Awkward Situations Abroad

When you live outside your country, sometimes you find yourself in uncomfortable situations.  Maybe you unintentionally made some social faux pas.  Maybe you just got taken advantage of because the person dealing with you thinks you just don’t know any better and will happily pay three times the normal price for that DVD (which is probably true).  And sometimes you find yourself in a situation that reminds you just how far from home you are.

For example, in late August 2001, I was finishing up my first stint in Taiwan and my then-girlfriend (Now sweet-ass wife) decided to take a 3 week trip to Thailand.  I was sitting in a little thatched-roof cafe, about twenty meters from the most pristine beach you could ever hope to lounge on, when I heard about the attacks on 9-11.  Like all Americans I was horrified, but I was also extremely worried.  My #1 favorite Aunt worked in the world Trade Center.

So, I rushed into the village, found a phone and spent around $30.00 on a call to my parents.  Luckily, my Aunt’s office had moved down the block a few months previous and she was A-OK.  But about 5 minutes later, I was walking back to my bungalow on the beach and I stopped by a bar on the way to have a drink and try to get my heart to stop racing.  About 5 minutes and 3 sips later, someone from the end of the bar said, “Hey” to me.  I look over and see three middle aged Thai men, in cut-off shorts and open hawaiian shirts.  They are all smiling over at me.

I smile back and say “Hi”.

“You American?”

“Yeah,” I said, and smiled sadly, waiting to thank him for the condolences that are certainly on their way.

“Osama really fucked you good, huh?” he said, still smiling.

And then I notice those smiles aren’t so friendly.  I look at the bartender in front of me, whose wiping down a glass and smiling too.  I look back at the three Thai at the end of the bar.  You can tell they just can’t wait for my reply.

Now, maybe it makes me a coward, or unpatriotic or just a giant fucking asshole, but I didn’t even have even the tiniest urge to stand up and start to rant at these people about murder, terrorism, freedom and democracy.  Not one bit.  As soon as that guy’s words registered in my already frazzled brain, all I could think was “Everyone here wants you give them a reason to fuck you up.”

So, I took another swig of my beer and just said, “Yep.  He sure did.” then paid the bartender and with a “Ya’ll have a nice day.” I calmly got my ass out of there.

I hadn’t thought of that in a long time, but something that happened to me today reminded me of it.  Now it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable or potentially dangerous but it the discomfort it did bring was also a direct result of 9-11.

So, I spend 6 out of the 8 years of the Bush presidency overseas.  Sometimes Mr. G.W. Bush made it uncomfortable as an American living abroad.  Whether you like the man or not, I think we all can agree that his foreign relations skills were lacking.

I think invading Afghanistan was just.  Someone in their county killed 1300 Americans and they helped hide the bastard.  We were justified in going in.  Most people in most countries would agree…maybe not so much in Afghanistan, but still 95% of countries out there would have to say, “Yeah, go get ‘em, tiger.”

However, most of the…let’s call it automatic disapproval…that I received from some people I met over the last few years stemmed from the Iraq War.  A war that I completely opposed from the get-go.  It was not justifiable for us to go in there.  Every reason we gave along the way was proven to be baseless and then replaced by another, equally baseless justification for going in and blowing shit up.  No, they weren’t harboring or training terrorists.  No there were no weapons of mass destruction.  Sure, it was a real shitty regime who did terrible things to it’s people, but what does that have to do with us attacking them?  If that was a reason to go to war, there would be a lot of other countries that we’d be hitting long before Iraq.

That’s not to take away from the soldiers in Iraq.  I respect the incredible sacrifice they make for our country.  It’s something that I haven’t done, and without an actual invasion on US soil, I can’t imagine a situation where I would rush off to sign up.  I have tremendous gratitude for US soldiers.  Not for them being in Iraq, specifically, but for them doing their job anywhere.  It’s the decision makers I have the problems with.  The mother fuckers who saw ever increasing evidence mount against their cause and said “Fuck it, lets go in anyway.”

Living overseas and having to listen to drunken-rant after snide remark after sarcastic joke that almost ANY non-American would, almost invariably make after finding out that I was from the US, did not make me love those decision makers in the Bush administration any more.  There were times when I was tempted to just tell people I was Canadian.  Canadian, for christ’s sake.  I mean, who would ever want to own up to that?

So, to the point (finally).  This morning I was walking out of the lobby of my hotel and I look over and there’s this tall, chubby, friendly-looking Western guy trying to talk to the woman behind the counter.  It’s not going very well.  My Chinese is pretty good, so I go over and ask if I can help and try to help him explain to this lady that he wants to go to another town and would like to know where they nearest bus station is.

We start chatting a bit and instantly get along.  Some people you feel affection for, right off and his man was one of them.  He had light, reddish/blonde hair, a scraggly goat-tee, light blue eyes and a gut that said he probably liked to have a beer or three in the evenings.  We sit down and are talking about this or that.  He sells fasteners.  Oh, I used to do that too.  Now?  Different kinds of widgets, it’s all the same, really.

“So, where you from then, my friend?”

“Oh, I’m American.”

“Oh.  Ok.”

“How about you?”

“Iraq.”

“Oh…”

So, we move quickly on to other subjects and it remained very amicable, but still the dynamic had decidedly changed.  Him and I had no beef, but what about his family?  Did anyone he know die because my fellow Americans invaded his country?  When we parted ways, he gave me his card and I see his office is in Baghdad, so I guess there’s a chance.   Shit, there would be a chance no matter where he was from in Iraq.

And the whole rest of the conversation, even though I personally had never done anything to this man, his family or his country, I had the strangest urge to apologize to him.  To tell him that I’m sorry that my leaders made up fairy tales in order to send troops into his country.  That I’m sorry people from my side of life might have blown up people from his.

Of course, I didn’t say a word.  I didn’t want to make things any more uncomfortable than they already were.

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Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I had a similar experience at a restaurant in Oslo. “Where are you from, my friend?”, I was asked. “America”, I said. “Oh. America should not police the world. They are big bullies”. “Mmm. I can understand why you would say that…Can I please have a chili with my kebab?”, I said, before quickly leaving.

    • Yeah. We are definitely not most popular people in the world.

      Did he really call us “big bullies”?


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