WARNING: I use the word "asshole" in this post. A lot.
This is one of the guiding principles of this trip, and for writing about it: try not to be The Asshole in the Story. I formed this ambition in part by re-reading my work from previous years and seeing that I seem to spend a lot of time telling tales in which I am the aggrieved victim of various forms of stupidity. Upon reflection, however, I see that there’s one common denominator in these stories: me. I may be The Asshole. Nobody likes a relentlessly cheery travel writer, but no one likes an unreflective lunkhead, either. And so it is that I’m making a conscious effort to run a little asshole heuristic before I write anything. Of course, this may be the very definition of Asshole: being certain that you’re not The Asshole.
I had really worked myself into a froth over several incidents so far at SOC. First, there was the manipulative and puerile way that Ian organized the Friday Night Social. Here’s how it worked: email goes out to say there will be an event at an undisclosed location, to which Ian will “lead us through town like the pied piper.” Uh, how about you just tell me when and where, and I can turn up? Trying to be a team player, I hike up to at the café at the assigned time and we wait, and wait, and wait for every last person to arrive with Ian gathering us up and taking roll like we’re church campers. Then Bruce is instructed to lead us all to the store so we can each buy what we want to drink, in accordance to the BYOB policy Ian has negotiated. About 16 people crowd into this warren-like store and begin complaining bitterly about the prices, dusty bottles of Vietnamese red wine, Vang Dalat, being $5 instead of $3 (the horror!). We have to wait until every single person makes their miserly purchase before Ian arrives – on his motorbike! – to lead us on foot 3 blocks to the restaurant where we will have a pre-arranged Italian dinner. There follows even more chaos as we are instructed to sit in the lounge seating area and enjoy a drink, with no wine openers or glasses. Eventually that’s sorted, and then the garlic bread appetizer comes. I really do appreciate that you’ve managed the money and ordered the food, Ian, but I don’t need to be told how many pieces of garlic bread I’m allowed to eat (one, as it happens). If you know me, how I like to entertain, how I don’t like to travel and dine in packs, you know how berserk I am going right now. Plus, at this point I haven’t slept in about four nights, so I’m becoming even more bratty than usual.
After the garlic bread has been parsed, the ersatz-penurious young people drink copiously of their overpriced wine and their now tepid beers in plastic bags, and eat like wolves from the buffet of gloppy pasta and soggy pizza. My night was saved by Bruce and Ann, the retired Australian couple who could see me sitting there fidgety like a caged animal and trying not to be an asshole, and invite me to sit at a table with them. I veered dangerously close to asshole territory one more time when Ian got up and rapped on his glass with a spoon and made a series of meaningless and self-serving toasts, but mostly I acquitted myself fairly well despite a simmering rage at being treated like a summer-camper. Have to say, however, that my crankiness helped form a bond, now a friendship, with Bruce and Ann, no-nonsense retired professionals in their 60s who also have no taste for this kind of pied-piper performance.
What is it about the population of people, especially the young ones, who want to do this kind of work that makes them self-involved, bossy, control freaks? Probably they were like that to start with, but I think it’s also that so few of them have had actual jobs in which some of these habits would have been censured, or at least tempered. I was about to get really furious with Jaya, the volunteer coordinator, however, when it occurred to me that I might be The Asshole in the Story. Yes, I have a job, but not in the ordinary sense where people, you know, tell you what to do.
I had asked Jaya if I could observe Ann teaching the Hmong children in their regular classes, because I wanted to see how an expert did that, she told me no, I couldn’t, because they had a hard and fast closed-door policy against classroom visitors. This rationale I totally understand because I know that these children have been an exoticized spectacle their whole lives, with people asking their names are and how old they are and patting them on the head and taking their pictures. I get it. And one of the reasons I get it is that I’ve worked with this organization for several years and have even been the teacher in the classroom where well-meaning but disruptive visitors would arrive unannounced regularly. I say that letting me in the classroom still honors that policy, but she keeps insisting that you can’t have one rule for one person and another for everyone else. When my argument boils down to, “but it’s me; can’t you see I’m an exception?” I realize I might me The Asshole, and let it drop. It also occurs to me that I might have a problem with being told what to do, and with working and playing well with others.
“But it’s ME” is an asshole argument, to be sure, but Jaya wasn’t exactly telling the truth, as it turns out. I learned from Ann yesterday that Jaya let Kate come in and teach an entire morning’s lesson just so she could put on her resume that she had experience teaching ELLs. What was the first thing she did in class? “What is your name, and how old are you?” Ann was fit to be tied, outraged that her 40 years of professional experience and judgment counted for nothing against a 20-something British woman looking for a way to finance the rest of her trip around the world. It was all Ann could do to stop Kate from teaching her planned lessons on the history of Malta and the importance of cod (I swear I am not making this up). Kate is the same woman who, Ann says, is asking for compensation for the trekking guide handbook that she volunteered to write, threatening not to hand it over unless they pay her. Her reason? If she doesn’t get paid, then she can’t continue the next 6 months of travel. When Ann told me this story, we said in unison: Then go home and get a job.
Looks like I may not be The Asshole in this particular story, after all, but there’s plenty of time left.s