some get better and some get worse. And some are not that different from what people encounter in Latin America, only offset a bit. Slightly rearranged, so people do feel a difference without an actual underlying distinction.

Take a few:

  • Architecture: Building construction is different. Sure. But where isn't it? In the U.S., commercial buildings are standard across the country but the rest is all different. I grew up in the northern plains, where there is winter. The first "winter" I experienced in western Washington saw temperatures dip briefly below freezing and all the pipes froze solid. People said I must be used to that. Nope. You don't lay pipes three inches below the grass where temperatures drop below zero for weeks at a time.
  • Sensory stimuli: The smells are different. People eat strange meals. Sushi vs. sauerkraut, potatoes, and pork sausage. Bacon-wrapped oysters as big as a fist vs. roast beef. Eh.
  • People: People definitely behave differently. Right. They're much more polite here, except while driving. And fewer of them go out each fall to shoot large mammals. I haven't had to leave the States to experience that.
  • Mañana: When someone says that something will happen "mañana", they do not necessarily mean "the day that follows today." I can see that. Definitely not standard operating procedure in the U.S. But not so different either. One thing I strongly remember from my work is people telling me just to wait. Eventually one thing or another would happen. Never did, not even eventually. Granted, if you had set up a business meeting or agreed on a delivery date, generally you'd expect it. Unless you're talking to your mother, or brother, or a friend, or an incompetent. "Well, one of these days," they might say, and that would be that. You learn who and when not to push.
  • Avoiding confrontation: Better to disappoint than confront. In the sense of getting wrong directions when the person you ask doesn't know, or of getting a promise when the person can't, or won't, or might not be able to deliver, or doesn't want to. This is a variation on "mañana". Catch anyone flat-footed, receive a polite lie from them, and follow through with cross-examination and see where that gets you. It's a matter of learning tact. Or of growing up you might say. No stranger owes you anything, not even directions to the next corner. Maybe it isn't always the response that is wrong but the asking. Or demanding.
  • Personal space: The way that you will find people blocking the grocery store aisles, the sidewalks, and the roads. As if. What exactly is polite and sedate about U.S. society? True, generally "Americans" do not like to touch strangers, at all, ever. Except for certain situations. It depends. True?
  • Noise: Barking dogs, crowing roosters, car horns, loud music. Hey. Depends on your neighborhood. No, fireworks are not a daily occurrence in most U.S. towns and cities. We have jet airplanes, trains, 10-lane freeways, motorcycles. And some of those cars with the 800-watt subwoofers too.
  • Poor customer service: People prefer to be positive and tend to say things are possible when they are not. Whereas in the U.S., businesses ignore you altogether. Every try calling customer support? Ever get an answer? I had to sue the telephone company to get them to quit lying to me via their representatives in India and actually communicate. In fact my first job was with a transplanted Texan who was the most unreliable, devious, disorganized, nicest, most agreeable and polite person I have ever known. I finally had to quit because he wasn't paying me. And somehow I don't hate him, though I will always hate the phone company. Forever. And. Ever.

Possible advice:

  • Always be respectful. Agreed. This is smart.
  • Learn the language and use it. Agreed. A requirement.
  • Be observant. Agreed. Or die trying.
  • Try not to take things personally. It's business. You may happen to call it life, but it's still business.

Basic rules:

  • One: Don't get mad. Don't get even. Get what you want.
  • Two: No matter what happens, learn from it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Then, Not Now

Equal Disparity News: Dispatches from the leftern hemisphere.

Or ever, maybe, come to think of it.

The Future: Something you can't imagine, partly becasuse where you are living now it is not believed to exist, and partly because you, the way you are living now, no longer need it.

Unless your refrigerator quits working. And then you find that The Future has become one of many possible alternate and yet so very hypothetical realities, none of which will come to your rescue.

Enjoy. Have a snack. Maybe a nap while you're waiting to see what unexpected thing creeps in under the door.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Back To The Back

Equal Disparity News: Dispatches from the leftern hemisphere.

Haven't we been here before?

Hindquarters country: The one the headquarters isn't in, but you are. An "experience" post. Character building. Possibly cheap, as reflected in your salary.

If you were an ambassador, this would not be France but a very tiny country not exactly shown on any map.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How To Become An Expat

Try harder.

So you want to try that greener grass thing. It isn't as easy as just leaving one day and announcing your arrival at Sunny Wherever.

For example, where is it?

First you have to find a place to move to.

One way is going to the library and stealing a map. Then take it home and throw darts at it. But what if you forgot to steal darts? You go to Plan B. This is getting a copy of the internet.

A copy of the internet can be expensive even in paperback, so if you get lucky and find one in a trash bin, good. Or try the recycling center before the grinder gets to it. An older copy is fine. Countries don't change all that fast anymore.

So take your copy of the internet home -- dog-eared is OK, and a few missing pages is OK too -- and flip through it. For every country that doesn't look too bad, tear out that page. After a while you have all the good ones (there aren't too many), and you get down to research.

Once you pick your country, begin loosening your ties.

A good first step is paying off your debts. Even better is tricking someone else into doing it for you.

For a good talker this is pretty easy. Just borrow money, pay the bills, and vamoose. It isn't like they'll ever find you, the way the IRS can. To be extra safe, change your name en route.

Don't plan on coming back for holiday visits either, even if Mom lets you.

Given no other option, get a job, work hard, build up a reputation, and then go for the cash drawer as soon as they trust you.

Or do it the really, really hard way and cut back on your beer budget until you've paid off all of your debts. However distasteful that is. But if you go this route maybe you aren't sharp enough to live with foreigners, so give it some thought.

Now to get "overseas", which is the kind of lingo that true expats use, you'll need transportation.

Most people use airlines, and you have to buy a round-trip ticket, even if you can't come back because of all the money you weaseled out of Big Eddy. But on the bright side, maybe you can sell the back half of it to some gullible local and at least get pocket change out of it.

Details: Make sure your passport is up to date and you have all your shots.

Save a few bucks on the medical by going to a willing veterinarian. You probably have lots of them in your home town, no matter how small it is, and they all need cash. Plus, they're trained professionals. They just don't have the fancy license that "allows " them to work on people.

This is yet one more layer of government bureaucracy that is driving you away, and learning to step around it is good practice wherever you end up.

So, once all that is done, have a good breakfast, shower up, and put on clean clothes. You want a running start.

And, before we forget, be sure to take along a few essentials.

Hard as it is to believe, firearms are frowned on in most places, even on planes, so you may have to let someone else smuggle your hogleg in. Better they rot in a 4X4 cell for 10 years than you, anyway. Right?

Generally, you want to pack as light as light as possible, and there's nothing with a better value to weight ratio than $100 bills. Make sure they're genuine.

Carry them in your underpants. Preferably taped right to your skin.

If your last job (the one where you built up a good reputation) had a lot of change in the cash drawer, or better yet, had a vault, you're probably set on this account, as long as you manage to hang onto it.

Take extra socks. You can never have too many clean socks.

Finally, say goodbye to anyone who will miss you and won't help the bounty hunters track you down, no matter how high the offer goes.

This is likely to be close relatives who will be glad to join you and help with your export business, though the Mexicans really have a lot of the options bolted down pretty tight by now. Still, there's always room for someone with seed cash, good ideas, initiative, and a few expendable relatives.

And then get on the plane and go. Remember not to make any jokes about "skyjacking" or "crashing" or any of that stuff.

Buckle your seatbelt. Appear amiable. Keep your mouth shut.

That's about it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Go? Stay? Have A Nap?

Is becoming an expat the right move for you?

There are many reasons people move away from the country of their birth to go elsewhere. Let's assume you are a U.S. citizen. Here are some popular reasons for leaving this well-known location.

You see black helicopters everywhere.

On your way to work, after work on your way to the bar, on weekends when you're walking the dog -- all the time. Just about every time you look up you see another black helicopter.

You get spooked.

But there are reasons. One is that you started looking up, so now you see them flying around, but you don't realize that. You just figure that they're suddenly after you.

Another reason is that black is a trendy color for helicopters, especially glossy black. It looks professional and really cool, so everybody with a helicopter wants a shiny black one.

But rationality is not for you, so you leave.

You're afraid the U.S. dollar will go into the toilet.

That works.

I had a friend whose grandmother gave him a harmonica for Christmas. It happened that a harmonica was just what he wanted. No, I don't know why, but both he and his grandmother were happy. He was around 20 at the time.

So he goes into the bathroom for the usual reason and as he leans over to push the lever on the toilet his new harmonica jumps out of his shirt pocket and ploops into the toilet, and goes right down the drain.

So the short answer is don't carry U.S. dollars in your shirt pocket if you want to keep them out of the toilet.

But maybe you can't help yourself. Maybe leaving the country is your way of handling that.

You believe lettuce is cheaper everywhere else.

Sometimes it is. But do you like it that much?

Remember, even in the U.S. lettuce sometimes has cooties. How do you feel about foreign cooties?

You want to escape socialism.

Sure, I can see that.

I too get tired of all this "free" education and "free" police and "free" fire department stuff.

I see no reason why, when I go to the bank, the people who work there should be able to read, write, and do arithmetic unless they paid for it themselves. And if they didn't have the gumption as eight-year-olds to get jobs and pay for their own schooling, then the hell with them. Let them do without.

And what is the deal with all these public streets, roads, and highways?

They don't have so much of that stuff in other, less socialist countries.

Like safe water.

You want to be totally disoriented without taking drugs.

Walking down the street, you enjoy not knowing where you are going or even if it's legal to be there.

When people jabber at you and make quick, insistent hand gestures before they suddenly run for cover, you want to savor that tingle of pregnant expectation while you stand there, smiling, waiting to see what's going to happen next.

Or you just continue walking toward the gunfire.

You want to do research and publish your results.

Remember that story from a few years back about how water runs down a drain in different directions, depending on which hemisphere you're in?

Well how about right on the equator? What about that?

By becoming an expat you can devote all your free time to seeing how long eggs will spin at different altitudes right along the equator, or how many toilets get it wrong when you pull the lever and they force water to swirl the wrong way.

If this is your option, be sure to blog about it. Because that's a sure way to get rich.

You want to live in a free enterprise environment.

Free means free, and you want that.

No rules, no regulations, no government.

Sure it's been tried before and people claim they didn't like it. Even gave it a name, a disparaging one. They called it the Dark Ages. But you think they got it wrong.

Luckily there are lots of places where enterprise is still free, and you have lots of ammo, so it might be worth a shot. You against the local warlord.

Don't forget to write.