We Have Too Much Plastic

and other lessons of an ex-pat life


The hangers, my god the hangers. When you are the one paying for the move, the plastic is always the first thing to go. The dishrack. The toilet brush, the soap dish. You look at these things — available (you assume) everywhere — and wonder if it’s really worth the cost to lug them halfway across the world.

There’s always one box that turns into ten boxes of stuff you leave behind. Three of those boxes end up being clothes hangers.

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” Arnold Bennett

A comfortable life without change has its own appeal. There’s a kind of security in not having to think too much about, well, everything. Moving a lot forces one to struggle with many of the modern world’s conveniences. Things like water reveal hidden truths when you have to go out and set them up every two or three years. There’s variation on the old truth that nothing can be understood until it’s taken away. Such as: Nothing can be understood until you have to do it all over again. Or until you do it in a foreign language. Or simply work harder to get than you expected.

Take the most basic of needs: Power. Without electricity, the modern world does not exist. No internet. No phone. No stove. No hot water. No light. No refrigeration. No washing machine or dryer. No vacuum cleaner. No air-conditioning.

But beyond paying the bill once a month, we don’t have to think about power. We don’t light fires for cooking or gather wood for heat or store that wood. We do nothing to get that electricity into our homes other than pay the monthly bill.

Yet every time you move you have to go through the process of getting that electricity to your home. You have to set up an account, create a billing ritual, negotiate with a company and sometimes technicians. There’s language barriers, different systems, unexpected demands. There’s down-payments and deposits, identification rituals and delays and schedules — all of which throw a light on the secret, unremarked reality of a modern life’s relationship with electricity.

You often have to go without it. Third world countries, in particular, actually force you to plan for a life without power. In Pakistan, our power went out every other hour, for an hour. Clockwork. All daily activities had to be planned around that schedule.

We aren’t supposed to think about where our power comes from, even though a life without it in the modern world is impossible to maintain. A number of years ago our town was hit by a hurricane and we went without power for nearly two weeks. In Florida. In September. No a/c. No refrigeration. No lights but lanterns. No fans. Never have I been more envious of another man’s generator. But we learned things in that two weeks, about community, about conveniences, about frozen food and clean water and air conditioning. I learned that most modern homes can’t even function without a/c — they aren’t designed to breathe. I learned all manner of things about the neighbors, who, until the storm, remained, and would likely have always remained, just passing acquaintances, only slightly less familiar than the secretary at the school I taught.

Moving is an education. But moving a lot is more than education, it offers a strange sort of enlightenment. There’s inconvenience or hardship and then, sometimes, Wisdom.

I’ve bought hundreds of plastic items — dish racks, toilet scrubbers, dustbins, laundry baskets. It’s amazing how much plastic we accumulate in our lives.

The Wisdom: We have a lot of plastic crap in our lives.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy

Every bureaucracy in every country is the same and yet completely different, and all of them are a pain in the ass. Bureaucracy is a kind of accommodated evil in the home country. You suffer the frustrations and inconvenience because it’s simply part of doing business, and one develops all manner of tricks to navigate the hassles of taxes and license renewal and insurance. Going to the DMV is a bit like going to the dentist at home — a necessary suffering for a greater good. But not every country is the same, and the amount of effort required often depends on the service. Employment in Dubai and Colombia, for example, demands (at least for ex-pats) a Kafkaesque number of official stamps, seals, and signatures on a hundred documents, not to mention passport-sized photographs with every single one. For one country, we needed official neighborhood police records from every place we’d lived the last 10 years. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to get official local neighborhood police records six years after leaving a 3rd world country. (The solution: forgery.)

A driver’s license in Pakistan can be had with a bribe; in Colombia you need to take a 20-hour “course” (even if your Spanish is rudimentary). Renewal everywhere is a yearly ritual, but in Dubai you can do it all online. Except that every speeding ticket, especially all those you didn’t know you had, need to be paid first. (How did I not know I had speeding tickets? Fair question. In Dubai, no policeman pulls you over: speed cameras take your license plate picture and attach the fine to your record. Speed cameras you didn’t know were there. Speed cameras that show up overnight.)

The Wisdom: Bureaucracy seems deliberately designed to push against the absolute limit of what people are willing or able to tolerate, and a measure of a nation might well be how much of it the citizenry will pay for.

“The best education I have ever received was through travel.” Lisa Ling

Acquiring cards takes on particularly significant meaning, for everything from ATM cards to driver’s licenses, but also national identification, insurance cards, neighborhood passes, blood type identifiers, and work badges. For some reason, a lot of countries want your blood. In Colombia, one’s blood type is imprinted on every little bit of identification, even the back of your motorcycle helmet. In the Emirates, they wanted to know if we had any sexually transmitted diseases.

The Wisdom: We carry a bureaucratic image of ourselves and our health that is defined by the land we are on, imprinted on the documents in our wallets.

“Change is the end result of all true learning.” Leo Buscaglia

One doesn’t quite realize how profoundly we follow rules of Movement until you move a lot. Driving, walking, escalators, avoiding women, making left-hand turns (or never taking left-hand turns), strolling through a mall, waiting in a line. Each country has its own particular way of going from place to place. In South Asia, for example, nobody stops but nobody moves fast either. At an intersection everyone slows to the pace of the slowest vehicle (usually the donkey) and crams in until they pop out the other side. In the Middle East, on the other hand, everyone drives as fast as possible (keeping an eye out for speed cameras, in which case everyone slams on the brakes to the posted speed) but nobody ever turns left across traffic. I have literally driven 30 kilometers past the place I needed to go because it was on the left. In America, everyone follows the signs, which are everywhere. If a foreign enemy ever wanted to truly destroy our nation, all they’d have to do is take down all our road signs in the middle of the night. The result would be bedlam.

The Wisdom: A nation reveals all manner of hidden truths about itself simply through movement. Just as we can judge a person by their walk or stance or gesture, so too can you judge a country or culture by how its people move through a mall. Or whether they all stop at the foot of an escalator to argue about where to go next.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Wayne Dyer

And finally, every time you move, you have to create all new friend networks. You don’t always lose the old ones (though you do learn who matters the most to you — staying in touch isn’t easy), but you make all new ones. And honestly, when it boils down to the bare essence, this is why we move a lot. The joy, the excitement, and the wisdom, of new friends.

The Wisdom: Everything good comes down to the people.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

just another frustrated teacher

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