Friday, December 16, 2005

American Dream, International Provincialism and Travel Preparation

The American Dream vs. the America+ Some Other Country (ies) Dream.

There are two types of American dream. The first one is that of a foreigner in some oppressed land where he has no freedom and no opportunity to advance himself or his family. He may suffer from the lack of political freedoms, or poverty in spite of all his hard work there. For such a man, America looms as a paradise in which his basic requirement are all met and where he becomes truly happy.

The second American dream is by a native-born person- it is about establishing a career in the field one wants to pursue and making big money at it. One then finds the partner of one's dreams, gets married, buys a beautiful house and lives happily thereafter with a new family.

Both dreams are imperfect. They are based on many false assumptions and filled with naiveté. The foreigner usually has no idea what America is all about. He thinks it is a country where money lies around on the streets. Sure, he is now getting paid in dollars, but everything is equally expensive, too. And, while he may be a subject of respect back home and is now called “ an American” by the people whom he left behind, he is but a nobody in the US. Unless, of course, he has some exceptional skill that the country needs. For most people, however, life in America is a hard struggle to advance and attain the middle class status. For many it takes a generation or two.

Young immigrant men may have it especially hard in the US. During their late teens or early twenties, the time when they should be dating and falling in love, they realize two painful things- American girls are not interested in Fresh.Off the Boat men ( F.O.Bs) as these appear clumsy and hick-like to them, and present very little value as boyfriends and future husbands. They also learn that within their own immigrant community, men often outnumber women and the guys that had been there before them now have the money and the status to get the best girls from that same community. Many of the immigrant women also prefer to date and marry the “real Americans” and not the struggling “fresh-off-the boat” bumpkins. These men also get caught in between two cultures. They are not yet accepted as Americans by the new society and they are no longer what they were to the people in the home country. Many cannot go back as they may not have the money to do so. Some of their countries may even arrest them if they attempt to go back. China and until recently, Vietnam were doing just that and many immigrants from there were caught in a cultural limbo in between the two places. For a Vietnamese refugee man to meet a beautiful VN-ese girl in the US would be quite hard as many prefer rich and handsome Americans or the long-established US- based VN-ese with cars, houses and businesses. Loneliness and alienation may drive many to join gangs and do all sorts of wild things as younger people often lack the maturity needed to face such solitude in a new land without being severely traumatized by it.

America has many good things, too: there is freedom of speech in the sense that you cannot get arrested for saying things against the government. You cannot be put in prison not paying a debt. The infrastructure and the services are top-notch. There are social programs for the very needy, as well. Products of all kinds are easily available delivered with a smile. Credit is easy to come by. You can purchase real estate and cars relatively easily, as well. There are student loans that can help you finish school. It is easy to get into colleges and earn diplomas and such US degrees are respected everywhere in the world. People treat customers nicely. There are laws to protect minorities and other non-mainstream people and you can sue people if you feel such laws are violated. There are numerous opportunities in many fields and if you know how to take advantage of them, you should be fine. US citizenship is also not hard to obtain, albeit harder than, say, the Canadian one. If you are stateless, the US government will provide you with a semblance of a passport- a “refugee travel document“. America has no major coup d'etats or revolutions. There are no true military invasions or occupations by foreign powers. So, one can thank America for many things that it can offer a prospective immigrant.

The bad things are- many things are so expensive now that the way to afford them is by using credit. Some forty or fifty years ago, basic salaries were often enough to live a good life. Now, they are not. So, people end up borrowing money to afford all the things that used to be affordable at much cheaper prices in the past. Many people are, therefore, indebted up to their ears and are working just to make the monthly payments. Taxes are high, medical services are also high. Even if you have medical insurance, you may end up paying a high deductible. So, you had better stay healthy.

