Sunday, October 01, 2006

Say that you’re in charge of staffing a US Embassy in a far-away country.. You’d want adventurous people, open to change and ready for new experiences, right? Or would you staff it with people that can’t even bear to use “foreign” toilet paper? Doesn’t seem like a tough choice, does it? It seems obvious that in a logical world, you’d opt for the first kind of person. Instead, the US government seems to select people that like foreign countries only when there are extensive buffers in place… .
They come over with huge containers of stuff: cleaning products, Kleenex, toilet paper, office supplies, not to mention all those familiar US foods, especially breakfast cereal. When they run out, they order more through the diplomatic pouch, so they never pay overseas postage charges or customs fees. I assure you that there are locally produced, low-cost cleaning products, facial tissues and food here. There is also a wealth of French and Lebanese products available. It’s just not what you’d get back in the USA.
Now, in a way, I understand the attraction. When I get a hold of a blue box of Kraft Mac and cheese, my heart gives a little jolt at sight of this relic of “home”. Ranch salad dressing positively gives me palpitations. The thing is, I’m not sure it is good to be here if you are the kind of person that constantly needs to be surrounded by these kind of reminders of the comforts of the USA. I imagine that it is reassuring to have a storeroom stocked with all the products you grew up with, even though you are 4000 miles away from your homeland. But if you need that, why did you ever go? Are you leaving room for anywhere else to become at least “homelike”? Isn’t being an expat all about seeing how other people live? And if you don’t try to actually get out and live some of it yourself, you may as well stay Stateside and watch Discovery Channel. One part of living the adventure is shopping in the market and getting used to “strange” food. “Odd” tastes become familiar, “clashing” colors start to look good together, “pointless” customs start to make sense. It’s what it’s all about, living here.
But, in fact, the Embassy staff don’t even breathe the same air as the rest of us. Their electricity is directly paid by the government- they don’t ever even see the bills.. This encourages them to think like real upper-class Americans and leave on the air-con at home 24/7. They can go straight from home, to car to Embassy and back again without having to experience the local climate. Sounds incredibly comfortable, but very isolating.
Understand, I’m not hating on US Embassy staff. The ones I’ve met over the last seven years, I’ve liked well enough. I am just not understanding the logic behind how the US Government has them living overseas. The conditions are excessively sheltered and the postings are too short - on average 2 years. And I know from experience that it takes two years just to begin to feel at home in a new country. The brevity of the stay and the cultural isolation encouraged make me suspect the motives of the powers that be. My theory is that they don’t want to attract the type of person that can immerse themselves in another culture. They want Americans who are going to stay “American”. They don’t want the kind of people who can live without White Cloud toilet paper for two years. They want folks that run no risk of finding anything in a foreign country to be as good as what they have back home. Are they afraid of them “going native?” Got me.
Alternative viewpoints are welcome in the comments section below. If anybody thinks they can make me understand the logic behind all this, please do.


Ali la Loca said...

Amen, Beth!

I am friends with a couple that works at the Embassy here. I recently went to their home for dinner (3-story home in the best neighborhood, with air-con units in every single room) and was shocked to see their storage pantry.

Seriously, they could survive for over a year on the American brand stuff they had in there. The crazy thing is that the food and cleaning items were not even specialty. They had a closet full of run-of-the mill stuff like rice, paper towels, canned tuna and dog food. I wasn't sure whether to be jealous or disgusted.

I'm definitely the kind of person that blends in. I love the local food here, I shop at the market, I've foregone several of my favorite foods and face creams. I miss a lot of things and have fun "stocking up" on the essentials when I go back to the US, but really that means buying the most special things that can fit in my suitcase.

The thing that gets me the most about the Embassy staff here is the diplomatic pouch. In a country where the mail system acutally worked, I wouldn't even care that they don't pay for postage. But here in MZ, normal people cannot receive or send mail. It just doesn't work. This is my biggest complaint about living here, and it makes me want to whine, "It's not faaaiiir," when I see a pantry like my friends' filled to the brim with non-necessary items and I can't even send a letter home.

BurkinaMom said...

I am not as nice as you! I DO think that free postage to Africa is totally out of line. It is US tax dollars paying big embassy salaries, home electric bills that are easily $2000 or more per month in the hot season and free shipping for whatever they desire from the US:laundry powder, rice, flour, etc...all stuff you can get here.
If they had to pay the postage and customs on what they order, the price would be astononomical. But it is the US taxpayers absorbing it for them.

You had mentioned to me before that the post in Mozambique is non-functional. That must be SO rotten! The post here works great and my parents and friends send special treats, like candy canes for xmas. We TREASURE them!!!!

Ali la Loca said...

Okay, well the post isn't 100% rotten, just 99.5%. I received my first package last week, a box of yarn from a blog friend in Australia. It was unbelievable!

You have an excellent point about the free post and who ends up paying for it in the end. I retract what I said about not caring that it's free. Not only are the US taxpayers footing the bill, the African countries in question are foregoing import duty.

It's probably a good thing I can't receive mail on a regular basis. I think I'd be coercing people back home to send me massive boxes of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups on a weekly basis, and then I wouldn't fit into any of my clothes anymore. :)

BurkinaMom said...

You could always just get rid of your pants and wear wrap skirts!

Congrats on the yarn!! What's it for? Are you knitting a jumper? It's so hot here right now that I can't even bear to think of warm clothes!

Ali la Loca said...

I'm knitting the only thing I know how: scarves. Haven't yet mastered the whole round-shapes thing yet.

I'm also crocheting some headbands. Straight and easy!