Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Doing better than you…

"Fruit of the Vine"
I just got into an argument with a friend about exploitation. We were talking about how the people of Belarus respond to the vast differences in personal wealth available to them than there is in America. My friend is planning an extended trip and I was talking about what the real effect a foreign guest has on the population. I suggested that in general, any foreigner coming to Belarus for any reason other than for work or for familial participation was in effect doing nothing but exploiting that difference and using that using the inherent poverty as a lever for ego enhancement. My point was that this was inherently wrong or at least immoral; These are not mutual social contracts, but rather exploitation of a power relationships. I take no pleasure from using poor people in what I feel is a disrespectful way. I was not referring to vacationing or tourism, I was speaking of casual relationships entered into with non-professional people met along the way. I guess basically this was a recapitulation on the theme I got into with Pod Kablukom.

My friend responded by saying that by spending some of those inflated American dollars in Belarus, or even specifically on friends they had met, they were contributing to the Belarusian economy and were therefore adding to the wealth of the nation. They added that this was a normal sociological function and had been the way of the world for time immemorial. They said that they had earned the right to receive some pleasure, that they had worked hard for their money and that they thanked G-d that they lived under the great red, white and blue rather than suffering under the last dictator of Europe. Ito them, the situation was sort of a variation on the trickle-down theory: If getting strokes from impoverished people worked for them, this was their business and I was wrong for putting my nose where it did not belong.

While we were arguing by the way, my friend became utterly put off at my attitude.

This is a pretty important question as concerns Belarus and the whole of Eastern Europe. Most travelers agree that times have changed and that there is no longer the warmth there once was from the region. I guess the Russian Gazprom deal is as good an indication of that as anything. People here say that they have become smarter and that they have learned their lessons. Folks form the west get to complaining that these days that it's pretty much all business. I assure you that the locals pine for the old warmer days themselves.

A long time ago I had another friend who married a woman from Thailand. I guess I was so absorbed with my own problems at the time that I really had never given it a thought. I have a tendency to be oblivious as much as any body else, I suppose. I remember that my friend used to like to talk about it a lot. He said that others had been hard on him for "buying his wife". The argument there was that there was a difference because the wife had a much different and perhaps more limited social status and that this created a dependency situation in which he was the focus much more than if he had married another native American. His situation therefore was more like royalty than it was a mutual relationship. He had the power. In justifying himself, my friend said that he saw her as a companion, a work mate and that to him this was no difference from any other marital situation that he knew of. He said that the language difference was only an opportunity for personal growth (he studied Thai) and that in the end, he was dissatisfied with the available pool of single American women; she made him feel good and this was the bottom line.

I talked about this with Tanya. Throughout the time that we have been together, there have been great fluctuations in our wealth. Certainly in the beginning I am sure that being American had a lot to do with everything that happened between us. I am not saying that my choice to try and make a business here to support the relationship (and the relationship with others whom I had met) makes so much of a difference- I mean it is more of a mutual give and give situation than it is exploitation, but it was still my money. But after Poland, when I had to try and hack it out here from an even lower social and economic situation than the locals, it was Tanya's money from her work that helped to sustain us and I the end, any status my passport might have given me became more a burden than a help. If anything, she had been had and not me.

But was I guilty of this same deal? I have met several people who have simply used Belarus as a sex tour stop. I have the capacity to see the human side of this situation: without warmth and comfort, life isn't worth living and if it takes a ticket to Belarus or Thailand to feed the old ego, well… I have also been in situation where women that I knew from here showed me why we had become friends in the first place when they got all excited by an opportunity to "get with" an outsider. Like I say, I can be as oblivious as the next guy but I am not stupid.

I think the truth is that whether or not I was guilty of exploitation myself (rather than of simply going to grandpa's home town and trying to sell some bikes there) was NOT as important as that PEOPLE MIGHT HAVE SAID THAT THIS WAS THE CASE. The people of Belarus are not stupid and perhaps more than any people are aware in all cases that money the bottom line. I know that since I have been here I have learned over and over again that the dollars and cents of any situation carry as much or more weight than any feelings or emotions one might get out of something. In fact we just had a moment about that today when I tried making a bike available for my Anya. Egor had a little bike from when he was very small but it had been broken; one of the rear stays had been snapped off. When I said to Tanya that we needed to weld a new one on, she groaned at the thought of paying $5 to a welder. It's not the bike, it's the money spent putting the girl on a bike.

For me though, it has been much more about saving face in the town of Pinsk over the last few years than anything. That feeling of warmth and celebrity that sex tourists are looking for from here turns out to be a double edged sword when it comes to trying to make your way. On the worst side, not living up to people's expectations of easy and available dollars can lead to anger. I guess Poland was as good an example of this as any. But there are also a lot of folks here who harbor hostilities because they see western dollars as a drug. From those who have managed to build themselves up without having used foreign money to achieve their goals, well, at least had not been caught yet, there is great hostility because they believe I had not "earned" any status but rather had bought it on inflated dollars. This is pretty normal for government people or directors of businesses. And for sure to Doma Pravlenye people have a terminal case of this. But then again, social climbers are the same everywhere; natural slander mongers from birth so in this case it wouldn't matter if I saved 50 orphans from a burning building, I would still be screwed.

So what I am saying is that trying to rebuild a good face around here takes a lot of work. And there are always pitfalls.

For instance, I ran into a guy who works at the theatre selling grape vines at the market. The vine stubs looked ok and he was asking for $5 each. I went over and shook hands as much from that we knew each other and that he had been one of the theatre people who had always been respectful to me during the time when I was trying to get Pod Kablukom played as it was that I had been thinking of adding more grapes. I asked him conversationally how he was doing and he said that the theatre didn't pay very well- I'll avoid the exact translation, and that selling the vines were necessary at the moment. When he asked me how I was doing I replied by saying: "I am doing better than you."

Now, this came out of my mouth pretty easily but for sure it was not intended as an insult in my mind. In fact, I was sort of thinking of it as kind of a guy thing and I was sure that he got at least an ironic laugh at it. This is to say, at the time. But apparently, I had completely misinterpreted how the guy took it because I noticed that word had gotten around very quickly that I said I was making MORE MONEY. Within a few days, I had everybody asking about what I was into that was bringing me such riches. It was a given, I heard from some, being that I was American and all. Obviously it was some under-the-table issue is what I got from others. A few remarked that it had been the internet that had done it but others decided that I had really been hiding it under the mattress the whole time. To my joy, a couple of friends said that it made them feel better to see that it was possible for someone to get ahead out here. But of course to level that out were a couple of "Jew" remarks put in there as well.

Terrible. First of all I am sorry I opened my mouth. This always seems to be the one thing that always gets me in trouble. Secondly, I wish I had had the $5 to give the poor bastard. Actually, even if I would have given him the money, he would have seen it as a charity deal more than believing I had any interest in expanding my grapes. Or maybe not. Either way, sitting on your ass at the market plays with you. I know, I tried to sell my lousy apples at the market last fall. Believe me I know.

So the bottom line is that it is about power and about money. I can say that it isn't and just stay oblivious and do what I do day in and day out, but there is a difference and one really should never forget this. This is not to say that I don't feel at home here. And for sure Tanya has a way to make sure you never get too high from anything, anywhere at any time. This, she is very good at. But still, it is always there. The money thing that is. Yea, it is always there.

More soon…