Also, socially speaking, there is general unfriendliness and cliquishness in society. People are not easy to meet. Racial and ethnic groups often end up staying with their own kind. As in any other immigrant society, those who had been there before look down on newcomers. And, many children of immigrants can be particularly unfriendly to those who are fresh off the boat since as we know that &^%$% tends to travel down the hill. Also, just as a foreigner has a distorted idea of the American paradise, so does a native-born American has a distorted idea of the countries these new people come from- he thinks that these are very backward places with no electricity and no TV. If one’s English is accented and not fluent, one will be often treated as a hick or a mental *&&^%$%. Until one gets completely Americanized in behavior and speech, it is quite hard to fit into the US society, at least, on the social level. The closer one gets to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant in looks, speech, acting and thought, the better are one’s chances of fitting in. If not, one can be in for some lonely times. Hence, the somewhat off-the-mainstream people hang out together. Blacks with Blacks, Hispanics with Hispanics, Asians with Asians.

So, any immigrant who goes to the US needs to be aware of these things and weigh them carefully against his often idealistic expectations of life in the US. “Know before you go” applies to any place in the world, and the US is no exception. Still, all things considered, if one is adrift in the world, America is probably the best place to end up in.

The happiest immigrant in the US is the one who still maintains ties with the home country and uses dollars to build a nest egg where things are cheaper and where people now admire and seek him out as “that rich American”. These are the ones that you see smiling as they work hard in their noodle shops. They measure their worth not against the American standards, but against the standard of their cheap homeland where they are now treated as kings even if they used to be treated as nobodies there before.

The native- born person’s dream to buy a house, get married and live happily ever after also needs to be weighed against the realities of the American society today. With divorce rates sky-high, one can lose one’s shirt during a divorce settlement as the laws are heavily slanted in favor of women. Childbirth is expensive unless you are very poor and the government can pick up the tab for you. Raising kids is also expensive. Becoming a member of America’s middle class is not easy and, even if you become one, you will find yourself in a very unenviable position where your money seems to disappear right and left and you feel squeezed on both sides- from the strata above you and the strata belowow you. The very rich have tax loopholes and the very poor have welfare but if you are in the middle, it is hard to get rich. One ends up working very hard to maintain a semi-decent standard of living while supporting a government that does not even have national health insurance since America is the only developed nation in the world that does not offer it.

Becoming a doctor or a lawyer is probably the fastest and easiest way to propel oneself up and beyond the middle class category but is that what you want to do?

Dating is also quite hard for an average American guy as local women have enormously high standards as to the kind of man which they think they deserve to have. They want rich and handsome guys with enormous incomes. This leaves a lot of average guys behind, living lives of harsh work coupled with blank and consistent solitude.

The native-born American who is not a doctor or a lawyer can learn something from the happy, noodle-soup-stirring immigrant. He may check out some countries where these immigrants come from and see if he likes them and would like to spend some of his time there. The idea for him is not to leave America forever, but to combine the US with those countries where the US dollar acquires incredible might once it is changed into the local currency. And, if one feels that one is hopelessly behind in the American rat-race, and is labeled a “loser“, one can leave it and position oneself against the rat-race of some other country where one will be decidedly ahead.

Here is one good example: about a hundred years ago, some of my ancestors had an American dream, a ‘South’ American dream, that is. They emigrated to Argentina. In the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was a land of promise- people from all over Europe were emigrating there in hordes, the economy was booming and a melting pot of nationalities was being crystallized into a new Euro-South American nation. Anybody could become an Argentine. A new, almost completely ethnically European country was being formed near the Antarctica. Great European-style cities were being built. Buenos Aires was one of the most exciting world capitals now, with Parisian architecture, opera houses, theaters of drama and ballet and a whole new culture of tango, great poetry and literature, and general sophistication on par with any European state. Argentinean tourists were traveling around the world in style while receiving the same respect as rich Americans were at that time.

However, something happened towards the middle of the century as the country's economy and politics began getting worse and worse. By the end of the 2nd millennium the largely European Argentina became a poor Third World country. Heaven only knows what happened to my relatives and their children and where they are now.

I, nevertheless, decided to take advantage of the cheap prices in the country and went there in the summer of 2005. While I was never much of a Mr. Popularity or the Man Most Likely to Succeed in America, I used my US citizenship to make money as an English teacher in Saudi, Kuwait and Oman, changed my money into US dollars and ended up in Buenos Aires armed with wads of cash, debit cards from US banks, and a big smile on my face. Boy, did I have a ball! I stayed in downtown hotels in Buenos Aires, I traveled everywhere by taxi, I went to exclusive nightclubs and walked around that magnificent European city like a well-off man. I went to restaurants that only the rich locals could afford, and hobnobbed with the cream of the local society. The exchange rate of three Argentinean pesos to the dollar made me three times richer- literally. I felt that, probably, by sending some telepathic prayers from a hundred years ago, my ancestors who ended up in that city, somehow fulfilled their dream of becoming a rich Argentine through me. I also felt that I was like a deep water diver who ended up in that country as one would under water, and my air supply was in the form of American dollars turned into pesos. For the first time in my life I felt what it was like to be rich in the “West”- a strange, suddenly impoverished “West” near the South Pole.

I remember that once when I was a kid in my native country I was walking in the port area where a large foreign ship had docked in. The ship was from Argentina. The tourists from it were getting ready for a stroll around the city ,and one of them looked at me and gave me a piece of chewing gum. He had probably thought that I was so poor I could not afford it. Some thirty years later, as I was doing my shopping in Buenos Aires, I remembered the event with a smirk, bought some chewing gum and gave it to a teenager who was begging in front of the local McDonald’s. “Here, Argentina, my debt to you has now been repaid!” . And my ( South) American dream of strutting around like a rich man in another melting-pot American country had come true. I had the money to buy a house or rent a big one there, I could most easily have fallen in love with a local lady if I wanted to, and, I was economically somewhat on top of things. Was this an American dream come true? Kind of. At least to me, it was. I also learned something about “foreign currency manipulations” but, to me again, it was just finding a place where my dollars could buy more.

So, if your American dream has not come true yet, and you feel like you are running out of time, consider creating a somewhat modified version of it, which would involve some other country in addition to the US. With enough imagination, preparation and guts, you may attain it sooner than you think, although its realization may happen in places you had never even thought of traveling to before.

Provincialism Everywhere.

Every nation-state maintains a sort of a cultural matrix with a myth about its glorious past, its comfortable present and even a better future. An average citizen of such a nation-state, unless he is well-traveled, well-read, and multi-lingual, swallows such nationalistic myths hook, line and sinker. Often, as one would expect it to happen just that way, this mythology is not shared by the neighboring nation-states who have their own versions of how great they themselves are, and how not-so-great the other country is. The story is not only limited to nation-states, but holds equally true for cities, neighborhoods and even villages. A non-traveler most often thinks that he lives in a place where everything is right and better than in other places.

Such an attitude is a manifestation of Worldwide Provincialism Extraordinaire, a force not to be ignored as one makes his home in all these new places. One needs to be very diplomatic when one meets his hosts and try not to complain about the inconveniences one experiences there, as the natives will never take your complaints kindly. The rare person that does, will probably agree with you but won’t be able to help you, however, most will just say” If you don’t like it, why are you still here?”. Hence, when in foreign lands, do not ever criticize the country, village or area, except in confidence, tactfully, and to other expats. And only if you must.

I remember I was once in Bangkok and a Thai neighbor decided to drop in with his girlfriend. After exchanging some pleasantries and making some international small talk with me of the kind " Where are you from", "How long have you been in Thailand, etc" , he proceeded to deliver a glorious speech on the greatness of his counyry, the magnificence of its King and how other nations, particularly Western nations ( including Russia) were out to exploit it and rip it off. His speech was fervent and passionate and I kept nodding and smiling while recalling so many similar speeches that I have heard from os many other nationals- Nicaraguans, Russians, Puerto Ricans, Japanese and so many others about how great they were, how kind and friendly and hospitable, and how everybody else was out to get them, exploit them, rape their women and take away their natural resources.
Just write a script, leave blanks where the name of the country is and start the harangue. They ill all sound the same.

Nation-states, in general, are very protective of everything that they view as part of their domain, be it the territory, cultural treasures, women or jobs. Such nationalism is what keeps people from migrating freely around the world as they used to in the past. It also keeps large areas in some countries unpopulated and in other countries- overpopulated. Even though many countries are capable of absorbing large numbers of people, they will zealously guard every inch of their territory and only allow very small numbers of migrants in, most often those whom they do not view as threats and only on their own terms.

In most of Europe and Asia, nationalism has always been tied to people who, for millennia, belonged to the same ethnic groups, had the same type of names and physical appearance and lived in the same places since what they perceive to be the beginning of their history. Europe and Asia, consequently, been two difficult places to settle and be accepted in. Recent riots in France have proved that to be true. There are some places where things are easier. Countries such as Singapore and Philippines who for centuries have been home to all kinds of ethnic groups and who have absorbed them are somewhat exceptional. One can, in fact become a Singaporean or a Filipino. One cannot become truly Japanese or Korean, though. Thailand has also absorbed immigrants, particularly of another Asian origin declaring them to be Thai once they were naturalized.

In Europe, Great Britain has been very good to immigrants in spite of what some people perceive to be the notorious British “coldness“. As recently as the 19th century people could just come to the Kingdom, Anglicize their names and live there, and they would be thought of as locals as long as they looked, talked and behaved as such. Russia was also once open, and many foreigners became absorbed into its mainstream and considered Russian provided they were willing to be baptized into the Orthodox faith.

Things changed in the 20th century as forces of nationalism became stronger and migrations became harder to carry out in these two places.

Nationalism in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa seems to have been of the nativistic variety: It would be of the “ I was born here, therefore I am this, and you were not born here, therefore you are not”. Hence, you would have the conflict of the native-born towards the foreign-born for quite some time although it would only last for one generation. That conflict also existed alongside the discord between the true indigenous population vs. the native-born white people who looked and behaved as their colonial forefathers, something that did not exist in Europe or Asia.

In Africa, there were two types of “nationalisms” . There is the original African tribalism which has nothing to do with “ I was born here” factor, but simply with what tribe you descend from, plus the nationalism between the newly created European-style nation-states which divided people into strange new colonial nationalities. People were now Nigerians, Kenyans and Cameroonians with no one really understanding what it meant to be one. The natives there simply thought of themselves as Kikuyus and Yorubas or Muslims and Christians. Often, new countries which were simply European creations to suit their own conveniences would have a territory of one tribe divided between two sovereign states, and members of the tribe that spoke the same language would now have two different nationalities. Instead of having a true European model where nations are delineated by language, culture and ethnicity, they now had totally unnatural entities which the traditionally tribalistic Africans have never been able to fit into.

In the Gulf Nations of the Middle East, nationalism is usually based on something called “Jinsiya”- roughly translated as “nationality/citizenship”, but normally tied in to one’s belonging to the indigenous tribes of that particular state. Therefore, being a Saudi or a Kuwaiti or a Qatari means having native roots in the Aboriginal ethnic groups that have "always" been there. Being born in those countries does not automatically entitle one to becoming a national of those nations. In some countries, notably Saudi Arabia, many children of pilgrims to Mecca were able to become Saudi citizens when citizenship was still easy to obtain some thirty years ago, but their children are still not considered to be “true Saudis” because they are not blood-related members of the some thirty or so original native clans of the desert. These are still in the luckier situation then so many people who had neen born and raised in those countries but do not qualify for the “ JInsiya” and ,therefore, are stateless and destined to live a rough life in the land of their birth.

As an expat in all these countries, one will on many occasions com against such forces of provincialism and nationalism. The best weapon in one’s arsenal would be citizenship from some highly respected country such as Canada, Great Britain or even Singapore or Japan, as well as some highly sought after skill, and/or plenty of money. With very few exceptions, money seems to be the best weapon of them all against the forces of international cliquishness.

Philosophically speaking, one should not take the concept of nation-state as something totally eternal and holy. It is just a group of people temporarily occupying a certain territory and calling itself by a certain name. These are things created by man and they are not lasting. Try and do a web search on “the map of Europe” over the past two thousand years to see how many countries have shifted borders and how many have simply disappeared. There were undoubtedly many gallant knights who had fought for the prosperity of the kingdoms of Aragon and Pomerania, and hundreds of thousands may have died so that the glory of Prussia would live on. These nation states are gone now and new ones with new names have sprung up. But what did those heroes die for? And does anybody still remember their names and their feats of arms against the hated Andaluz or Courlandia? Most probably not.

A wise expat, armed with a marketable skill and/or money and aware of how ephemeral all these things are, should forever try and maintain his peaceful independence as he moves between countries. Forever on guard, cautious and healthily skeptical, answerable only to himself and his own view of personal freedom, he is able to maintain his unique way of living a varied and multi-faceted life in this mythology- and provincialism- ridden world.

