He loved waking up in his modest hovel and enjoying his first cup of press coffee on his little outdoor balcony overlooking the alleyway below. Every morning, he could see people moving through the alleys to open their neighborhood stores and food carts or to head off to work somewhere in the city, and he felt there was a real dignity in their hard work despite their circumstances. He respected these people and was inspired by their fortitude every morning as he viewed them from above.
His living quarters weren’t much: a little economy kitchenette and sitting room and then a stairway to a second- floor bedroom, half-bathroom and patio. His place certainly wasn’t as extravagant as the high-rise flats and villas his fellow expat colleagues lived in, but he felt more connected to his adopted home country here. More in touch with the local people and with the true nature of the place, and that made him feel good.
He tried to explain this sometimes to the people he worked with. They would talk about the craft brewpubs they frequented or the new high-end restaurants that had just opened in their neighborhoods, but it seemed like they were just reproducing the privileged, comfortable lives they’d had back home here in a new country without really bothering to engage or immerse themselves in anything new. Conrad once wrote about sailors that, “In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance,” and it felt like this was an accurate depiction of Western expatriates in the developing world too.
He pitied them actually. What a missed opportunity to really know a place, he thought. He had to be diplomatic, of course, in expressing this to them. He didn’t want to seem pretentious or as though he was judging their way of life, although he guessed he was.
Once, he’d gone a little too far on a rare night when he’d joined some acquaintances at a trendy craft brewpub in a more upscale part of the city. He’d been a little disturbed by how they’d so deliberately constructed a kind of Western diaspora here, full of white people listening to twee mid-2000s indie rock and drinking dry-hopped IPA. And because he’d had a little too much to drink himself that night, he couldn’t resist criticizing this and extolling the virtues of the little food carts and stalls of his neighborhood as better and more authentic.
“I just think this place could be anywhere. We could be in San Francisco or Boston or Toronto right now. There’s no culture here. You should come and hang out in my neighborhood and have a real experience with real local people.”
And, of course, his companions had pushed back. They’d told him he was fetishizing poverty and exotifying strangers in a way that was just as reductive as outright racism, but that didn’t seem correct to him. Wasn’t he the one who was actually getting to know local people and not just spending his time surrounded by other diplomatic staff or international school teachers?
“You don’t even have any local friends,” he pointed out. “You spend all your time with people exactly like you.”
They asked him how often he actually socialized with these local people he so idealized. Did he open his home to them? Go out or on trips together? Were their interactions any more in-depth than nodding hello in the mornings and frequenting the same street food carts? Didn’t he also spend the bulk of his time with other foreigners who were just as obsessed with authenticity as he was? He felt like they were twisting things. He was the one engaged in life in this country. They lived in a bubble. They’d never see the actual version of this place, just the tourist attractions and Western- style restaurants.
They told him they weren’t 23 years old anymore and didn’t have to pretend to enjoy sleeping in hostels or traveling on crowded local buses and trains or eating unsanitary street food for every meal. And that he was deluding himself in pretending that continuing to slum it was some badge of honor. He was, after all, still as much of a foreigner here as anyone else.
“You probably haven’t learned more than five words of the language,” he said. “You don’t know any more than what you can say to a taxi driver.” Of course, he realized that his own command of the local dialect hadn’t advanced much beyond basic greetings and a few utilitarian phrases either.
They reminded him that this country they were all temporarily residing in was experiencing one of the world’s fastest developing middle classes, the members of which were every bit as real as the noble savages he romanticized and that the only thing he and his fellow white hipsters were actually accomplishing in their quest to keep it real was driving up housing costs in some gentrified slum as a salve for their own inadequacies. He’d been inarticulately drunk at this point and could no longer defend his worldview, which he was still convinced was the correct one.
He’d asserted again that his experience was more authentic, more genuine than theirs. “Authenticity,” a man across the table countered, “is, best as I can tell, proximity to the smell of human shit.”
They’d left soon after on mostly cordial terms. His coworkers had pulled out their phones and used a convenient taxi app to secure rides home while he’d opted for the back of a motorcycle taxi. He arrived at the end of his unlit alley and wound his way through towards his home. At this time of night, it was quiet and still. In the distance a cat howled, and in front of him a large rat scurried towards an overturned garbage can, the contents of which he had to step carefully over.
As he reached his home, he thought to himself that there are two types of people in this world: those who run and hide from new experiences and those who bravely step outside their comfort zones to face the onslaught of unfamiliar cultural adventures. And on that night more than any other he could remember, he knew exactly which type of person he was.