Thursday, February 28, 2008

on being an ex-pat

The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding
~ Albert Camus

Evil and good intentions are the ingredients that make up the recipe for a typical job description of a humanitarian aid worker. An evil occurs, we find it impossible to stand aside and do nothing, so we organize to do good (or at least do something we perceive as good and hope that based on our intervention things get better). Sometimes it works. Other times, as Camus suggests, due to a lack of true understanding, it tragically results in more harm. When more harm happens humanitarian aid workers realize it may have been better to have done nothing at all. But, because it did more harm than good severe pangs of guilt occur and all one can do is try and do something to repair what went wrong. Sometimes it works; sometimes it happens all over again. Here begins a vicious cycle of evil, ignorance, good intentions, success stories, misunderstandings and humanitarian aid.

The end of my contract is drawing near and I am starting to get sensitive. I want to know if I was helpful, I want to be missed, I want to stay, I want to depart gracefully, I want to be told I have done good, and most importantly I want to explain what it’s like to leave a place that has fundamentally touched my soul. Everything that was given to me was given from a place where it seemed there was very little left to give, but it was given nonetheless and I am a better person because of it. My biggest fear is that I’m taking away more than I have given.

I cried three times for no apparent reason in the last 33 hours (twice to the dismay of one friend who had to witness my meltdown and had absolutely no idea what to “do”). I don’t know where to being in terms of organizing the things I have learned and internalized from this experience, but I want to try. You see, I believe people take many things with them as they move about in this world. The things we carry include memories, events, traumas, relational dynamics, broken trust, recollections of selfless support, lessons learned, childhood experiences, the voices of loved ones and the voices of those that have done us harm. As a psychologist I know this process is consistent with the theory of Object Relations. Object Relations theory attests that we internalize major relational players in our lives. An object refers to anyone or anything that is the target of an individual’s instinctual desires. With that being said, once we reach adulthood our psychic house is packed and the voices of our mother, father, mentor, abuser, savior, friend and lover. Out experience of them all are inside our head, ready to comment on any choice, decision or act we ‘choose’ to make during this time we engage in this thing we call life.

application in the ex-pat world

I think this internalization process is what makes the ex-pat population a unique group of people. By definition an expat or expatriate is someone who has taken up residence in a foreign country or in more extreme examples someone who has renounced one’s native land. Where, on the one hand, the melting pot of ethnicities and mixing of so many well traveled people with unique histories and unique world views make for some very interesting conversations, it also has a tendency to destabilize those of us who might have arrived to a new place carrying way too much “baggage.” Now that I think about it maybe it is the nomadic ex-pat who created this idiom. Unfortunately what we carry includes the things we thought we could leave behind exactly in the place they were created. This wish is also known as the quest for a geographical cure whereas something terrible happens and we think that if we move far far away, the pain connected to the event will stay put. In reality, people take their same old lives wherever they go. No place is perfect enough to strip you of that. And some places have a way of magnifying your demons. It’s kind of like a psychic experience of Hotel California. You can check out but you can never leave and the magnification of abandoned demons can sometimes cause people to fall back on very primitive defense leading to some very interesting lifestyle choices; hence my fascination with the ex-pat world.

A 37 year old Dutch wat-san expert left home at the age of16 with his backpack and motorbike and rode through central Europe all the way to South Africa. Upon arrival he jumped on a sail boat. After mastering this new trade he could be found sailing alone for months at a time in very deep waters. When he got bored with this new identity he docked his boat in New Zealand and decided it was time to learn how to fly planes. For the next 2 years he lived illegally in this far off land exchanging his new skill like barter for the things he needed to survive. He has been out of his home country for so long now he has some bizarre form of partial citizenship. When he does go home he stays in an artsy trailer with no electricity or running water on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He rarely, if ever, visits his family and describes them as religious fundamentalists who never understood him. Relationally, he moves from one mission affair to another. Hyperactive by nature it is difficult to get him to sit in one place long enough to truly feel connected to him, but the minute you meet him you realize he has a huge heart; and, as one of my dear friends (and his short time lover) indicates, “even though he doesn’t stick around very long, you will have no regrets with KJ. He is what he is and he doesn’t suggest otherwise.” He knows what he can give and if his partner is satisfied with that then a relationship with him can be nice, while it lasts.

A 41 year old stunningly beautiful gal from Utah has managed UNICEF ex-combatant reintegration projects at a country wide level in a number of exceptionally violent countries (Liberia, Somalia, Kosovo & Niger to name a few) and is currently making a remarkable amount of money at her P3 UN status level. Brilliant and well traveled she demands respect at UN meetings and social events; however, she suffers intensely on the inside and much of what you see is a front. She is a functional alcoholic with childhood demons that are severe and powerful. As a result of her addiction she disappears into her house for days at a time and drinks herself into oblivion. Each and every time she resurfaces with the stamina and endurance of a marathon runner that people barely notice she was missing. She lives in such an intense state of denial that her closest friends either join her in her denial or feel helpless in their attempts to help. Over the last three years she has flaunted her promiscuity with men like Samantha from Sex in the City; but, early in the morning, when the sun is rising and the men are missing, you can hear her start to cry when she realizes she doesn’t even know the name of her latest conquest. Her longest two relationships were with married men who also worked within the UN system. Their respective departures for a new mission (i.e., malicious acts of abandonment) tormented her for months. With each experience of abandonment, the message spoken by the voice of her mother in her head was confirmed: “you are unlovable and everybody will eventually leave you.” She needs help but instead has committed herself to the quest for the geographical cure.

A 17 year old Lebanese teenager was born and raised in Monrovia. His grandparents came to Liberia 30 years ago to escape the war and oppression raging in their own country and his father is a successful businessman in the big city. Forbidden citizenship by Liberian law (as the Liberian Constitution specifically indicates that all citizens have to be of black African decent), this teenage boy hovers between two homes. In Liberia his family only speaks Arabic, eats Lebanese food and interacts with other Lebanese. In Lebanon he doesn’t quite fit in. He can’t really tell where he likes being more; in Liberia, where he an exceptionally privileged outsider who has servants and drivers or in stunningly beautiful Lebanon where his family has been marginalized and maltreated for generations. He has been informed that in a few years, on one his many trips back to his “homeland”, he will need to select a bride to bring back with him to Liberia. He can’t quite phantom what type of girl would sign up for this. This boy idealizes his infamous cousin who owns a number of restaurants in town and is known to be the local Casanova for in-coming slightly naïve ex-pat women as the turnover is quick and the need to feel special is intense. If you look closely enough you can already start to see the same saunter to his step and flirtatious gleam in his eye.

A 35 year old French man who is the regional manager for ICRC. During previous missions he has trekked through mountains in Nepal for 12 days to find a detention center that was said to be torturing Maoist detainees for political reasons. While stationed in Darfur he stood in front of a rebel solider with an AK37 at a checkpoint to get permission to have access to starving children and their sick mothers. This gentleman finds himself somewhat bored in the moderately stable environment that is Liberia; however, he is truly passionate about his organization and their beneficiaries and doesn’t want to get caught up in this ex-pat phenomenon of chasing the next crisis. He is grounded and intelligent and principled. Before he joined ICRC he owned a bar in Prague for 8 years. This was after he had dropped out of a doctorate program for philosophical reasons. A romantic at heart, he has become used to the transitional nature of ex-pat relationships in the humanitarian world. With that said, he can typically be found to be engaging in a exquisitely serious relationship with a new found love during any one of his many interesting missions. He has loved them all but at the end of the day his love for his career has always won out.

These are just a few of the many fascinating individuals I have met in the massive ex-pat community that makes up humanitarian aid workers. Liberia is the second largest UN mission in Africa and therefore there are so many more I could choose from. Each strikingly unique in their story. Each strikingly unique in their ways. Each somewhat phobic when it comes to commitment. For those who don’t reach the level fear it would take to be called of relationship phobe, they very likely have mastered the concept of serial monogamy, simply based on circumstances. More often than not expats are vacillating between two extremes of engagement: utter enmeshment and extreme autonomy. I am no exception and it reminds me of a fable:

A troupe of porcupines is milling about on a cold winters day. To keep from freezing they move closer together. When close enough to huddle, however they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread apart, but again begin to shiver. This sends them back to each other, and the cycle repeats, as they struggle for a comfortable place between entanglement and freezing.

To me, this fable speaks to a lesson about boundaries and a wildly cited belief that intimacy is a thorny affair. This transition from entanglement to freezing captures what it is like for most independent free thinking humanitarian aid workers to be close to someone else. The experienced outcome of these relational connections (and disconnections) will likely depend on how each party evolves and changes. More often than not everyone moves on and no one has regrets. Typically it is a lesson from one porcupine to another, a mirror of sorts that points to the need to balance concern for self with concern for others. The trick is to balance the two so that one does not dominate or stifle the other.

1 comment:

LauraMae said...

I have wanted to leave a comment on every one of your posts, but I am not as eloquent with my words as you, so I write a comment, then delete it! Maybe it's the student in me?

Anyhow, I just want you to know that it has been a honor to follow you on this journey and to get a glimpse inside your head. I hope you continue to write wherever you are, as your words are a blessing to those of us with too many jumbled thoughts in our heads.

Thank you so much for consistently sharing with all of us through the good and the bad.

Take care,

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