1 May

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

20 Responses to “Tolerance”

  1. David Week 1 May, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    I think that to be more than tolerated, it helps NOT to “belong”. If you go to India, say, there are 1bn people there who already belong, far more than you can ever can. They eat the street food. They dress in the local garb. They know the local culture, because—collectively—they are the local culture. What possible value could it be to them to have one more Indian, only this one a pseudo-Indian: one that just isn’t very good at what they all do excellently.

    My value is I am not local. I see things they miss. I can say things they can’t. I know things they don’t. My value is in my foreignness.

    Now: foreignness is not enough. They don’t need foreign arseholes, any more than they pseudo-locals. So in addition to being foreign, I also come with respect. I acknowledge that they see, say, and know things that I can’t, and that what they see, say and know is IMPORTANT. I treat them with great respect, and whoa!–surprise, surprise–I get a little of the same back. There’s something to that karma thing after all.

    The third thing I bring is money. Of course it’s not mine, and I don’t actually control it, but fact is someone else with money is paying me to be there, shepherd their investment. So I take care to show my local compadres how to use money well, which I define as in a way that satisfies their needs, and the needs of the donor at the same time. Everybody’s happy, which in turn leads to more money. I can’t guarantee that, but I can help. And that’s another way to be more than tolerated, because for all the hand-wringing in the world about money, all of it by people who have heaps of it, money helps. Money is power, it’s true. Power to influence, to motivate, to get things done. And by virtue of that, helping people to learn how to use donor money is empowering.

    So bring your foreignness. Embody respect. Carry with you financial empowerment. You won’t be “at home”, but who cares? It’s not your home. But you welcome in someone else’s home, and that’s even better.

  2. worldperipheries 2 May, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    I don’t think belonging has to be absolute – you can be a foreigner and yet you feel this little something special feeling for the place. You will never be 100% from here but you are not 100% not from here either. The feeling is beyond the clothes you wear or the food you eat – i feel damn uncomfortable in local clothes and I am a sloppy finger eater (rice is tricky); I do the necessary concessions to be culturally sensitive, without being grumpy. I have friends here who are persistent about me attending family lunches and engagement parties despite some security restrictions (and the risk they are -at least theoretically – taking), and that feels really good; they do concessions too to make me comfortable and i appreciate that more than they will ever realise. I feel personally frustrated or elated by developments here and this feeds into my professional motivation. So i am not from here and will never be but i feel like somehow i do belong *a bit* to the place – and for me that’s enough.

  3. Mara Rose 2 May, 2011 at 1:52 am #

    I think David makes very good points.

    I was a traveler in Pakistan. I did not work there, and am not an aide worker, so my perspective is different, for sure. With my blond hair and blue eyes, my lack of any local language skills, I was totally foreign. Our guides were also working with the Pak government to help build their tourist industry, and were savvy. They advised us to show respect by wearing loose clothing, and even better, shalwar kameez, on our journey into the NW Frontier. My experiences in the villages of the Ghizar River and Hunza areas were warm and positive. I did not feel just tolerated. We were spontaneously invited into village homes as guests. Local people smiled and waved as we drove by in our jeeps or floated by on the river.

    I believe that most people respond to a genuine effort to respect them and their culture. I left NW Pakistan feeling an honored guest, and I treasure my memories.

    There were areas on our journey where I pulled my energy in and made myself less visible. I could sense the vibe. There are places in Indus Kohistan where one must be cautious. I met a few people in Lahore who glared, but I met many more in Lahore who appeared genuinely welcoming. The town of Gilgit is more conservative than up on the Ghizar River and Hunza, and we acted accordingly.

    There Pakistanis in the Punjab who had never seen a blue-eyed blond before, and asked me, with great good humor, to be in a photograph with them. This happened at least three times–at the border with India, at the Shalimar Gardens, and with one one my guides in Lahore who took me to meet his family. I was guided, to my discomfort, to the head of the crowd several times–at the polo match in Gilgit, at the India-Pak border ceremony in Mugah–because I was so obviously foreign, but also a respectful and respected guest.

    People in the mountains were curious about where I lived. I wished I had brought postcards from home to show them. Women and girls in the mountains all envied my pedicure, and I wished I had brought lots of nail polish….

    I am no expert, these are simply my experiences. You can see so much in a smile. A smile that lights up and crinkles the eyes speaks volumes.

  4. Disaster Traveller 2 May, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    J., why do you have to write such insightful posts? You’ve removed my raison d’etre as a blogger, and turned me into a sycophant.

    I’ve long been a believer that I am only being tolerated in almost every country I visit, even my own. Seriously, who’s more annoying at Western social events than an EAW?

    Last year I went to Chad right after Haiti. Apparently they don’t understand Kreyol in Chad, and apparently I didn’t speak French anymore. A friend just told me that, after years of living in Indonesia, and being comfortable in a sarong, he was questioned in Myanmar, because he rolled his sarong like a priest. You can never win, people.

    David made a good point – I think you can be called local when “you are the local culture”. Which means that I am not a local in the country of my permanent residence, or even my citizenship.@worldperipheries, I think you’re confusing the ’emic’ and ‘etic’ of belonging – even though YOU feel like you belong (and I get that), there’s no way of really knowing if THEY think you belong.

    Mara, a cynic would question the motives of your new Pakistani friends. Would you have got the same welcome in Springfield, or Birmingham, or Avignon? Also, a critic would say that you have no context for interpreting friendly vs. hostile. But I say, never let cynicism or sound criticism discourage you from meeting people and seeing the world. My only caution would be to consider the possible harm something as inocuous as nailpolish could have in gender relations for that region.

    Thanks again J.

  5. Anthony 2 May, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    The process your talking about is just acculturation, which I think is natural for anyone that spends a long period of time in a culture they are foreign too. I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. If you look at it from the other side and ask, “would it be better if I did not conform as much?” I don’t think you can confidently say that would be better. I agree that we should not all be naive and think that what people native to these areas want is for us to be identical to them, but I think without some common interests, relationships can’t reach their full potential, and relationships are key in aid. As for asking yourself whether or not you belong there? I think that’s left up to soul searching for an individual, only they know and who are we to disagree.

    • Tanya Cothran 4 May, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

      I was recently asking similar questions about belonging on the East Coast of the US. Born and raised in California, 4 years in Minnesota, now Connecticut for one year. Even though it’s the same country, it’s hard to figure out if I fit in to the culture. For my own sanity, I have to believe that at some point I can “really belong” to some place other than coastal California. And if that’s true for other parts of the US, can’t it be true for other parts of the world?

      • David Week 4 May, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

        Tanya, your post reminded me of Joel Garreau’s book, The Nine Nations of North America:

        QUOTE: Forget about the borders dividing the United States, Canada, and Mexico, those pale barriers so thoroughly porous to money, immigrants, and ideas.

        Forget the bilge you were taught in sixth-grade geography about East and West, North and South, faint echoes of glorious pasts that never really existed save in sanitized textbooks.

        Forget the maze of state and provincial boundaries, those historical accidents and surveyors’ mistakes. The reason no one except the trivia expert can name all fifty of the United States is that they hardly matter.

        Forget the political almanacs full of useless data on local elections rendered meaningless by strangely carved districts and precincts.

        Consider, instead, the way North America really works. It is Nine Nations. Each has its capital and its distinctive web of power and influence. A few are allies, but many are adversaries. Several have readily acknowledged national poets, and many have characteristic dialects and mannerisms. Some are close to being raw frontiers; others have four centuries of history. Each has a peculiar economy; each commands a certain emotional allegiance from its citizens. These nations look different, feel different, and sound different from each other, and few of their boundaries match the political lines drawn on current maps. Some are It’s valuable to recognize these divergent realities. ‘The layers of unifying flavor and substances that define these nations help explain the major storms and excursions through which our public affairs pass.

        Studying them is certainly far more constructive than examining misleading ideas, such as “Colorado.”

  6. Katie 3 May, 2011 at 12:38 am #

    This is exactly why there’s such a problem with aid today. People want to give for all the right reasons, but get caught up in the commercialization of aid. Unnecessary aid is ineffective aid, and that’s people’s time, energy and money going to waste when it could be put to incredible use if allocated properly. In order to properly administer EFFECTIVE aid, you need to completely emerse yourself in the culture and GO WITHOUT. It’s one thing not to have a computer or your smart phone…people are living with astronomically less than that! By entrenching yourself in the daily life of someone in need of aid, you’ll get a much better idea of what they’re asking for and what they need the most.

    • JasonMac 6 May, 2011 at 10:33 am #

      I’m really more of a lurked here, but I felt compelled to reply to @Katie. I disagree strongly.

      I can’t go without and totally immerse myself in another culture, simply because I have the opportunity to go back to my indulgent western life. It helps no one for me to pretend I’m just like them, because I have choices other people, cultures, etc. simply don’t have.

      Rather than my getting a better idea of what people need by imitating their situation, there’s a clearer way. Listen to, work with, educate and be educated by and provide wider opportunities to the people themselves. That’s the essential path to better aid, not “going native.”

