The Seductivity of Greatness: The Superstar Effect

Madonna

JK Rowling is worth $1 billion.  The average writer makes $37,000 a year.

Oprah Winfrey is worth $3 billion.  The typical actor/performer makes $50,000 annually.

Jerry Seinfeld is worth $800 million.  If a comic makes $35,000 in a year, he’s considered successful.

Economists refer to “the superstar effect” to describe top talent accounting for a staggering proportion of revenue in an industry.  And it isn’t just the entertainment industry.  A 2006 New York Times piece claims Executives at top firms make 4-times as much as those in the middle-tier.  In an increasingly globalized world, more people have access to ‘the best,’ and, therefore, ‘the best’ are rewarded in every way, especially financially, oftentimes at the expense of the very-very-good.  One hit every two weeks is the difference between a baseball player that bats .300 and one that bats .270.  The difference in salary could be $30 million.

This winner-takes-all society is a direct result of capitalism.  Whether or not it’s ‘good’ spurs the world’s ‘greatest’ economists into heated debate, from which the only takeaway is nobody really knows anything.  Conservatives claim rewarding superstars benefits the economy, as it engenders competition that improves the overall quality of goods and services, and the money spent by the royal-class eventually trickles down to the peasant level.  Liberals counter that superstar economics eliminates the middle-class.  Without redistribution, Liberals claim, class-conflict and revolution are inevitable.

Regardless of who’s right or wrong, one thing that’s certain is we live in an intensely capitalist society.  One where greatness is idolized and falling short by even the tiniest margin renders a person irrelevant to all but those in his immediate circle.  As a result, very early on, as one chooses a vocation, one must determine not only the field to which his talents translate most directly and whether or not he’s willing to work hard-enough to reach the frontier, but also if the gamble is worth it.

And it is a gamble.  A huge gamble, especially in less meritocratic fields.  If you’re LeBron James it’s less of one.  As long as LeBron remains healthy, anybody with an iota of basketball knowledge can see he’s the best and most-gifted player on the planet.  In more subjective fields, however, the difference between stardom and starvation is the whim of one-or-two gatekeepers.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, was rejected by 14 of 15 publishers.  If the 15th hadn’t come through, JK Rowling would be worth about a billion dollars less.

Although magnified in the most glamorous professions, luck and politics play a role in every career.  Whether a lawyer gets promoted to Partner has as much to do with how well he schmoozes and with the age and racial demographics of the current Partners as with his facility with the craft.  Darwin presented his paper on evolution a few hours before Wallace presented his.  A century later it’s referred to as Darwin’s theory.  If Darwin had never existed, the only change to science would be the name attached to evolutionary theory.

In this paper, Roger Callois calls superstars’ rewards “disguised lotteries” and a “special kind of game of chance.”  The insinuation is that even attempting to be a superstar is irrational.  Quentin Tarantino raising $50,000 to produce Reservoir Dogs was so unlikely to do anything other than bankrupt him that the risk-neutral individual would never have tried.  That the industry was able to recognize his talent and that he was given the opportunity to produce Pulp Fiction is an outlier occurrence.  For Tarantino, though, the risk paid off.

ArnoldAnd this is why a person even considers his own coup at greatness.  Everyone at that level at one point took a huge risk that paid off.  In this Grantland feature, Arnold Schwarzenegger tells the story of the luckiest moment in his life.  He was 18 and in the Austrian army.  At night he worked out for 3 hours while the others were sleeping, and he worked out for 3 more hours in the morning before the other soldiers woke up.  He sacrificed 6 hours of sleep as a member of the Austrian army because of an inextinguishable notion that he could become the world’s greatest body-builder.  This is insane.  More insane is that, one day, he broke out of the military base, hopped on a freight train to Germany, and won his first ever Junior competition.  When he got back to the Austrian military facility, his superiors called him into their office and reprimanded him.  However, after he told them he won, they engineered a plan to help him out.  They would ‘punish’ him by forcing him to exercise more.  If Arnold had not had a ridiculous vision, an inhuman ability to function without sleep, unparalleled natural talent, and supportive commanding officers, he would never have become the superstar that he became.

Callois explains, “A superstar has extraordinary natural talent augmented by an even more extraordinary perseverance and drive.”  A superstar has to be crazy enough to believe that if he works hard and risks everything the odds will bend in his favor.  The superstar is crazy enough not to see it as a risk but, rather, as destiny.  In the words of Lupe Fiasco, “If you are what you say you are, a superstar, then have no fear.”

Some people take risks and are rewarded handsomely.  “Why not me?” one might ask when regaled the unlikelihood of the pursuit.  In America, kids are told from an early age that they can do anything.  This is both true and false.  You can do anything, provided you’re willing to take on enormous risk, work harder than anyone else, and have the talent and resources to substantiate it.

What if you fall short on one of these metrics?  What if you decide on a risk-averse path?  What if you get good grades in school and go on to Med or Law or Business School?  If that’s what you did, you can still try to be the best doctor, lawyer, or CEO.  But that takes as much or more work and luck as anything else.

For those of us who realize we’re never going to be the absolute best at any one thing, we do what’s within reach.  We strive to make a comfortable income at a profession we enjoy and spend free time either with friends and family or developing hobbies.  We laugh at Seinfeld, refer to Oprah for advice, and follow along as Harry Potter searches for horcruxes.  We’re comfortable, perhaps happy, and hopefully not complacent.  We spend most of our time focusing on the details that would make our little nooks more lively.  Tuesday night dinner with a friend.  The swimming pool before work.  Finding a costume for Halloween.  Loves me, loves me not.  We occasionally wonder if we could’ve made it had we taken acting classes and gone to Hollywood, or if we had moved to Spain at 8 and focused on soccer.  The ego says there’s a chance, the brain says it wouldn’t’ve been worth the risk, no way.  Either way, we’re envious of the superstar’s income, talent, and acclaim.  At the same time, we’re removed enough to realize that glory, while seductive, isn’t pre-requisite to happiness.  It’s nice that people are willing to take those risks, and it’s too bad 99% are either not good or lucky enough.  There’s nothing more inspiring than the bright-eyed 23 year-old who dreams big.  There’s nothing more pitiful than the empty-handed 45 year-old trying to convince himself the risk was worth it.

Struggling Artist

Counter Culture Travel: The Heart of Darkness Tour

HoD Sunset

“You see me, my pimpin’s in 3-D. I take ya ta places you only see on TV.”

~ Ludacris, Pimpin’ All over the World

Fine French cuisine tastes just as delicious outside of France.  Van Gogh’s, Picasso’s, and Monet’s works are found in museums all across the United States, not to mention the Internet.  The same animals witnessed on an African Safari or Amazonian trek are consolidated in zoos, and the National Geographic and Discovery channels enable observing these animals in their natural habitats.

HoD Essay CondescendSo why do people travel?  Vacation that’s a refreshing respite from daily activities does not need to include travel. Is it simply to fulfill a personal fantasy – to flaunt money while casting oneself as exotic?

“Sex – The poor man’s polo” – Clifford Odets

In Goodwill Hunting, the village sage, Sean Maguire, begins to answer this question when confronting the brilliant, impudent, and troubled protagonist, Will Hunting, about the flaws of his arrogant persona.

You’ve never been out of Boston.  If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him – life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.  You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.

To Sean, traveling is about expansion of personal tastes and perspectives resulting from the integration of sensory details – beyond what’s controlled by the eyes and ears – to how one perceives a place.   It’s about walking with a map in one hand and a camera in the other through Parisian streets and experiencing cigarette-smoking, espresso sipping fashionistas peer at you, judgingly, through tinted shades.  It’s about dribbling a soccer ball, shirtless, down sun-drenched Ipanema beach, drinking out of a coconut while watching freakishly athletic Brazilians play soccer volleyball as women in string bikinis pass you on either side with an ocean dotted with surfers HoD Essay 3in the background.  It’s about sweating on a mountain bike in Alberta, and breathing in air that’s as fresh as the view is pristine.  And it’s about learning your 67 year-old mom still has the guts to hike up a 2.5-mile canyon trail lined with precipices. Or that your bilingual roommate is liquid smooth with the Spanish ladies in Miami.  It’s about a place, and how you make that place your own.

The travel experiences above are easy to romanticize.  Both in the moment and when reflecting, the wholesome beauty is relentless.  I’d argue, however, that experiencing the fruits of the developed western world yields diminishing marginal returns regarding expansion of perspectives; after a certain point, going from one nice place to another expands one’s tastes, alone. One’s knowledge of fine wines.

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Type 2 fun“: An activity that is only fun after you have stopped doing it

The most immersed I’ve ever been in a non-Western culture came this past summer in Japan. Few people spoke English, and almost as few were literate with Latin numerals.  Getting from point A to point B was a pain – I was white, deaf, dumb, illiterate, alone, and, thus, easy to take advantage of.  Descending Mt. Fuji, I couldn’t understand any signs and hiked 6 kilometers in the wrong direction. The only reason I didn’t catch hypothermia that night was because my charades were good enough to convince a drug store clerk to call a cab driver who ended up driving in $90 dollars worth of circles before “remembering” where the train station was. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, I’d booked a bed in a $10/night downtown capsule hotel. Sound-proof walls for my 6 x 4 x 3 laundry machine of a capsule would have been nice, and not just to buffer snores – the hotel was located in the heart of the red light district, so many of my neighbors were shacked up with prostitutes all night.  Many of the most memorable parts of that trip were not fun.  But the opportunity to not have fun was fulfilling.

And I realize that there are many places far more different from the USA than Japan. Places where childhood education entails learning how to heard cattle to an oasis or train birds to kill foxes, not HoD Chris Jeon Libyamemorizing multiplication tables.  Jurisdictions where democracy is a foreign concept; where brainwashed residents believe their tyrant rulers are deities. To optimize travel’s value on a personal level – to expand perspective, not simply taste, as much as possible – experiencing these less comfortable destinations is imperative.  

So in the spirit of Chris Jeon, the UCLA math major (picture above) who traveled to Libya towards the end of his 2011 summer vacation because he “thought it would be cool to join the rebels,” – and named in honor of Joseph Conrad’s novel about a harrowing boat trip down the Congo River – I present the pinnacle of a counter-culture vacation: The Heart of Darkness Tour.

Heart of Darkness Tour

During this three-stop journey, activities beyond eating and sleeping in hotels with armed guards are limited.  The goals would be three-fold:

(1) Interview locals about first-hand accounts of depravity;

(2) Experience a breed of fear that’s foreign to anyone who’s never been deployed for war; and

(3) Witness as much of the chaos as possible without getting raped and/or murdered.

“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

HoD Kindu MapDestination 1: Country – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); City – Kindu (or anywhere else in eastern DRC)

Summary: Kindu is a jungle town located in east-central Congo on the Congo River, where more rape and murder has occurred over the past two decades than anywhere else on the planet.

Logistics: October 5, 2014: Flight from Dulles (IAD) to Kinshasa (FIH), with a stop through Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) – 21 hours and USD$1,000.  With the assistance of a travel agent, book a roundtrip flight from Kinshasa to Kindu.

HoD Kindu 1

Heart of Darkness (HoD) Resume:

“I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

(1) DRC was recently home to the The Second Congo War (1998-2003), often referred to as the “African World War”, in which 5.4 million people died, making it the deadliest war since World War II.  According to 2009 estimates, 45,000 people per month may still be dying in Congo, and 76% of people have been affected by conflicts.

(2) DRC ranks 154th out of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption index.

(3) The prevalence of rape and sexual violence in eastern Congo is considered the world’s worst. During the war, an estimated 200,000 women were raped; and, even since the war, large parts of society deem violence and sexual enslavement of women and children as normal.

HoD Mogadishu MapDestination 2: Country – Somalia; City – Mogadishu

Summary: Children are forced to torture and execute their parents here. Picture a slow and painful apocalypse. Mogadishu is the closest thing to hell on earth.

Logistics: Fly from Kinshasa (FIH) to Mogadishu (MGQ) on October 12th 2014 with layovers in Ethiopia and Djibouti – 19 hours and USD$1,500.

HoD Resume:

“But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

HoD Essay Soldier(1) Tied with Afghanistan and North Korea for dead last, out of 177 countries, on Transparency International’s corruption index.

(2) In the words of Conciliation Resources (2010), Somalia’s 2 decades-long conflict “has mutated from a civil war in the 1980s, through state collapse, clan factionalism and warlordism in the 1990s, to a globalised ideological conflict in the first decade of the new millennium.”

(3) In the words of Wikitravel: “Mogadishu still remains very dangerous due to high petty and violent crime rates… The city also remains in great danger of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks carried out by extremists who manage to get past the security checkpoints around the city.  Walking the streets of Mogadishu remains very dangerous, even with armed guards.  Tourists are emphatically discouraged from visiting Mogadishu.”

HoD Sana'a MapDestination 3: Country – Yemen; City – Sana’a

Summary: Yemen is a poor, dusty, desert country where terrorism and Islamic extremism reign supreme and 85% of the population is addicted to qat, a narcotic stimulant.  Water scarcity and civil unrest are serious issues.

Logistics: On October 20th, 2014, fly from Mogadishu (MGQ) to Aden (ADE) with a layover in Istanbul – 18 hours, USD$1,000. On October 21st, 2014, fly from Aden to Sana’a for USD$100.  On October 26th, 2014, return to Dulles from Sana’a – USD$900, 24 hours.

HoD Resume:

“It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

(1) Yemen ranks 163rd of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption index.

(2) In the words of Wikitravel: “Travel to Yemen is strongly discouraged due to a state of severe political crisis, as well as a very high threat of terrorist attacks, abductions, tribal violence, and general lawlessness.  Terrorist groups actively target tourist groups, with targeted suicide bombings and armed ambushes occurring yearly since 2007.”

(3) A desert country with naturally scarce fresh water resources, the nation’s addiction to qat, a water-intensive narcotic, stresses water resources even further and makes decision-makers even less rational.

***

In conclusion, the Heart of Darkness Tour might not be fun in the moment, but it is certain to expand the surviving traveler’s global perspective.  Far more so than determining whether your favorite part of France is the fine Parisian dining, skiing in the Alps, or sunbathing along the Riviera. But don’t worry.  The Heart of Darkness Tour is still expensive, so people can still hate you for it. Even if they’re not jealous.

The Big Tease: Squash’s Bid for the 2020 Olympics

Get Squash In

What do you get when you link blue, yellow, black, green, and red circles in a W formation?

The Olympics needs no introduction.  Odds are you watched the London Games.  NBC broke US ratings records in 2012, as more than 219.4 million Americans tuned in, an average of 31.1 million viewers per day.  In the UK, it’s estimated 90% of the country watched for at least 15 minutes.  The Olympics’ popularity is not exclusive to Anglophones.  The 2012 Summer Olympics saw 10,568 athletes from 204 countries compete in 302 events across 28 sports.  It transforms the likes of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt from relative unknowns into international icons.  From Wall Street’s monitors split between market-movements and beach volleyball, to the Empire Tavern in Auckland that’s full at 8am for the finals of the 100m Freestyle, to this village in Africa (pictured below) huddled around one TV to watch 8 men run a race that lasts less than 10 seconds, the Olympics is the world’s premier forum for expressing nationalism through sportsmanship.

africans-watching-olympics-on-tv1

With this in mind, it’s no surprise all 28[1] Olympic sports want to stay and those outside the rings want to do a double-twist-somersault into them.  Gold medal matches and podium ceremonies springboard lesser-known sports, providing them with both exposure and seed-money.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) allots 90% of its revenue towards growing its sports.  For a niche-sport looking to expand its base, the prospect of global exposure and an IOC stipend inspires hope.

For these reasons, the World Squash Federation (WSF) has pursued an Olympic bid for over a decade.  In 2012 and 2013, the squash community united in pursuit of a spot in the 2020 games, registering more than 124,000 likes on Facebook and with its ‘Back the Bid’ YouTube clip receiving over 153,000 views.  Nothing can advance a sport like the Olympics, and the squash base knows it.

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Squash’s case is strong.  It’s played in 185 countries and has established professional tours for both men and women.  Unlike Table-Tennis, for example, which is dominated by one country (China), squash is a truly international game.  Of the top 10 men and women in the world, 7 are British, 5 Egyptian, 2 Malaysian, 2 French, 1 Irish, 1 Spanish, 1 Indian, and 1 Kiwi.  Not one waves an American, Russian, or Chinese flag.[2]  Gold, silver, and bronze would go to countries that cherish every medal they get.

Further, a gold medal would be squash’s most coveted prize.  In the ‘Back the Bid’ YouTube clip, Nicol David, the #1 woman in the world, says she would happily trade all 6 of her world titles for an Olympic gold medal.  In other sports, an Olympic medal is a secondary achievement.  In Golf, a green jacket outranks Olympic gold, and, of course, the World Cup outranks everything in Men’s Soccer.  The IOC must know that a major reason the Olympics is so special is the athletes in less-marquee sports wait 4 years for a shot at glory.

Squash in front of Pyramids

To bolster its case even further, in the last 3 years squash has turned its biggest knock into one of its strongest selling points.  That is, it is now extremely televisable.  The requisite lunging, twisting, and cardiovascular fitness impressed Forbes enough to rank it the healthiest sport on the planet.  It is often compared to chess, as the sport’s strategic element infuses drama into every point.  Further, it wouldn’t require many resources relative to other sports.  It would account for just 64 athletes (32 men, 32 women) and two events.  As a bonus, it could be played in the country’s most scenic area, which is perfect for another of the Olympics’ ambitions: promoting tourism in the host country.  Glass courts have been set up and tournaments have been played in front of the Pyramids (pictured above) and inside Grand Central Station.

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Achieving ‘Olympic Sport’ status is more difficult than it used to be.  An ‘Olympic Sport’ is defined as “All sports sanctioned by one international sport federation.”  Swimming and diving are different sports, for example, but are cNicol Davidonsidered one sport by the IOC because the International Swimming Federation oversees both.  The Olympics started in 1896 with a core of nine, growing steadily until 2000, when the IOC capped the number of sports at 28.  The number of events was capped at 300 and the number of athletes at 10,500.  The latter two have proven to be soft caps, as the London Olympics boasted 302 events and 10,568 athletes.  28 sports is a hard cap though, and, currently, there are exactly 28 Olympic sports.  This means a new sport can be voted in only after one of the current sports has been cut.

Since this system’s inception, just one sport has been removed.  In 2008, the IOC eliminated baseball/softball from its program and replaced it with golf and rugby sevens.  In February 2013, the IOC cut wrestling only to vote it back in seven months later.  In the midst of the IOC’s tango with the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, squash was manipulated more than anyone at the dance.  Understanding why requires a review of events leading up to the IOC’s decision to reinstate wrestling:

In February 2011, the IOC shortlisted 7 prospective sports to be added to the 2020 program.  On the list were karate, roller sports, climbing, wakeboarding, wushu, baseball/softball, and squash.  Two years later, in February 2013, after it was cut from the games, wrestling joined the mix.  In May 2013, the IOC voted to reduce its list of prospects to three: baseball/softball, wrestling, and squash.  Of the three, Squash was the only one that had not been recently voted out of the Olympics.  Salvation was within sight!  Why would an organization add something it recently eliminated?  By this logic, squash was the choice.  However, when judgment day arrived, baseball/softball received 24 votes, wrestling 49, and squash 22.  Squash had been asked to the dance, took a trip to the barber, and bought a new tuxedo, all, it discovered later, to make an ex jealous.   How is a new sport supposed to join the Olympics if the IOC simply adds the sport it had removed in order to create space for a new one?

*

In reality, though, squash was doomed the moment wrestling was voted out.  When considering Olympic Wrestling, an astute audience might remember Rulon Gardner’s unlikely triumph.  The common viewer, however, thinks of Hercules grappling with lions.  Wrestling is the epicenter of Olympic folklore.  It’s not an original Olympic sport, it’s the original Olympic sport.  It was never going to be removed, nor should it have been.  Squash had a compelling case, but when wrestling became a competitor, squash and the other prospects were doomed.

Hercules Wrestles Lion

With wrestling’s sanctity in mind, why would the IOC even toy with the idea of eliminating it?  This chart separates Olympic sports into 5 tiers based on popularity among viewership.  Group A includes the cornerstone sports: athletics, gymnastics, and swimming.  Wrestling was in Group D along with archery, canoeing/kayaking, equestrian, fencing, handball, field hockey, sailing, taekwondo, and triathlon.  Wrestling is neither viewer-friendly nor a source of revenue.  However, there is a sport that ranks even lower by both metrics.  Alone in Group E[3] stands Modern Pentathlon.

What is Modern Pentathlon?  It’s a sport created especially for the Summer Olympics and was instituted in the games in 1912.  It was designed to simulate the experience of a 19th-century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines.  Competitors ride an unfamiliar horse, fight with pistol and sword, swim, and run.  It’s cool for a Civil War re-enactment, but, if the ratings can be trusted, it’s not exactly what the sporting audience wants to watch.

So why was Modern Pentathlon not nixed instead of wrestling?  The Guardian and most other media sources give two reasons.  The first is that the IOC wanted to punish wrestling for failing to modernize and become more viewer friendly.  The IOC never intended to remove wrestling from the Games.  The cut was just a scare tactic.  And it did just that.  It was a complete surprise.  Before the vote, taekwondo and Modern Pentathlon were the sports presumed destined for the gallows.  The vote jolted the wrestling world, spurring a complete renovation.

The second reason the IOC opted to ‘scare’ wrestling instead of actually eliminating a sport, The Guardian explains, is family politics.  Juan Antonio Samarach Jr., the son of the former IOC president, marshaled a furious campaign to retain Modern Pentathlon.

Squash is not in the Olympics, one could deduce, because the IOC wanted to shock the wrestling body into modernizing its sport and because the former IOC president’s son likes Modern Pentathlon.  This should be unsettling to more than just the squash community.

*

The Olympics have always been a symbol of integrity and moral superiority.  It disassembles competition and keeps only its purist parts.  It transcends not only international boundaries, but also the boundaries that constrain every-day life.  From the 1968 Black Power Salute to Kerri Strug’s perfect landing, the Games inspire the world’s citizens, creating archetypes for words like ‘courage’ and ‘champion.’

Such a reputation comes with aRamy Ashourn obligation to behave in a dignified way, something the IOC failed to do when it promised to add a new sport to its program and, instead, used this promise as leverage to scare one of its current sports into modernizing its program.  Through such deceit, the IOC defiles the very values that make the Olympics great.  Simply put, the IOC wielded a power advantage.  What can a sport like squash do except redouble its efforts and hope the process is cleaner for 2024?

For the squash community, shifting focus to 2024 can only happen once it recovers from the 2020 slight.  The most difficult losses, every squash player knows, are the ones stolen by the referee.

Until the IOC addresses this issue, the squash community’s answer to the original question—what do you get when you link blue, yellow, black, green, and red circles in a W formation—is not an event that happens every 4 years that unites the world.  It’s merely the first letter of the first word of one question that still nags, even though we know its answer: What happened?


[1] The 26 from 2012 plus Golf and Rugby Sevens, which will be added in 2016.

[2] In fact, the best American in the 2020 games would likely look like this.

[3] Golf and Rugby are in Group E because they were not in this last Olympics.  Whether or not they merit the classification is yet to be seen.

So you’re thinking about joining the Peace Corps

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.32.53 PM

Gao×wri   (noun)

Definition of gaowri

1: a foreigner, especially a white person

 2: a person who appears to be from Europe

 plural — guu×wur

Have you ever felt out of place? Have you ever felt out of place for 27 months in a row? This is, perhaps, the most salient, ever-present fact of existence for Peace Corps Volunteers. We are foreigners. We are unusual. We are the ones everybody in town vaguely knows about. We are the weirdos. Do you remember that person in high school who would walk around barefoot and rub mud in their hair? That’s us.

An anachronism is “a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists.” Anatopism is to space what anachronism is to time. The theater girl who rubbed mud on herself was an anatopism. That ‘jelly donut’ rock, which the Mars rover recently discovered, is an anatopism. In the Peace Corps, you’ll be one too. And, thanks to the internet, you’ll never forget it.

On my roof today, while reading about an ultra-high-speed magnetic rail project in California, I got a strong whiff of poison from a nearby burning pile of plastic. I read about cars that drive themselves in a place where people laugh at you when you wear a helmet. Ideas are different. Words are untranslate-able.

Of course, some people like standing out. Everybody enjoys it once in a while. Why do you think Dennis Rodman’s spending so much time in North Korea? You think he really gets along with the newest psychopathic dictator of DPRK? He wants attention.

Maybe the stares make you feel important. Maybe the experience imbues your day-to-day with more meaning, as you exist in opposition to the masses, to the hoi polloi. But nobody likes it all the time.

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And people stare. Children yell, “gaowri, gaowri, gaowri!” Maybe they throw rocks. Or try out a foreign language they may know. Or talk about you right in front of you, assuming you won’t understand. They may hear you’re from America and ask if you know their uncle who lives in Germany. Why do they do it? It’s because you look different. People will be slow to trust you. Appearance is everything, and yours will get you all sorts of attention and special treatment.

Me & neighbor girl

Her: “Mimoun, you’re looking very white”

Me: “I was in meetings all week so I never saw the sun”

Her: “I’ll tell all the girls in town who want to marry to come here; they love white guys like you”

Religion is probably going to be another separator.

1. People will bring it up inappropriately: I went to a school a few days ago hoping to gather students for a job fair. The Director told me I had no choice but to convert to Islam.

2. People will not be respectful of your own beliefs (or what they think are your beliefs): A man at the beach laughed in my face after telling me Christians must be stupid. How could Jesus possibly be the son of God?

3. People will use strange logic to prove you wrong: Last week a co-worker told me that Christians are wrong (and of course, everybody from America is Christian), because, in the Quran, Mary was told to eat some dates and drink from a spring in order to become pregnant. But dates only come in at the end of the year, so how could Jesus possibly be born on December 25th?

4. And everything about daily life will be positively saturated with the dominant religion: Today, before eating lunch at somebody’s house, we all watched the King do his prayers on television.

Me & person I’m meeting for the first time

Him: “You should convert to Islam”

Me: “Maybe some day”

Him: “In order to learn about the religion, you must have operation on your penis”

Me: “I don’t want to”

Humans are naturally social animals. We have evolved to live in groups: tight-knit tribes of people who hold similar beliefs, tell the same stories, and have the same narrative about our place in the universe. Humans were not built to be Peace Corps volunteers.

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 1.42.29 PM

“But what about ex-pats,” you may say, “don’t they always have a great time?” There is a difference between ex-pats and Peace Corps Volunteers. Ex-pats usually have money. They can manage to buy their way out of living like a normal citizen of their adopted country. PCVs, on the other hand, receive the average income. In places where unemployment statistics aren’t even kept, this isn’t a lot of ‘fluus,’ as we call it. So, not only is everybody constantly trying to rip you off, you actually have very little to spend.

Your personhood will be flattened and simplified. Upon meeting somebody, I am entirely reduced to his or her notions of the archetypical foreigner. Who knows how those archetypes were formed. I met a girl who learned English almost exclusively by watching youtube clips of Maury. In my own case, generally speaking, it seems that I am now Christian, rich, I eat a lot of pork, I have tons of casual sex, I drink a lot, I enjoy guns, I want to start wars in other countries, and I watch the television show WWE.

Me & another guest at somebody’s wedding

Him: “The Jews!”

Me: “What?”

Him: “The US Congress is full of Jews, I know”

Me: “Well, that’s not really the truth, nor objective”

Him: “You’re not Jewish right? You’re a real American?”

 Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 1.45.15 PM            Of course, many American volunteers don’t fit the mold. If you’re black, or of Asian ancestry, or Muslim, or Latin-American, or really short, or dark-haired, they’ll ask you why the Peace Corps didn’t send them a ‘true American’. I went to visit my Asian-American friend in a nearby town. I ran into his neighbor at the door, who assured me that I had no idea what I was talking about- the guy must be Chinese and love Jackie Chan. If you’re black, people might try to buy you, thinking you’re a prostitute. If you look Asian, people will pull their eyelids into slits and show you their kung-fu moves. Even if you look like them, you’ll get it: they’ll ask why you can’t speak the language. No matter what color or creed you are, you will constantly, always feel like the anatopism that you are.

*But that’s kind of the point*

The staring won’t just make you feel important: you will BE important. You might be the only foreign person they’ve ever met. Everything you say or do directly affects their picture of “the American.”

The Peace Corps has three major goals. Only one of them is to actually do ‘work’. The second is to “help promote a better understanding of Americans.” In the States, we enjoy a pluralistic society with unbelievable diversity. But everybody in your Peace Corps town will think that all Americans are just like you.

So the pressure is on! Don’t screw up, or they will hate us all! You are responsible for representing the stars and stripes. It is exhausting. But you can, if you work really hard at it, leave one hell of a good impression.