Not all the time. Not most of the time or even some of the time. But on ever so rare occasions (at least I like to think), I have been known to snap. I’d like to water it down, cushion the blow to the ego, but that doesn’t do anyone any good—I can be a big flaming asshole, and that’s just the truth of it.
That’s what my latest piece on World Hum “The Particular Anger of Powerlessness” was about. You guys might remember the piece—an earlier draft appeared on this blog around a year ago. It was a gamble publishing it for a couple reasons. One, it incriminates my parents for traveling illegally to Cuba. But the good news about having supportive parents is that they’re so stoked to see their kid get published, they’re willing to risk their own hides.
But the main gamble is that I was opening myself up to attack. It’s like going in for a knee in Muay Thai—better keep your hands by your face cause someone can clock you good at that proximity. Basically, I reveal myself to be an asshole in the piece. Or rather, I reveal myself at one of my asshole moments—one where I’m not the picture of cultural sensitivity or a deep, abiding sense of my own privilege. Instead, I’m the picture of An Ugly Westerner.
I knew I was doing it—leaving myself open. In fact, I knew I was doing it in the moment, when I acted that way, and it was mighty uncomfortable. It’s like I was watching myself do it and some other part of me was shaking my head—I knew how it looked. But I couldn’t help myself.
That’s the question I try to delve into in the piece. We all act like dicks sometimes, right? We’ve all flicked people off while driving; we’ve all snapped at grocery clerks; we’ve all been snippy at waitresses—whatever your version is, there’s been a moment when you’ve thought, “Fuck, did I really just do that?” There’s a certain vision one has of oneself and there’s moments that prove that vision, and there’s moments that contradict it. It’s easier to just push them aside and not think about them. It’s less easy to force yourself to go back and make amends. And it’s even less easy to delve into it, to look at it squarely—“This is not how I’d like to act, so why did I do it?”
My fifteen minutes on the Lao-Cambodian border last year was one of those moments. And the answer I came up with, after looking real hard at the situation, was powerlessness.
This may or may not be the right answer. But the point, at least I like to think, is that I wanted to look it. Cause travel pushes you beyond yourself, right? It pushes you out of your comfort zone; it exposes you to new things, some of which are exhilarating, some of which leave you fuming/confused/rushing for the bathroom. But the idea is that travel expands you, that you’re not the same after a trip, that you learn something—both about the world and yourself.
I knew some people would take up issue with it. And when the comments started to come in—“I thought we independent travelers were supposed to be culturally sensitive”; “Way to go, rubbing the guy’s poverty in his face, you definitely came out ahead there”—they didn’t really bother me. I mean, that was the shit I was saying to myself, in my own head. (I realize in retrospect that I should have worked that angle more explicitly in the piece, instead of leaving it hanging around in the subtext…)
The thing is, they’ve got a lot of valid points. The whole speaking-on-other-people’s-behalf thing makes me a wee uncomfortable, chimes itself of a kind of imperialist attitude—but yeah, you know, I get where they’re coming from. You do carry a certain amount of responsibility as an outsider in a someone else’s country, and there’s a certain level of respect one ought to conduct oneself with.
Which is a whole nuther rant for a whole nuther day. But what happens when you fall short of that? Or when you watch other people fall short of that?
It’s something I have ample opportunity to muse over, living here in the shitshow of Phnom Penh. I mean, fucking Cambodia—it’s Westerners Behaving Badly all over this MF. A lot of folks come here for the sole purpose of acting in ways they can’t get away with at home—sleeping with prostitutes, drinking all day, etc.
And believe me, I was way the fuck judgy at first. I remember standing in line at Lucky Supermarket, watching this guy in front of me totally berate the clerk for not wanting to accept a wrinkled $20. It was ugly. Being Cambodian, the clerk didn’t get back in the guy’s face, but instead apologized and groveled and looked real ashamed/embarrassed. Then I felt ashamed/embarrassed. I shot the guy dart-eyes and, after he left, apologized to the clerk on his behalf.
But you know what I’ve realized? Well, one, that apologizing for someone else’s behavior is not my job, regardless if we’re both Americans in another country. But more importantly, that milder versions of the same thing have happened to me. That—holy shit!—I’ve been on the other side of it. Maybe not that bad, but still. That afternoon on the Lao border was one of those times.
It’s humbling indeed to discover you have that in you. (As one friend says, “Cambodia reduces you to what you really are.”) I hate to say it, but I’ve snapped at tuk-tuk drivers, gotten mad at slow service, yelled at people in English when they’ve nearly run me over on the street. I’ve seen poor dudes from the countryside pissing on the sidewalk and blowing snot rockets and thought, “Ugh, poor people.” And I’ve been fucking horrified at myself.
I’ve talked to a lot of expats here about this and there’s always this cringy way we admit it. At least some of us admit it—that sometimes we snap and act like assholes. Maybe it’s the difference of living somewhere versus passing through on holiday—all the shit you could brush off in the moment becomes your life.
Whatever the reason, I realized I had to look at it. I mean, I’m here, this shit is happening, it’s not how I want to act, so I need to at least pretend to be a grown-up and deal with it.
There are some things I just don’t get. I mean, they can be explained to me and I can conceptualize some sort of understanding, but at it’s core it just seems wrong. Bribery and corruption are one of them. It’s a cultural difference, but guess what?—I’m culturally different. You will never convince me that bribery is okay, on any level, no matter how much it’s rationalized. (The same with pissing on the street. It just fucking smells.)
But here I am, in their country (which I can do, being privileged, and they by-and-large cannot)—so what do I do? Well, one is that I accept it bothers me. I don’t play the tape of oh-you-should-be-more-culturally-sensitive. Nope, I just accept that it doesn’t fucking seem right to me. The second is that I notice that it only reeeeally bothers me when my tolerance is down—when I’m stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. So, in the interest of not being a raving asshole all the time, I do my best to not get stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. When I’m taking care of myself, when I’m rested and full and happy, it’s a helluv a lot easier to shrug and say, “Well, that’s not how I roll, but so be it.”
It’s what I’d do now if I encountered the border situation today. I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with bribery—I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not gonna fucking fight it every day. And when I see dudes like the one at Lucky that day? Well, I don’t apologize for them but I also don’t really judge them anymore. Most times I honestly think, “Fuck, he must be having a real hard time, to be spreading that kind of negativity around.” It’s the kind of compassion I’d like for someone to look at me with, if they saw me acting like an asshole.
I get lots of great examples, living in this fine city, of how I don’t want to act. And the cool thing is, I’ve learned how to take them as just that: examples and nothing else. And then I try to be my own example of how I do wanna act.
All of which is to say, I’m a lot less bothered by other Westerners’ behavior. It’s kind of not my business. Of course, if you publish a piece about it, then you’re making it everyone’s business. But I did it cause I thought it was a productive thing to do, to come right out and say it. Like I said in my response, I’d love to see a piece by someone who really lost their shit—cussed out an old woman or some shit. Not for the shock value, but because I think looking at those uncomfortable parts of ourselves is really fucking important. Cause we all have them, right?
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe the folks that left those comments really have never had their moment of entitled asshole total-melt-down-ness. Maybe they’re uber-PC and culturally sensitive every minute of the every day, every trip they’ve taken, every waitress they’ve encountered, every shit driver that’s been in the fast lane in front of them. If they have, though, I don’t really want to know them—I don’t trust them.
Maybe I’ve just grown a really thick skin from all these years of writing. Maybe it’s one in the same—people are gonna say what they’re gonna say and do what they’re gonna do and god bless em for it.
And if I do see people who piss me off? Well, I’ve got a jam for that: