Wednesday, May 09, 2012

You live and learn

Not being the most hirsute Donkey in the barnyard, it stands to reason that I'll rarely be spotted out in daylight without a hat.  Currently I'm sporting a pretty awful, woven straw number which makes me look like the scariest, pig-rooting yokel in the County, but better that than a scone coated with weeping sores and liver spots like C. Montgomery Burns.

This latest headdress is just another in a long line of amusing and sometimes controversial cranial garments that have become somewhat of a characteristic feature since my early teens (yes, yes ... the baldness started pretty early on).  Like most teenage boys, I too went through that phase of not washing my clothes, but I took the practice to a very unsavoury extreme by not cleaning or changing my hat for many years, and only swapping it when the dirt, sweat and hair gel (not a typo – my comb-over started early, too) no longer held the various panels together.

From dirty cap to dirty cap I went.  Over the years, I employed nails to hold various clips and visors on, which in turn went rusty and smelly and left ugly stains on my skin.  Sea salt crusted edges cut through my upper ear and bird shit was left to fester into blooms of new bacterial strains the likes of which modern science was yet to classify.  Put the pieces together and you're noticing just one more amongst the many reasons why young Donkey was never quite able to land a lady!

Anyway, it happened that after living in Solomon Islands for a couple of years, I managed to misplace my hat just before leaving the country, bound for India.  I'd loved that cap.  It had been with me on jungle hikes, mountain climbs, river crossings, open sea travel and more than a few torrential downpours, and each and every one of these was evident from the crud and muck casing every stitch and groove in the fetid fabric.

It was a great loss, and I was horrified that I was about to set-up a new life, in a new country, and attempt to break into a new social network wearing a BRAND NEW HAT!  Urgh – everyone would assume I was one of those wankers who would only be seen wearing a shiny new hat.  I'd be alone forever!  A social outcast.

There was only one thing to do.  If it had to be new, I was going to make sure my new hat at least had Edge.  So when I hit Kuala Lumpur for a 48 hour, en route shopover, I kept my eyes peeled for the prefect lid.  Things were looking pretty grim as I trawled through markets sporting nothing but knock-off Nike and Adidas caps, Department Stores with exclusive rights to Tommy Hilfiger and Gazman, and tourist centres with embroidered renditions of the Petronas Towers. 

I was desperate by the time I got to a food court for a final meal, just hours before we were due to take-off for New Delhi.  But as we pushed through a huge crowd amassed outside, I caught a glimpse of what they were all looking at, and my cold heart immediately warmed in a lovely, bright yellow and red glow – Maggi noodles!

In typical KL, gangbusters-market-economy fashion, some self-made entrepreneur had taken basic, poor-man's street food and was marketing the MSG out of Maggi Noodles through a massive, open-air gourmet cook-off, using a smorgasbord of fresh ingredients and Maggi noodles.  The noise was deafening as the crowd of onlookers ooh-ed, aaah-ed and cheered as the exuberant cooks served up dish after dish of Maggi noodle based delights for their consumption.

For me, it wasn't what was on the plate that I was interested in, but rather the Maggi noodle uniforms of the cooks and their assistants, and in particular, the sparkling, pale yellow caps adorned with the famous red logo.  I was over the moon with excitement and relief as I man-handled my way through the crush to one of the cook's assistants, and started waving handfuls of ringgit in his astonished face.  At first I was surprised at his reluctance to take me up on my offer, but by the time I was throwing the equivalent of about sixty Australian dollars at him, I was becoming both outraged and panic-stricken that I was going to miss this one chance at obtaining the object that would lubricate my introduction to New Delhi society.

As the crowd pushed past me to get their chopsticks into a plate of Maggi noodle-enriched Malaysian chicken, I was both fuming and perplexed at this young man's refusal to take my money.  He was clearly poor; he was skinny, dressed in pale, Maggi-noodle yellow from head to toe, and sporting a massive smile despite the physical and verbal abuse being showered upon him by his more senior counterpart demanding various ingredients and Maggi-embossed condiments.  I was perplexed, angry and dejected.

