Modern Envy.

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Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have.
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Envy. It takes us all at some point, usually when we’re at our weakest. Whenever I’m miserable or depressed, the sin rears it’s ugly head and poisons my mind. I have envied my friends, I have envied my family. It shames me to say it, yet it’s almost impossible to stop.

When we are children we are all envious creatures. We know little of the world or our own lives, we lack true empathy and are selfish beings. We look at the other children around us and see what they have and if we don’t have it, we want it. If another child has a new toy, we too need a new toy.

As children our envy stems somewhat from perceived injustices. Why should another child have something while we have nothing? How is that fair? Children can’t rationalise that another child getting a toy has very little to do with their own circumstances.

Growing into adulthood we don’t learn much, we are still prone to envy and jealousy and struggle with our feelings, we just find between ways to hide it from others. Continue reading “Modern Envy.”

Dealing With Culture Shock

Train arriving at Cairo's Sadat station

To visit a country is only to skim the surface.

You can never truly grasp a place in a few days. Sometimes understanding can take months, even years. When visiting a new country, the differences are something you appreciate, the differences are why you’re there, they’re part of the experience, you may even say they are the experience. Staring at the queer fruits and vegetables in a market you say, “Wow, we don’t get these back home!” It excites you. Everything excites you. The voices, the people, the food, the streets, the sky, the mountains. Everything.

Later, you leave, go back to the comfort of your own fruits and vegetables. Back to your own voices, your own people. Back home, to what you know and love. Back to comfort.

Culture shock happens when you try to change that home, even temporarily. When you try to make a transition between the new life you’ve started and the old life you’ve left behind. You can visit a country for a week and believe it’s the greatest place on earth. You can stay another week and the cracks might start to form. You can stay for a month and you’ll go crazy.

Those fruits and vegetables that were once so exciting fill you with resentment. Your mind struggles with the way things work in this new place. You don’t know the new systems. The magic has worn off. Nothing excites you. Everything around you is just a reminder of your old home, everything you are used to. You miss the way things were. You miss your familiar life. You miss your fruits and vegetables. You’re homesick.

In the past I worked with the notion that culture shock didn’t exist when going to a country much like your own. I’ve been to America a few times. People spoke the same language, ate the same vegetables and acted in much the same way. Their culture is the same, I thought. But, I was naive.

A culture is more than what’s on the surface, a culture runs deep. Even when the language is the same, the systems are different.

Chances are you’ve never noticed there are systems at all. Everything around you has always been there, you’ve lived in a place so long that you subconsciously know how things work. You instinctively know what to do in any situation. You understand your world.

Culture shock is understanding nothing. It’s being blind in a world where everybody around you can see. Life becomes a challenge. Riding the bus becomes a scary experience. How do you pay the driver? How do you queue? How do you get off the bus? How do you stop the bus (do you put your hand out, or does it just stop?) Everyday situations, in a new country, become obstacles, something you must overcome.

When you are faced with hundreds of new challenges each day, when buying a pint of milk becomes a task which you must consciously think about, that’s when you get frustrated, and culture shock sets in. But you can learn.

Here’s a skill you probably take for granted. If you have coins in your pocket, you can look at them in your hand and within a moment you will know roughly how much money you have. It’s something you’ve learnt at one point or another, but you never think about it. It’s almost always been there. But you must learn it again. You have to learn it all again.

The easiest way to get from A to B, where to go if you need toothpaste, who to ring if your car breaks down, what brand of tea is best to drink, where to go if you break your tooth, how to haggle at the local market.

Guides can tell you where to go, maps can show you how to get there. But there is no map to use for living. The smallest details are the most important and those are the details people never mention, because they never seem noticeable. But you will learn.

Some things come quickly – learning how to cross the street, mastering the bus, finding out how much those coins are worth. Other things come slowly – learning to talk like the locals, mastering your routine, finding out how to cook with those crazy fruits and vegetables.

Eventually though, there’s nothing more to learn. Life is no longer a challenge. Every little skill you’ve mastered is pushed back into your subconscious. You can look at the money in your hand and know what you have. You can feel comfortable knowing where you are.

Home.

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Photo is “Train arriving at Cairo’s Sadat station” by modenadude. Published under the Creative Commons license.

A Hoodlum Spat In My Face

Yesterday a stranger spat in my face. Literally, not metaphorically.

I was sitting with a friend at the time – waiting for the bus – when a group of hoodlums walked by. One of these ruffians turned to me, shouted the word “BISCUITS” and spat in my face.

I don’t know why he shouted “BISCUITS”, possibly because he knew that I would go back to this word in an attempt to find some meaning within it. Perhaps he knew that word would keep me up at night, constantly questioning me, forever making me wonder “Why?! Why did he say biscuits?! What does it all mean?!”

Immediately after the spittle hit my face, I felt nothing. I did not feel angry or sad, just apathetic. I was apathetic, precisely because the entire scene didn’t mean anything. He didn’t do it for any reason I could fathom and without a reason, how could I have a reaction?

