"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 3, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Americans in the Third World

“You’re an American, right”? asked a Senegalese colleague of mine in Dakar.

“Yes”, I said.

“But Parlato….that’s an Italian name, isn’t it?”  Again I confirmed his guess.

“Well then, you’re not really an American, so you can understand us”

Italy was Mediterranean and so was France.  France was Senegal’s colonial master.  I was of Italian origin; so it was only logical that I was closer to Senegalese culture than the Smiths, Joneses, and Harpers he was used to dealing with at USAID.  The fact that I was not only second generation Italian, but one whose very last drop of guinea blood had been squeezed out by my WASP wannabe parents, made no difference.  The fact that I spoke unaccented French made the final weld to the cultural chain that linked us.

Of course the Smiths and Joneses of the Embassy couldn’t give a shit about speaking the language – any language – properly.  They were there to tell the savages what to do and how to do it, and my cozying up to the natives was somehow unpatriotic if not seditious.

My language abilities – fluent Spanish and Portuguese as well as French, and my perfect pitch when it came to accent – were always a big benefit.  If you sounded good, and real, and local, people listened to you, respected you, and more often than not took your advice.  I learned from a very early age that a silver tongue and a little bit of charm will get you very, very far; so I learned to blab on like a Frenchman with pursed lips, shrugs, and puffs; strut and macho posture like a good Latino; and nasalize and sing-song like a Brazilian.  It worked in English.  It worked in every other language.

Being an American in the Third World really made little difference.  You were a foreigner before all else, and even with my little linguistic smoke and mirrors, I was an outsider.  Of course things changed after 9/11 when you did what you could to minimize looking and acting like an American.  Fat chance.  If there is one nationality that stands out to everyone, it is us.  After 9/11 the Canadians slapped even more maple leaf stickers on their suitcases, briefcases, and backpacks than ever more; and it sure seemed like they were sprinkling their speech with more “eh’s and honky “o’s” than before to let people know that they might be North Americans, but definitely not American Americans.  Again, fat chance.  Canadians except for those very few speech irregularities, quacked English with the same broad vowels and the same intonation and rhythms; gestured and gesticulated like we do, and just about acted exactly like us.  OK, maybe they didn’t have the George Bush Texas swagger in their stride – maybe something a bit more modest about them – but they were Americans, and the plastering of the maple leaf everywhere made perfect sense.

In 40 years of Third World travel to over 50 benighted countries, I had my share of coups, revolutions, and civil unrest; but they were all internal disputes.  Foreigners were rarely if ever in danger, especially if you stayed put in your gated house or community.  Americans were not singled out.  So, when the tanks rumbled out of the barracks in Port-au-Prince in an attempt to dethrone one of the post-Duvalier presidents, firing was heard throughout the city, tires burned, and an occasional explosion rocked the downtown; but nothing happened to us.  At the first sound of artillery, I hunkered down in my hotel room, shoved a chair up against the door, and listened to the BBC for news of my fate.  I was sure that in any moment the door would be broken down and there would stand a drunken soldier in a fright wig, machete in his waistband, a bandolier of cartridges over his shoulder, and an AK-47 pointed straight at me.  This never happened, and in fact the hotel was never entered.

To this day I have wondered why.  There were thousands of poor, homeless, wretched, and frustrated Haitians who could have ransacked the hotel and taken everything.  Although there was no king’s ransom in the Splendide, there were sheets, towels, soap, silverware, and dishes.  There was no police force, the military was otherwise occupied, and the city was in total anarchy.  So….? Residual fear of the tonton macoutes who had been disbanded years earlier after the fall of the Duvaliers?  They had instilled such terror in the population that it was no wonder that people were still afraid that they would show up at their doors.  Religion? Both Catholic and Voodoo, Haitians could have been restrained by some moral imperative.  I never got a good answer.

The tanks came rumbling and clanking out of the barracks in Ouagadougou when I was there on a UN mission.  Again, artillery, small arms fire, explosions, and burning tires. We holed up in the four-star hotel where were were staying for three days at the end of which time we had picked the larder clean, drunk all the beer and bottled water, and were about to have to send out volunteers to forage.  But, happily, at the end of three days the coup ended, the airport reopened, and we were allowed to leave the country.   Once again, we foreigners were not in play – it was an internecine battle between political and ethnic factions.

The firing between the Siva Sena, a radical Maharashtrian nativist party and the State Guard had nothing to do with us, and after three days (I have always wondered what it is about three days.  I think it’s because most of these events are really pissing matches and dog fights and nothing like today’s massive Middle East uprisings.  A more gentle day to be sure), we could make our way through Borivli to the airport.

I have written before how tolerant Indians were of foreigners in the era of the late 60s and early 70s when I lived there.  We could do basically whatever we wanted – alcohol, drugs, wanton sexual activity, nudity – for this insane behavior only confirmed what Indians already knew.  We were a backward unenlightened race which, although understandable given our relatively short European history, was still absurd and of no worth whatsoever.  Dogs bark.  Foreigners have love marriages, stew in their own bathwater, use toilet paper, and have no discipline, so let them be.  We were not even in the caste system, lower even than the harijans or dalits who, as untouchable as they were had a place in Hindu society.  There were limits, of course, and eventually our outrageous behavior pissed the Indians off, and permissiveness stopped.

On the other side, being an American never really helped anything either.  No matter how much the American Embassy tried, America was still believed to be responsible for deadly and unnecessary wars, killing poor brown and yellow people; being a racist slave-owning nation; and a pure capitalist depraved society preaching a secular evangelism of freedom, enterprise, and charity with no clue about life on the margins. Despite the occasional hippy phenomenon of yesteryear, we were basically a prudish, censored, and pussy-whipped bunch.  I was never given more shit about this as during Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  Of course he diddled her, what else is new?  That’s what politicians do. 

In all my work in “development” I knew that Americans were tolerated because of the aid money we brought and “host country nationals” could spirit away to Swiss bank accounts or pass out to family and cronies.  But we stayed and stayed, long overstayed our welcome which wasn’t much in the first place.  Those innocent, naïve, Americans.  When will they ever learn? But we will take their money.

As an Italian, not-really-an-American, I could have fun playing games.  I told gross sexual jokes in French about Clinton and his paramour.  I out-macho-ed the Latinos in boasting about women and sexual conquests.  I conspiratorially added fuel to the anti-American sentiments by giving in Portuguese my own mini-expose of the capitalist system a la Americaine to good ex-Communist Mozambicans.  I loved it.

So, I escaped harm, used my silver tongue and cultural charm to the limit and to my benefit, told many jokes at the expense of the Iowa high-water pants bureaucrats at USAID and quietly went native with my friendships and romances. As I have said many times, “development” has been one great ride. 

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