Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Ugly Australian

I've written before on this blog about how expats behave around one another in Asia. I have learned a very hard way to avoid them as much as possible. They aren't partucularly exceptional people, wherever it may be that they come from. Back home they are nondescript, unassuming, and probably plain boring. But abroad, especially in places where there aren't very many of them, they stand out like big purple sore thumbs. Since the heat turns whatever they're wearing to rags in a very short time, most of them have never learned how to dress for the tropics, and wander the streets in t-shirts and shorts. And since they are almost invariably old and obese, they cut a quite unsightly figure among Asians, particularly when they have an Asian girlfriend in tow.

On the 1st of this month, I violated one of my own cardinal rules as an expat here in the Philippines. Standing in line at an ATM, waiting for it to open (!), I noticed a big Caucasian man a few heads behind me in the line. My cardinal rule is to acknowledge the presence of a fellow expat with a nod or by raising my eyebrows but to never ever engage them in conversation. He just walked up to me, ignoring the people in line between us and started talking. Before he could finish his question, I knew he was an Aussie.

"So what's going on, mate?" he asked. We were waiting for the ATM to open, I explained.

"Only in the Philippines," he said loudly enough for everyone to hear, "would they close an ATM." Leaving it open, I figured, would necessitate the hiring of a security guard to discourage vandals. But this never occurred to the Aussie.

He then began to go down his list of complaints against Filipinos, in the same loud voice. Before the arrival of the Aussie, I had asked the Filipino ahead of me in line what we were waiting for. I asked him in Tagalog, but he replied in perfect English that the ATM was still "loading." So I cringed when my fellow expat launched into his anti-Filipino tirade, knowing that at least one Filipino in line understood every word he was saying. I wanted nothing more than to flee the scene. I could always say it was attack of diarrhea. At least it would discourage the Aussie from following me.

Instead, I told him that I couldn't hang around all morning and that I would try the ATM down the street on my way out of town. But the Aussie followed me. Ever since my first visit to the Philippines in 1993, I have encountered these horrible people. All they seemed to do was complain about everything. Were their lives so miserable, I wondered? If they were so unhappy, what could it possibly be that held them here, that kept them from going home? I always came back to what I mentioned above: that these men, nobodies at home, are somebodies here - incredibly rude and ugly somebodies, but still somebodies. Later I read the poem, "Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno," in which W. H. Auden wrote:

"... though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was."

It was, perhaps, the memory of some distant, half-remembered happiness that kept these horrible people here.
Norman Lewis, the 20th Century's finest travel writer, had the final word on expats more than half a century ago. In his irreplaceable book, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Burma, he wrote of his encounter with expatriates coming aboard the ship on which he arrived in Burma:

“There was something of a party on the Menam that night. A couple of tin-miners came aboard and were entertained by friends. The Captain made his first appearance, and later came over to my table. He had heard that I was a writer, and would like to know what I proposed to write about. Burma, I told him, knowing infallibly what was to come. And what were my qualifications? . . . How long had I lived, or would live in the country? I had arrived a week before, and might stay a few months.

The Captain found it hard to conceal his exasperation. For twenty-eight years he had knocked about these coasts, and he seemed to feel that anyone who had spent less time in the Far East than he, had no right to write about it. The things he had seen in his days! The stories he could tell if he felt like it! And what did this rare information amount to, when finally after a few more double whiskies the process of unburdening began? A little smuggling; a little gun-running; repetitive descriptions of homeric drinking bouts in which the Captain had justified his manhood and his race against all comers; fun with Burmese ‘bits of stuff’. Of this material were his Burmese memories composed.

And this was the common, almost the invariable attitude. The old hands seem to feel that they possess a kind of reluctant, vested interest in the place of their exile. Without having suffered with them the long, boring years of expatriation, it was an impertinence to have an opinion. And yet when questioned they would often boastfully display their ignorance, their contempt and distaste for everything about the country. As soon as the central streets of Rangoon were left behind there was never another European to be seen.

It has always been the same. Of all the Europeans who visited Burma, from earliest times down to the days of Symes’ Embassy at the beginning of the last century, only eight troubled to give any account of the country, however brief. Hundreds of factors of the East India Company resided in Syriam, Pegu or at Ava, yet none of them in his letters shows any evidence of curiosity about the strange life that went on around them, or that he ever thought of Burma other than in terms of ‘Ellephants teeth, Pegue Plancks, Tynn, Oyle, and Mortavan jars’.”

Sooner or later, what every expat must accept is that he is burdened with a reputation that every expat who preceded him formed in the minds of the locals, and that it is an unflattering one: a reputation for offensiveness, ugliness, heavy drinking and womanizing. An expat may be exceedingly polite, well-dressed, abstemious and faithful to one woman, but he will be exceptional.

The funny thing about my encounter with the Australian that day was how it ended: his ATM card failed and mine worked. Sometimes decency pays.

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