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.