Later, I searched for meaning, part of me wishing that there was a little drama to the event. That I had somehow wronged this man in some way. That we were part of some tragic Shakespearen tale. I’m not completely against spitting if the scene calls for it. If the spitter minces their way over dramatically, shouting the words “I spit on thee and thy house for the wrongs thou hath done me *hawk-spit*” At least that spitting means something. Spitting in disgust. But I’m not disgusting. Give me some meaning if you’re going to spit on me dammit!

But NO, this spit meant nothing. Not spitting for feminism, or spitting for socialism. Just spitting for the sake of it.  What a waste of spit. Spit that was on my face. Spit that I barely cared enough about to wipe away.

Yet, I must confess, I am perhaps being a little misleading. When I say he spat on me, I know what you’re thinking:

You’re thinking it was in slow-motion. (Such things always happen in slow-motion.) A weasel-looking youth, with a small moustache, looking down on me with a crafty flash in his eyes.

You’re thinking of the sound he made as he built up the spit. A low rumble of phlegm in the throat.

You’re thinking of the quick instant when he shot the saliva out of his mouth. You’re thinking that I watched it slowly gliding through the air towards me as I screamed one long “NOOOOOOOOOO!”

You’re thinking the spit hit me on the eyebrow, my head kicking backwards like I’d been hit by a gun. You’re thinking the ruffian smiled slyly in my direction, so happy with all he’d accomplished.

But let me tell you, you’re thinking is wrong.

It all happened so quickly that I barely had time to realise it was happening. It wasn’t slow-motion, it was fast-motion. Suddenly this man was in front of me, he was shouting “BISCUITS!”, he was spitting.

And the spit was weak. There was no conviction behind it. It was apathetic spit. It was spit that said “meh, I don’t really feel like doing this, but I’ve got to.” It was like the piece of homework you leave until the night before deadline. Lousy, half-hearted and lazy. Just plain rubbish. I was the teacher that received that lousy homework, shaking my head and thinking “come on now, we both know you can do better than this! You’re underachieving. You’ll never make anything of yourself if you go through life like this.”

There was no build up of phlegm, there was no force behind the release. In fact, the lousy little shit didn’t even have the common decency to open his mouth! He instead spat through his lips. It was half spit, half accidental raspberry. His spit dispersed into a number of minute, micro-spittles. It was like when somebody tells you a funny joke, just at the moment you’ve taken a swig of cola. We’ve all been there right? The instinctive laugh that we try to hold in at the last second, which shoots a mist of cola onto our friend. (Or in my case, laptop, because I have no friends.)

That’s how his spit was. A short, shallow mist. If spitting were a sport, then my grandma could have beaten this guy. When the spit hit me I was barely aware that it actually had. When my friend asked seconds later “did that guy just spit on you?” I suddenly started to wonder whether he actually had or not. Had he just spat on me? I felt like running down the street after him. “Erm, excuse me, sorry to bother you, I was just wondering… did you spit on me back there? Just, I’m not sure if you did, which means I don’t really know how to feel about the whole thing. Oh. Oh, right. Oh, you did just spit on me. My mistake. Didn’t mean to trouble you. Oh, wait. Wait, wait, wait! Just one more question before you leave. Uh, soooo… what was that you were saying about biscuits?”

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong though. Perhaps his friend had just told him a hilarious, long-winded joke. The type of joke that goes on and on, and is all building up to one, perfect punch-line. A punch-line like “BISCUITS!” Perhaps upon hearing this punch-line the ruffian was forced to also exclaim “BISCUITS!” Because after that long build-up the punch-line was so obvious, but also so hilarious. “BISCUITS! HAHAHAHA! MAN THAT’S GOOD!” But maybe all he could do was exclaim “BISCUITS” before trying to hold in his laugh. And maybe that laugh turned into an inadvertent raspberry of spittle in my direction. Maybe he didn’t spit at me. Maybe he just accidentally spat in my direction. Maybe he felt really bad about it, but he didn’t apologise because, well, that’d have been really awkward, wouldn’t it? Apologising to the stranger you just accidentally spat on. Maybe he was just being polite by not bringing me into an already awkward situation. How kind of him.

Maybe he had a medical condition that prevented him from controlling his lips? Maybe he thought I was on fire and was trying to put me out? Maybe he didn’t like my jacket? Maybe, he spat on me for no reason at all. No no. That can’t be right. Ridiculous! It must have meant something! Surely!

Maybe. Just maybe, I reminded him of one thing. The one thing he hated more than anything else in this rotten world. A thing that had haunted him since the day he’d been born. A thing that chased him down long corridors in his nightmares. A thing that had killed his mother, his father, and his pet goldfish. A thing he feared, but a thing he also one day vowed to destroy:

BISCUITS.

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Photo titled Hoodlum by carbonnyc.