A Tide in the Affairs of Men?June 11, 2006
The fortunes in store for an Adventurer from the western lands in Asia might could read just like a tarot card deck. Perhaps there is a set of fortune ?cards? unique to every place one may go to live, but certainly Cambodia has its own.
Now and again by a stroke of fortune, we meet someone who has learned the right attitude for enjoying the positive aspects of ex-pat life in Asia. So many do succumb to a thinly disguised hatred (at best) of the Asian mind-set after a certain number of set-backs to the dreams they brought to Asia in the hope of fulfilling.
From my own observation the rot sets in after a certain number of disappointments due to the perception of being treated unfairly by the locals because of racial prejudice. These disappointments usually relate to the failure to materialize an ambition of some sort. The blame is then laid upon the locals because they refuse to “play the game” fairly and often upon the shoulders of a fellow ex-pat (or two) for being a Judas or else turning out useless and not up to the task.
So many young men come to Asia with adventurous dreams that were not able to be realised in the West and imagine that the exponential exchange rate of baht-peso-rupiah-riel vs the pound-dollar-mark-euro will recreate them as born-again peso millionaires.
It all looks feasible on paper. The first lesson probably learnt though is that Asian communities are composed of multitudes of extended family clans who survive with little if any any government sponsored help. This has forged certain strong enduring bonds.
No matter how much the young women appear infatuated with the young white Johnny-come-lately and seem to revere him as a god fallen to earth compared to what they know of their brothers, cousins or general neighbourhood guys, it is all based on material physical need. I say based, in the sense of a foundation. If the soil of engagement is suitably enriched there is no reason for a fine romance not to blossom and it often does, as a mixture of the heady intoxication of the tropics and an unfamiliar exotic culture takes one captive.
Aside from a generous sprinkling of wealth, what else is essential for sweetening this soil to the right measure? Probably would have to be a realistic reckoning of the local culture itself.
The Barang appears on the scene unable to conceal many evident truths about himself from the point of view of the majority of locals. If you ask them who it was who landed on the moon, they would answer: ‘The Barang!’ They would not say that it was one small step for ‘man’. They would not feel that they had been included in the mission at all.
The structure of Asian families creates a distinctive social environment in which children develop into adulthood. This is probably quite different in many ways to the family environment most westerners are raised in. For instance, in almost all Asian families without exception, the boy-child has superior status to the girl-child. This custom can vary from simple favoritism to being accorded the rites of a young prince.
An Asian father will often carry his son around proudly even past the age when he is capable of walking and will one day even seek out a wife for him. The son is the father’s glory.
Aside from the gender status, sibling heirachy is also an extremely relevant institution within Asian families. The eldest son could almost be said to be in possession of the status of a parent to his younger siblings.
This is a markedly different arrangement to that found in most western families, especially with regards to siblings, the difference being there is no instituted heirachy between them. In contemplating that difference, I cannot help calling to mind the Roman story of Romulus and Remus.
The twin brothers Romulus and Remus, it is told, were the sons of the God Mars. When they were very young they were abandoned by the banks of the River Tiber and left to fend for themselves. Luckily for them they were found by a she-wolf who took pity on them fed them with her milk.
Later a shepherd found the boys and took them home to look after them. He ended up raising the boys as his own children. The boys grew up to be very strong and clever and they decided to build a town on the spot where the Shepherd had found them.
Shortly after building the town the twins had a big argument about who should be in charge. Romulus overpowered his brother Remus who died in the fight. Romulus then became the first king of this town which he named Rome, after himself.
Out of this formative rivalry though, emerge the competitive forces which proceed to shape western society and culture with all of its organizational flair.
Western cultural history is also peppered with episodes of patricide where a son grows stronger and resents the power instituted and wielded by his father. Sigmund Freud made a point of studying this trend in Western cultures as far back in history as he had historical reference to. Perhaps this trend of an inner rebellion to patriarchy has had its ironic conclusion in the fact that many modern western youth emerge from single-parent families. This in itself distinguishes their psychology from Asian male mind-set.
Arthur Koestler, the eminent novelist and thinker, wrote in his book The Lotus and the Robot that India is not a democracy but a “Bapucracy” because men do not learn to make up their minds till their Bapus (fathers) are dead.
‘Bapucracy’ like Hinduism and Buddhism it seems, did not remain confined to India, and seems to have become endemic throughout south-east Asia. The Devaraja cult, where kingship and divinity were synonymous, predominated in ancient Cambodia and seems to have persisted in some form even until today.
Power and position in western culture, for the most part, is competed for and granted to supposedly he or she who is in possession of the greatest merit. This is the ideal anyway.
In Asian culture, position and privilege are granted as a token of favour by an influential ‘elder’ and through that ‘gift’ the recipient becomes ?in debt? to the benefactor. The total representation of the collective ?debts? is the stuff with which the state is managed from village to province to capitol.
Everyone is secure in their social position but change comes slowly.
In light of these cultural factors, perhaps the most significantly influential social force in Asian society springs to mind: The loss or the saving of face.
Guys have been known to run ‘Amok’ throwing their life away in an irrational suicidal frenzy for loss of face the equivalent of which two westerners may or may not exchange harsh words. Such is the accent placed on this form of self-esteem.
Speaking with a raised voice to Asian elders in the presence of junior males, seriousness, impatience, displays of temper, table thumping all stand the promise of imminent doom. Easier to buy your way out of a legal jam and live to tell the tale at Peaceman?s.
The Asian ego does not readily hold up to challenge or ridicule. George Double-U has to bathe in a daily monsoon of disrespectful homage from the rabble who do nothing but pick pick pick. Maybe ‘W’ grew up on the ranch rough-housing and vying with Jeb for petty domestic victories, but I digress.
When Joe ‘Barang’ Americano swaggers into a place like Cambodia with his head ‘held up’ like his mama told him he may not be meaning to raise the local male ego hackles but all things considering he may be.
In Cambodian society, as in most South-East Asian societies, cultural institutions such as those of business, religious, engagement, marriage etc, are discussed and/or arranged with the recognition of and deference to local male elders.
When a westerner enters any dimension of such a society using as his means of introduction, a local woman, in some way he is ‘going over the heads’ of established local male authority and causing perhaps ‘loss of face’?
In some way, such a westerner’s only ‘cultural passport’ is his new girlfriend. She understands the language where he doesn’t, and she alone possesses the cultural knowledge with its taboos and idiosyncrasies along with a first-hand connection to the people. Because of this, the woman may be perceived as possessing greater power than Joe himself! This could be translated as a loss of face for him. His only strength lies in his well documented access to wealth.
Of course, if Joe’s entry into the culture is through local employment, then he will become aquainted with and strike up a friendship with local males and perhaps even become proficient in the language thereby revoking the need for a female translator.
Even with the best of cultural sensitivity though, one can often observe that when exposed to Joe, the local men seem to be sitting upon repressed jealousy, dislike, injured pride and a feeling of inner helplessness.
These feelings when and if expressed overtly never seem to be directed at the deserving target i.e. their own culture, their own family members, their own Government as being responsible for the conditions of their life. Could be “America Joe” is to blame???!
The expat who arrives on these coconut fringed shores full of enthusiasm in his belief that he could finally show his worth and realize a less complicated life along with Independence has to learn the psycho-social environment he is entering. It does not consist of fair play and may the best man win.
The European mind IS different to the Indo-chinese. There is a strong streak of sentimentality and romance in it. A strong sense of personal achievement and a hunger for independence: of being on an equal footing with one’s mates. The European mind does not take too easily to accepting heirarchal social position and struggles against it.
When these characteristics are thwarted they become as KIR has said, “boring and cynical and lose their enthusiasm and delight for living in Asia”
William S Burroughs described this “malaise” of the expat well when he wrote of those living in Tangiers:
“…regulars say they can”t go home, trying to mitigate the dead gray of prosaic failure with a touch of borrowed colour..”
It”s easy to maintain that enthusiasm and delight for living in Asia while things are going right. But sooner or later something will go wrong and “the White” will never be treated with the same attitude as is meted out to the local people. I guess how creative you are with this fact will bestow upon you that “real glint in the eye – the sort of glint you might see in a wily old dog that knows a few tricks.”