Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n’Cheese

Last summer, it was a beard.  This summer, it’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Almost exactly one year ago, I arrived in Uganda, expecting to see some elephants, learn a bit of Luganda, raft down the Nile, and maybe, in between visits to national parks, do a bit of economic research on agricultural cooperatives.  It didn’t quite work out as expected.  I spent the next seven weeks working eighteen hours seven days a week, all the while battling against the implausibility of our research design, the madness of my coworkers, and all manner of comical medical problems.  I left fifteen pounds lighter, even counting the quite hideous beard I had managed to grow.

Mock me.

There were a handful of reasons why I went razor-free for the summer.  For one, the truly hideous fuzz was a source of humor for me and my fellow RAs even in the darkest of times.  The guest house where I stayed had neither hot water nor a mirror, so looking sharp seemed like an overly daunting challenge (Never mind that my Ugandan co-workers were inevitably dressed to the nines and squeaky-clean every day).  More than anything, though, growing a beard was a bit symbolic of the mentality I took with me to Africa.  It’s a mindset of relaxed personal standards that I think many Westerners carry, packed in alongside their guidebooks and bug repellant, when the travel to the developing world.  The third world is, we tell ourselves, a bit freer and a tad less disciplined—which is part of our justification for making drunken asses of ourselves in Cancun or visiting hookers in Bangkok.

This summer, though, there will be no prolonged facial-hair-growth.  I have interviews with government ministers and NGO presidents, and as a result, I’m taking a page out of my Ugandan friends’ grooming book.  In fact, I think I’ve worn a button up shirt for more consecutive days then any time previously in my life, an experience I’m—rather surprisingly—enjoying.  Who could have possibly guessed that not looking like hell would provide a jolt of confidence?

Instead, my weakening of personal standards has come in a different form, which is, I am afraid to say, a bit direr: for the past two weeks, I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian.  I decided I would be loosening up my usual veganism before I even arrived, having been warned by nearly everyone I talked to that survival as a vegetarian in Ecuador was going to be hard enough, without added restrictions.  I suppose there’s an element of truth to their cautioning: I’ve already received several lectures from my host mother about how I’m going to become feeble and fragile if I don’t start eating meat, and most waiters just seem puzzled when I ask if there’s a vegetarian dish.  Still, though, I’m surviving, and, for the most part, content with the moral compromise I have made in the name of minimizing my already nearly unmanageable stress levels.

This weekend, though, I think I took “compromise”to a new level.  I needed change for a $20 bill, a massively large denomination that is almost impossible to break in Ecuador.* Feeling the need to compensate the local corner store for cleaning out all of their small bills, I bought a seriously overpriced box of authentic, fantastically overprocessed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Consuming an entire family sized box in one sitting—replete with a cup of milk and a few ounces of butter—was, I think, a culmination of the animal-product binge I’ve been on since I got here.  If I’m breaking the rules a bit, I suppose, I might as well break them a lot: hence, an endless stream of pizza, cake, cookies, omelettes, and yogurt.

I’ve written before about how being vegan anchors my sense that, yes, I am in fact a moral being, and yes, I do occasionally live those morals.  Here, though, I’ve been thinking more about how my decision to go from vegan to vegetarian appears to other people.  I’ve explained to a handful of Ecuadorians that “Yes, I’m usually vegan—but while I’m here, I’m just vegetarian.” From the relativist perspective of anthropology, temporarily suspending my veganism is a Good Thing, because it indicates that I am not trying to impose my Western idiosyncracies on a foreign culture.  It strikes me as a bit awkward, though, because here I am, offering that same expat mentality: “Hi, I have morals in my country, but they don’t really apply when I’m here.”  It is, in a sense, no less diresprespectful than growing a really, really ugly beard.

In the name of my own sanity, I think I’m going to postpone my return to level-seven veganism until I get back to a country where tofu is a household word.  In the meantime, though, I’m trying to sort out the right way to live in a foreign country—to balance the openness of anthropology with my own ethical beliefs, and to find an equilibrium between high standards and the fact that I am, sort of, on vacation.

* Remember how one time the U.S. Government released a bunch of Sacagawea dollar coins… and then they were never seen again?  That’s because they’re all in Ecuador.

7 thoughts on “Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n’Cheese

  1. A friend of mine who is vegetarian (though not vegan) suspended his vegetarianism when he went to Africa for a semester, because of the rationale that meat there is less likely to be factory-farmed in environmentally unsound ways in the way that it is more-or-less guaranteed to be in the developed world. Of course, when he came back to the States, he resumed his abstention from meat. This has always struck me as a responsible way to balance living in a foreign country with its own cultural values with one’s personal ethical/moral framework.

    Of course, if animal cruelty is your objection and not the American (or British) meat industry, this kind of distinction isn’t going to solve your ethical dilemma. Nevertheless, I (admittedly as someone who eats locally, responsibly produced dairy, seafood, and poultry) believe that the best way to stick to your principles is simply to be aware and concerned about what you eat. The problem is when people eat whatever tastes good without thinking about where it comes from or even the fact that it was once alive, which is not a good way to build a relationship with the planet we live on and whose ecosystem(s) we are part of. I don’t see you falling into that trap anytime soon, though!

  2. Clearly, you’ve never gotten change from NJ Transit… because that’s where all the Sacajawea $1 coins went. The ones in Ecuador must be fakes, because, you know, it’s a third world country.

    Also, I take offense that you chose BANGKOK as your example of a place where people who otherwise do not frequent brothels visit hookers. Why you hate on prahtet thai like that? Also, it’s a 2nd world country AND my mother’s mac and cheese is better than your mother’s AND Thierry Henry scored tonight and I WAS THERE! WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

  3. You’ll make a great academic Alex, because this post was very over-thought ha.

    I liked the Simpsons reference though.

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