How to Prepare for a Trip Abroad.

I have been traveling all my life, and I think that one of the most important elements of a successful voyage is proper preparation. If you get ready for you trip in a correct and thorough way, you will have less to worry about when you are in the foreign land. Traveling is stressful as it is, so there is no sense in making it even more so. Hence, prepare early, prepare well and prepare carefully.

First of all, you need to make reservations at least two or three months in advance. For some trips, a reservation as far ahead as four of five months is advisable. You need to be ahead of time for several reasons: Sometimes, there are very few seats on certain very popular flights and many seats out of your airport may already be booked very far in advance. If you book early, you will have plenty of time to change your reservations should something come up. After you make the booking, check it carefully. On certain occasions, travel agents make mistakes. They can also give you not enough time to change planes at airports. Some travel agents are young and inexperienced and thus make serious errors. Some may be tired and book you on wrong dates. So, check your reservation on the Internet. Is everything correct? Are all flights confirmed? Some agents forget to confirm a flight. If that happens, you can be stranded at some foreign airport. Also, make sure that hotel reservations are also in place; either reserve one on the Web or ask your agent to get you a room. They can often get room rates that are way below the ones you can get at your destination if you try and find one by yourself.

Second, pack well, but do not pack too many things. Put only the most necessary items in your luggage. Do not take too many heavy objects as you are usually only allowed twenty kilos with you on your flight. Also, some suitcases are very heavy. If and when you go and buy travel gear or bags, it is often better to buy soft ones. These are lighter and you can pack much more into them. Moreover, when packing, do not put your documents, your laptop, digital camera, phone charger, or other such vital items into the bags that you are going to check in. And, please, never put any money in there. If, God forbid, your luggage is sent to the wrong destination, you will not be able to get to them for a long time. So, check-in bags are for clothes and shoes, and carry-on bags are for documents, laptop computers, electric/electronic items, cameras and toiletries. Do not forget to put a few pairs of clothes and underwear in them, too. You may need those in case you have a long stopover in some foreign city and feel the need to change your garments.

The next thing has to do with electric appliances and cell phones. Your phone chargers go into your carry-on luggage, remember? Do not forget to buy an electric adapter, as well- some countries have different types of electric sockets and some even have different voltage. Any big supermarket will have those and please shop around- the Chinese ones are cheap, the Japanese are expensive. Cheap Chinese ones will do for short trips. Do not forget to charge your phones before your trip and, also, ask your telecommunications company about how to dial from overseas- if your phone roams in a foreign land and locks into a local network, you may have to dial differently from there than you do from here.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your most important items such as the cell phone, tickets and your passport are the things that you will need to keep on yourself. I recommend that you get a special travel pouch which you can wear on your chest under the shirt or dress. Or, you can get one that you can affix on the inside of your hip or under your arm, beneath your clothes. In this pouch, you will keep your credit and ATM cards, your cash, travelers’ checks and other such personal articles. If your cell phone is small, you may want to keep it in the pouch, too; if it is big, I recommend getting a special holder for it which you can attach to your belt. Also, you may want to consider buying a belt bag or a small over-the-shoulder bag to keep your valuables in. If you travel to big cities with many poor people there, keep in mind that there are many thieves that are constantly looking for victims to steal from. Tourists and foreigners are their favorite targets. Do not become such an easy mark for those criminals, always check your personal items and keep your hands on them as much as you can.

Finally, get to the airport early. If it is an international flight, be there at least two or three hours before the departure. It can be boring but so what? You can buy a book or a magazine after you have checked in your luggage and gotten the boarding pass. If you get your boarding pass three hours early, which is called pre-boarding, you can spend the next couple of hours relaxing, getting snacks or reading a newspaper while others are jostling each other in the long lines. If you, however, get there late yourself, you may be in for a mad rush, long lines and unneeded nervous tension. So, the motto is better early than sorry!

If you follow the above-mentioned steps, your will be able to have a very pleasant trip and save yourself many headaches. Proper preparation is important in any endeavor, but trips to foreign lands deserve an even more thorough groundwork on your part. He, who prepares well, travels well. Let that be your slogan from today onward.

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