Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The White Guy Surcharge

It’s every white male’s fantasy: Throwing off the shackles of modern, work-a-day society and running away to some tropical island paradise, there to spend the rest of your days lolling in the sun sipping exotic tropical beverages. No deadlines. No pressure. Just surf, sand and solitude – the unholy trinity of bohemia.

Of course, it’s just a fantasy. The reality of life within an isolated island community – even one as popular and picturesque as Mauritius (my own particular flavor of rhapsodic bohemia) – is far less fantastical. In fact, the disconnect between a middle-aged white man’s imaginary destination and the harsh truth of island living, can be quite jarring.

Gridlocked traffic. Unchecked pollution. Debilitating shortages. These are the facts of life in “paradise.” And with Mauritius, you can add to this list: Intractable racism, rampant corruption and a golden rule that says “do unto others before they do unto you.”

Basically, life here is dystopian, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the daily ritual of securing goods and services. Whether you’re buying a basket of fruit from the local street vendor or negotiating the price of a small landscaping project with a day laborer, you can rest assured that you’ll be cheated at some point in the process.

That basket of fruit will prove to be rotten at the bottom, while the day laborer will decide – after a week on the job and with your yard now in a shambles – that he needs more money to complete the work. Never mind that you negotiated the rate in advance, or that you have his signature on a clearly defined statement of work. You’re white, their thinking goes, so you can afford it.

In fact, for the typical white ex-patriot, life in “paradise” quickly devolves into a daily struggle against a kind of reverse discrimination: Your skin color, mannerisms and dress code reveal that you are a foreigner. And since most foreigners are “wealthy” (at least by island standards) tourists, you're fair game for every imaginable scheme, scam and con-job the locals can dream up.

Even when you establish the fact that you’re a proper resident, you’re still treated as an outsider. Deals and concessions that are routinely extended to native citizens are denied to you, while any effort to secure equal treatment is looked upon as a shocking violation of both taste and protocol.

Again, you’re white. You can afford it. It’s this intrinsic bias against non-natives that my wife and I have come to refer to as the “white guy surcharge” – a pseudo-tax that is applied to every action we take, every move we make.

And it’s not always monetary. The “surcharge” also manifests itself in the quality of the workmanship and/or selection of materials employed. A local might be hesitant to screw-over one of his own race/class/neighborhood (word gets around). But, sticking it to the white guy? By performing shoddy work with substandard components? That’s just good sport.

As an “ugly American” living in the third world, I’ve learned the hard way just how far removed from reality those naive white male fantasies truly are. In my four years of struggle on the island of Mauritius, I’ve been scammed, cheated, lied-to and openly discriminated against more times than I can recall.

I’ve also learned to do for myself what I can no longer trust others to do for me, all the while gaining a sense of freedom and independence that was lacking in my States-side existence. They say “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and I’ve emerged from my experiences tougher, wiser and more willing to fight for what I deserve.

Which is why I’ve decided to pen this open-ended missive about my experiences chasing that elusive dream: An attempt to pass along some of the hard won knowledge I’ve acquired and to offer a bit of sage advice on how to effectively survive – and even thrive – as an ex-patriot.

So I bid you welcome to my own, personal hell – replete with palm trees, cool ocean breezes and the uneasy realization that life in “paradise” isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be.

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