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#84 Being “enigmatic”

August 22, 2011

There are many traits and vibes that Expat Aid Workers love to cultivate. Cynicism is an old favorite, for example. Or being good at putting others in their places, bitching about HQ, not being that kind of EAW, or in other ways subtly or not so subtly establishing field cred. But there is no label so cherished by today’s discerning EAW as “enigmatic.”

Being enigmatic is so awesome because cultivated and played correctly it amounts to social capital in nearly every sphere through which the EAW might move. Putting newbies and amateurs in their places is great among EAWs at the office or in the hotel shuttle to the Harare airport, but tends to fall flat if you try it on the tourists scuba diving with you on R&R in Phuket. Untreated PTSD is straight-up street cred of the sort that makes newbies green with envy in the first week after a mega disaster, but it earns you little more than strange looks in shopping malls in California. On the other hand, well-played being “enigmatic” wins friends and influences people from the disaster zone to the Red Carpet Club to suburban Europe orAmerica. Remember the basic formulas:

  • Cynicism gets you into the “good” teamhouse.
  • Putting others in their places gets you your own room  at the teamhouse.
  • Being “enigmatic” gets you laid at the teamhouse.

The key to being enigmatic is to keep those around you guessing. You want to strike the right balances between affable and reserved, gregarious and standoffish, garrulous and creepy. You want to be a good conversationalist, while still subtly making those around you believe that you are holding back. Without being morose, you want to hint at (but never really confirm the existence of) a deep well of melancholy just below the surface. A dark past, perhaps, or old sins long repented but possibly not yet forgiven. Hint at an elaborate plan for finding yourself as atonement for a life spent putting aid work first.

Nuanced eclecticism helps, too. Randomly listen to Samuel Barber, the Cowboy Junkies, Ludakriss, and Wolfmother. Have a black belt in something, but also be a licensed midwife. Claim to suck at technology (you just can’t seem to figure out the teamhouse microwave without melting something), but be a wiz at ICT4D. Curse like a sailor and be an atrocious speller in your own language, but be beyond fluent – be eloquent – in an obscure local language. Like Quechua or Khoisan. Be a health fanatic (only vegan, if possible, and work out relentlessly), but make it your habit to puff Cuban cigars and swill cheap airport brandy on the teamhouse veranda every evening. Regularly practice an odd/unique/tribal ritual of some kind (nothing illegal or too awkward). Flaunt the fact that you’re out of touch with pop culture back home.

Above all, embrace the reality that expat aid work is its own mental illness. Schizophrenia, to be precise. We’re all multiple personalities, and our intense, emotional experience-fostering globetrotting ways just bring that out. And if occasionally we spin a little reality on the fly in the name of making you believe that there is a lot more really, really interesting stuff to know about us that you just need to dig for a little more…

It’s all good.

We’re just being enigmatic.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 9:14 am

    I love this blog. As someone who has a strong desire to work in the field of aid and development, I can’t help but laugh. Great work!

    • August 22, 2011 12:48 pm

      I applaud your interest in the field, but you must not laugh. This is serious. Very serious!

  2. August 22, 2011 10:13 am

    Met this very man, he was WFP, a legend apparently, this was back in 2008, Haiti – after the Hurricane disaster – he was sitting in my living-room, I cant for the life of me remember how he got there, drinking my wine, brandy, beer, eating my food (All of it), sitting center stage, wiry chaotic hair, a Indian white loose top, a gold dangling from his neck, a chunky ‘expensive’ watch on his wrist, fat hands, but they had seen rough times, he sat telling yarns that made you laugh and ‘almost’ want to grow up like him (Looking healthy by being unhealthy). Mission by mission he gave tales of oddities (all of which he tried or experienced) – the clitoris slapping as fore-play (with your penis) for hours in deepest Africa, not only tradition but expected (For hours) – kept us engrossed, (Men and women alike) our faces contorted, half in thought (that little ‘I am lost look’) the other in hmmm! (Mentally giving it a bash), deep inside we all were intrigued (Tell us more master) – He listed names he met and partied with a hall of fame (The famous and infamous), swore, waved his hands, he was intellectual , at the same time from the gutter, gave his thoughts, no bars held back, he was not PC (He must be an enigma, he made it through the ranks, has a hero status, but yet is bias, bigoted, and speaks his mind).

    Sucking that cigar, puffing, he splatted a cough, banged his chest like a gorilla, “I’ll finish this before it kills me” he roared with laughter; drank some wine, we all did the same, laughed that is, smoking was trendy today.

    He was larger than life- then left the room; stumbled a bit, and I did hear him fart – I guess it was the relief that in a room, a mix of people for a spell was liberated from PC – Until the morning that is.

    Being “enigmatic” is to turn up – unannounced, take center stage, and get away with it.

  3. Kelti permalink
    September 3, 2011 2:53 pm

    Hate to be pedantic but schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder are 2 completely different diseases…


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