      • simple simon 15 July, 2012 at 11:32 am #

        Thank you JasonMac. So well said.

  7. Laura 3 May, 2011 at 3:00 am #

    I think this is a great topic to be addressed. I can’t comment on the aspect of being an aid worker or working with the government; however, almost all of us wind up traveling at some point in time. Even if we don’t travel to countries on the other side of the world, we may travel to areas across a region that have very different ways of living, or even in the context of visiting other work environments in which it is completely different from our own. I think a very good point was made earlier in a comment. The point being that most of us wind up sticking out like a sore thumb, whether we attempt to dress or eat and act like the culture we are within or not. I think that with this the best thing that people can do in other cultures or work environments, is to respect the area they are in. This sounds a little simple minded. However, I think a big point is to try being more respected and less trying to be exactly as they are. It’s obvious when a foreigner comes into a region. Even if they dress, eat, talk, and attempt to act as the culture does, it is still obvious that they are a foreigner. So why not admit to it? Why try and hide this aspect? I believe that we shouldn’t be so focused on trying to be just like the culture we are going into but instead focus mainly on respecting the culture. When you go into an environment that is different than your own, abide by their cultural aspects whether it is by not wearing tight clothing or something else. Respect why they have these cultural aspects. Most natives can tell when a foreigner is trying to be respectful of their culture. And I think that this respect alone is what makes a native feel most good about a foreigner coming in.

  8. angelica 3 May, 2011 at 6:31 am #

    what happens when you stop belonging anywhere?
    but I agree with (most) comments: respect is something people can smell. If you ain’t got it, they’ll know it

  9. Darkwing Duck 3 May, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    The others above have said most of it already. It helps not to belong…that’s the value I add. I’m not an aid worker, just a social scientist working in villages where ‘development’ happens. (There is a joke going around the village now because an NGO is doing interventions on water-borne disease…people say ‘Yes, when they come to interview us we say ‘Oh, development is like shit. It happens!’)

    More anecdotes:
    1. I find the smell of Target deeply soothing. Even if I don’t buy anything, I love walking in the front doors and deeply breathing. Order. I love the order of Target.

    2. I travelled with a group of American do-gooders in Mozambique. Through a series of unpredicted events, we ended up leaving a community-run lodge with one generator and sporadic running water for a Southern Sun hotel. I walked into the room in the Southern Sun and the air conditioning was on full-blast. I cried. Literally. I cried because I was so happy to feel air conditioning.

    The do-gooder standing next to me was horrified…how could I appreciate this air conditioning when there were starving children!?!?!

    Um, because I was hot and tired and hungry and bug-eaten and faintly feverish with malaria and GODDAMN that AC felt good.

  10. William 3 May, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    When you have an established friend group and a new kids comes in it is understandably awkward. They don’t know your humor, what you do for fun, your inside jokes, your favorite places or more importantly your least favorite places to eat, they don’t know what you like to do in your leisure time, and they act in very strange ways just to fit in with your group. The group, on their part, is sure to make things sufficiently uncomfortable with their odd looks or comments that make the newcomer feel even more like an outsider. Eventually, the newcomer will learn to be himself and learn that that is his place within the group and that is all he can ever be. I feel like this is how you are describing the development world. We go in and we’re the new guy on the block trying to blend in as best we can, but everyone knows. They all joke and snicker behind your back; they all talk about how weird you act and how dumb your haircut is. Eventually though, they learn to accept you, and then the fun begins. The good works can actually begin, because while you may still be an outsider, you have your place and everyone including you knows what that place is. Only when this happens, whether in your friend group or in West Africa, will things begin to work smoothly.

    • simple simon 15 July, 2012 at 11:42 am #

      This exactly describes my experience. Especially considering I work with youth in development! I was the new kid and after awhile I found my spot. They do still laugh at my haircut though. Thanks for articulating that William!

  11. K 7 May, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    I truly believe the underlying factor is gratitiude. Whether you travel, work or live in a culture other than your own, chances are there is at least one facet of the culture that has welcomed you. Rather than talk, listen. Embrace what you do not know and try to adjust your preconceived notions accordingly. The first word I learn in any language where I travel is ‘thank you’. Regardless of if you are accepted, tolerated or anything in between, recognizing your position as a guest initiates conversation and allows you the grace to appreciate those who are making an effort to share their lives with you..

  12. ilchwl 29 May, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    I have dreams about Target when I am overseas. Really good, sweet dreams.


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