I remember several months ago sitting in the Karachi airport McDonald’s chatting with @ayeshahasan about the foreigners who go to Pakistan and try to blend in by wearing a salwar kameez (yes, I know there are, like, 20 different ways to spell it). Or, somewhat paradoxically, western-raised Pakistanis who go back “home” and think that since they’re Pakistani they automatically look like they’re “from there”, even though they’re sporting western casual wear. Even though you can recognize them a kilometer away.
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I remember once in late 1993 during my Can Tho years, meeting this Vietnamese-American guy from southern California, same age as me, dragged back to the Mekong Delta by his parents to find a wife. We met casually, in Ben Ninh Kieu market. I was obviously not from there, and he obviously needed to speak English, to spend some time with a culturally Western person.
The woman making the coffee knew me. I was from there. Sort of. And even though the Vietnamese-American guy was from there, in an odd way, he also kind of wasn’t. She talked to me.
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The international-ness of humanitarian aid work can mess with your head, if you let it. It can seduce you into believing that you’re from or, perhaps not from somewhere, when it’s really the opposite. No matter how much we try, whether through studied expatriate-ness or through the reality of being sequestered away in a place with no internet, to disabuse ourselves of our home culture, there is something both terribly alien and also reassuringly – well – comfortable and homey about walking into, say, Target.
And before you years-in-the-field expats in trendily obscure and simultaneously notoriously hardship locations fill my comments thread with hate for feeling comfortable in Target (and by the way, I feel comfortable in Target in the same ways that I feel comfortable in airports: familiar anonymity where conversations focus on goods and services transactions, and where there’s zero pressure to engage with anyone emotionally), let me ask you this:
Do you really belong where you are? I don’t mean, ‘can you speak the language?’ I don’t mean, ‘can you eat the street food and (most days, at least) actually like it?’ I don’t mean, ‘Have you ‘gone native’?’ I don’t mean, “are you friends with some of the people who are from the place where you’re now living?’
I mean, “do you really belong there?” And, how do you know? How do you know that your local colleagues are just putting up with you because they can tell that you “mean well”? How do you know that they’re simply too polite to tell you to get out of their country?
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For all of our analysis, RCTs, regressions… our attempts to ensure good data (and data is obviously of great importance), it’s easy to lose touch with the importance of what, for lack of a more precise term, I’ll call good vibes. In the midst of having our exotic one-with-the-people experiences, it can be a real challenge to discern the difference between being accepted and being tolerated, and between being tolerated and simply not run out of town by villagers with pitchforks and hoes. Whether we’re talking about ourselves and the neighbors to whom we’re foreign, or what we have on offer to the communities where we work, I think that very often we are too willing to accept at face value the notion that we are accepted and appreciated.