Becoming Africanized on New Years Eve
January 4, 2010 2 Comments
What does it take to enjoy life in a foreign country? What aspects of local culture and community need to exist for an expatriate to decide that life in this new country is more valuable to their quality of life than what they experience in their original home country? I came to this realization on New Year Eve.
My New Years started off in the US Embassy at a party in the compound. The place was lightly filled with Americans and casual discussions of the local culture, both good and bad, was a general consistent theme. The interiour design of the apartment was extraordinarily American with tile floors, wood furniture and 110V electrical plugs. The quality of work was everything you can expect to see in any American home. We all chatted in our flat, North American accents and before I could get another glass of South African wine, the clock struck midnight and all the old acquaintance be forgot.
My possy started with Elena, a well travelled American who has lived throughout most of Africa and her friend from Nimba, Morris, a shy and extremely nice Liberian who was her former driver. We left with two US marines and headed to a top-end club called Déjà Vu.
Unlike the rest of Liberian architecture and design, Déjà Vu held a strikingly well done layout with couches, a VIP lounge, laser lights, obnoxious smoke machine, debilitating strobe light and an sunken dance floor. Elena and I were the only two white expatriates in the place. The rest of the club was mostly populated with three type of people: Lebanese men, Indian men and Liberian females who, in reality, are “prostitutes”. I double quote this term because they are not all just sex-for-money women. Some are white-man-relationship=better-life-and-new-passport women. I hesitate to call them commercial sex workers as this seems more like a hobby than a full time career. And even though there were a large selection of women to choose from, the two marines decided to share one women. I had offered them with the warning that this woman was a prostitute and they replied that “they were just having fun” but I suspect their short-term fun would be extended when phone numbers were exchanged and pseudo-sexualized dance moves were discoed out. To add to the ambiance, the 5:1 men to women ratio allowed for a small audience of men to gather at the top of the stairs leading to the sunken dance floor. Hip hop and house music filled the room and all was very badly mixed though nobody seemed to mind as, I assume, bad DJ mixing is considered standard here. The dance floor became extra entertaining when House music from India came on and the Indian men started dancing with other Indian men – as they do.
As much as there were some very entertaining elements to the club, the harassment from these women and the dissociation from the locals left me uneasy.
So what does this all mean in terms of an expatriate finding longevity in a foreign country? I saw the embassy and how it is designed to be as familiar to their home country style as possible. I saw the marines finding a comfort zone with these women and I saw myself being isolated from all of it. This has brought me to the conclusion that you need two things to integrate properly into a uniquely different country: (1) an extremely comfortable home and (2) a connection to the local culture. For some, like Elena, connecting to the local culture is easy. She has a strong bond with Africa and African people. Other people, like one of my former roommates, never could and never tried to acclimatize to the local culture for whatever reason. Liberia is not a simple country to live and work in. As such, I see that many people here have what I call an “expiry date”. Most expatriates barely survive a year and I have only seen a few that make it long term with the exception of some obligated US and UN military.
This conclusion makes me realise that I am not becoming Africanized. The more I am here, the more I begin to relate to who I am (as a Canadian) and who I am not (the rest of the world’s culture). I am not integrating into the local culture which makes me think that I too have an expiry date here. I always felt a strong draw to Africa but now that I am here, I am unsure of my place. I know that once I find that connector, a switch will flip and I will find it hard to leave.
I should include a (3) in my list which is work life but I will save that for another posting.