#56 Finding themselves
Enough years of putting aid work first, trying to be simultaneously cynical and self-righteous, and getting sick from eating street food can test the stamina and resolve of even the most resilient Expat Aid Worker. Sooner or later going native loses its luster, as does dressing like the locals and using words in the local language. Sooner or later the Expat Aid Worker comes to the place where she or he must change her or his Facebook status from “nomad” to… something else, something… non-nomadic.
It is important to properly support the EAW who begins the slow and difficult process of coming down from a life a sacrifice, hardship and deprivation. Signs of withdrawal are very common, and in particular it is helpful to understand that an EAW in detox mid-process will have a notably increased capacity for drama (“drama” will be its own post at some point).
Simply moving “home” and getting a “real job” in the for-profit sector would never occur to the EAW. They’ve seen things. They’ve experienced things. Thing like the real tragedy and suffering of others. Things that ordinary citizens cannot possibly identify with. And so a mundane, ordinary re-entry into the real world will never do. No, instead most EAWs will eventually embark on some logically convoluted quest that they claim (and who knows? Maybe they even also believe) will help them “find themselves.”
EAWs bent on “finding themselves” have to choose the “finding oneself” strategy carefully, as this is key to establishing post-EAW field cred. Something run-of-the-mill like divorce, rehab or therapy is just too easy and, frankly, passé. But living with real nomads in the Gobi desert for three years, spending a year walking to the places between other places, going on a traditional Maasai diet, or sailing solo around the world on a hand-made Cook Islands outrigger, on the other hand, are solid gold.
In general, the more obscure the “finding themselves” quest, the better. Religious conversions are a great place to start. Nothing says “I have abandoned the crass materialism of the industrialized West while simultaneously becoming one with the people” quite as clearly as joining a monastery in Tibet (Thai and Cambodian monasteries are for tourists…), being inducted into a Wahhabi sect in Yemen (everyone goes to Dubai…), or becoming a tribal shaman in rural Peru (Costa Rica is soooo ’90s...).
Some EAWs will take the “finding themselves” phase to the whole next level by starting a new organization (there just aren’t enough NGOs in the world…) dedicated to helping other EAWs find themselves. Spent a few years haunting the cubicles of a UN compound somewhere? Did a deployment or two with an HRI-affiliate in a middle-income country? Or maybe simply can’t hold an aid job? Turn that angst and suffering into a retirement plan. Aid workers are unhappy. Cynicism is killing the spirit of aid work. And you have the answers.
Face it, by the time you’ve reached the “finding yourself” stage you do have something to prove. Or at least a best-selling memoir to write.
Go find yourself….