Within months – perhaps even weeks of living in India, I came to understand all too well why the young Malaysian man would not give-up his hat, even for the small fortune I was offering.  As I came to understand the way big business treats poor people in Asia, I realised the kind of retribution Mr Maggi would have dealt out to that young man, his family and perhaps his whole community if he'd so much as damaged his corporate uniform, let alone lost some of it.  My sixty bucks would have been nothing compared with his not being able to afford schooling for his kids, or fresh water for his family.

As embarrassed as I was to have been so aggressive towards him, particularly for something so frivolous, I was able to reflect on my changed understanding in such a short time.  It hadn't taken me very long to learn about this particular subtlety of domestic economics once I arrived in Asia, but it came as a shock to me.  I had been living in a very poor country for two years; living amongst malnourished, poorly resourced, rural communities, and observing the challenges they faced in accessing health care, education, livelihoods and cash.  I thought I had understood all these issues; I thought I was an expert; I thought I would have been doing this young man a favour ... but in fact I hadn't had the faintest clue of the issues at play during our interaction.

What I took from this learning was a very clear message; it is not possible, or at least it is extremely difficult for foreigners visiting and/or working in other countries to become experts on what local people think, feel, do and say.  This reflection taught me that every day, I learn something new about my surroundings, and everyday, this learning turns what I thought to be true right on its head.  It taught me that I am no expert, and I never could, or would be.

Which brings me to a recent, wholly unpleasant evening; just another in a series of difficult social interactions Mrs Donkey and I have experienced since we arrived in Port Vila and embarked on a quest for new friends we can rely on for a good 'bitch and moan' about poor plumbing, moonscape roads and the rising price of duty-free gin.

On this occasion, the potentially warm, intimate dinner party conversation was violently arrested by a mouthy young woman who couldn't help chiming-in at every opportunity (and even sometimes when there was clearly no opportunity at all) to tell anyone within ear shot just how good she was at ... well, everything!  From varsity sports tournaments, to dating celebrities, to maintaining lifelong friendships, to being down with 'the youth', to being a damn fine crusader for humanity ... basically, albeit by her own admission, this chick was 'The Shit'.  Sadly, judging by their screaming body language, everyone else in the room considered this description an unfortunate typo.

Now at this stage, it's gotta be said that the Donkeys aren't the most popular animals in the barnyard, and as beggars can't be choosers, we are quite willing to put up with the idiosyncrasies evident within a small social pool in favour of spending yet another night alone together watching re-runs of Packed to the Rafters.  But there's only so much one can take when the (one-person) conversation shifts up a gear from single-handedly leading the world revolution against poverty, to that dangerous red zone in which they claim to be at one with those very same poor-folk they claim to be emancipating.

It was at about the time when this la femme expertista, her crystal goblet of expensive Bordeaux sloshing with each agitated gesture, launched into lengthy explanatory diatribes of what life is like for local women – "and I know because I have lots of local female friends and I have a really special, trusting and open relationship with my house girl, who shares everything with me" - that Mrs D and I began making noises about over-worked baby-sitters, early morning starts and even (without word of a lie) that we were planning to visit a Seventh Day Adventist church service at 10am (now if that wasn't a thinly veiled scream for help, then I'm walkin').

As we were beating a hasty retreat out the door, I threw a sympathetic look to our male host whose chest was being pummelled by a mood-ringed index finger jabbing-out a painful list of the crimes that local men inflict upon "us women".  His returned glance comprised a peculiar mix of lost-dog's-home imploring and explosive fury at my leaving so suddenly – he must have seen our escape as somewhat akin to that mountain-climber who cuts the rope on his dangling friend in order to save his own skin.

Mrs D and I drove home exasperated and fuming at the way our pleasant evening had been hijacked by this 'expert' who had lived in this country for barely 12 months.  She'd claimed, through her penetrating opinions, to have the definitive knowledge about every aspect of life here, and particularly, the good oil on all issues facing local women.  Her unsolicited lectures, apart from being annoying, were to my thinking, offensive to the very people for whom she claimed to advocate.  I know from bitter experience that her opinions are unlikely to be fully informed, and I am embarrassed for her at the effect they were having on those gathered. 

Most of all, I am pissed-off that she ruined what would have been a nice, pleasant evening comprising interesting and lively conversation.  Lady, if I want to know about issues facing local people, I'll ask them.

Expect to see this on the Milan catwalks this season as the new face of emerging street cred.  Pic: