I wrote a letter to a friend of mine who's a writer, a fellow Coastie and, oddly, has the EXACT same birthday as me! I wrote it out as freely as my pen would flow and then went back to proofread. As I read it, I realized I had an amazing blog post here!. I was speaking to him (in ink) with an honesty and freedom I haven't used in a LONG time in this blog.
I will excerpt:
"My life continues to be a series of sublime moments that awe me without fail"
Yes, that's true but here's the blog-worthy part:
"You wrote in your letter that you haven't ever found the place where you can say, 'Therein lies the boogeyman!' Well, I think I have found him. This boogeyman lives in the most uncomfortable place. He's right here *Taps Sternum*.
I told myself that I was coming to this land without any prejudice, preconception or bias. I truly came here with my heart open to every person I meet but, DAMN!, It snuck up on me!. If I walk down the mall in Washington, DC and someone is looking right at me and they track me with their eyes and head as I pass, My first reaction is going to be, "OH HELL, It's on!!!" and to get ready for a running fight.
This is the most obvious example of how wrong my notions are over here. I'm tall, white and odd-looking. This is a society that, truly, abhors personal violence. I'm more likely to be killed by a meteor than to get into a fight with an Arab.
I had been going around this place in a state of high alert, ready to 'throw down' and get busy. Then, one day, I was at a shopping center and I was tired of this hard-look, closed-face 'eyeballing' I was getting at every turn.
I had been here long enough to learn the basics of greeting and salutation. My predilection to languages allows me to speak Arabic with an almost perfect regional accent. So, here is a young Arab guy in his traditional dress with prayer beads in his hand. He's looking HARD at the big, fat, white, American me!
I lock eyes with him.
I see he has no weapons (training will never die).
I tilt my head and dip my chin in a gesture I've learned as both welcoming and courteous. I say, 'Salaam Aleikum (Peace be upon you).' But my hands are free (that damn training!).
The BIGGEST smile EVER explodes across his face and he enthusiastically says, 'Wa Aleikum A Salaaam (and upon you, Peace!)!' He throws his arms wide in a gesture that is, at the same time, welcoming and disarming. What a charming young man!
Now, it's broken English, MTV-references, and a crowd of young Arabs who are eager to show off how much English they have learned from the internet and TV. I received no less than seven invitations to dinner and later get text messages inviting me to coffee, weddings, etc.. It's handshakes, back-slapping, smiles and enthusiastic affection. The EXACT opposite of what I feared.
All of the fear of foreign people, backwards societies and unfathomable religions had been clouding my view of the truth I had written to you before, my friend:
People are just people.
The boogeyman was in me. I'm sure each of those young Arab men saw the boogeyman on my face as I returned their 'hard stares' and I've since learned to put a pleasant smile on my face out in public. Once I stopped being afraid of the boogeyman (or, stopped being afraid of people I don't understand) I find I move though this country like an honored prince.
However, I'm white, tall, American and MALE. Only the King (peace be upon him) has it better than me.
Yes, Racism. It's alive and well here. I have found that, along with suppressing the 'boogeyman' in me, I've had to suppress the 'Outraged Defender of the Weak' hero that lives in the very front of my conscious. There are not enough numbers in my mind to count the times I've had to stop myself from punching the **** out of someone. There are many times in my work here when I have to engage in the uncomfortable exercise of suspending my compassion.
That has been, for me, the hardest part of moving here.
Life is cheap here. I see so many preventable deaths that are attributed to the 'Will of God.' Is it appropriate that, just because someone is from Bangladesh, he should be a laborer and treated as chattel? Is it 'The will of God' that the Indonesian housemaid you've hired should also have sex with the man of the house because she is, in essence, a slave?
Slavery was only made 'illegal' here in the late 60's. Enforcement?
I'm still trying to reconcile those wonderful, generous, welcoming young men (who later helped me buy a mobile phone) with the notion that any one of them would willingly rape an Indonesian housemaid because they thought that's what Indonesian housemaids are for. ... Or that ANYONE could think that another human being existed to be raped.
The 'boogeyman' isn't always immediately recognizable as the 'bad guy.' My strong desire to go punch the life out of those ********* and to 'Defend the oppressed' has to be held in check. The boogeyman wants to go a-prowlin', kicking ass and saving people exactly as we learned in all the comic books and TV shows of our youth.
The problem is that all of those 'hero' stories relied upon a moral, rightful and same-thinking society there to receive the rescued victims of our heroism. There are not a lot of comic stories about how Batman helped that gang-rape victim have the strength to continue to go to therapy. I've not read a comic about Superman helping the teenage son of a woman who was attacked deal with his own anger and sense of helplessness. Nope. That's, somehow, not heroic. We western (read: American) 'heroes' think we can swoop in, fix the problem, receive accolades and leave. Obviously this notion has guided our foreign policy over many administrations.
I have suffered the hard lesson that I cannot be a hero here. In the USA, I could activate a victim-advocacy system when I encountered child, elder, spousal or other abuse. I often was able to do positive good because I saw that clues that someone was a victim and our society had mechanisms in place to help.
Not here. That's not easy to deal with as a paramedic.
Even more difficult is the situation I encounter where the victim is so ignorant of their life station that they are not even aware that they are being victimized. It's just how their life is.
I had a 13 to 16-year-old actively giving birth the other day. She had no F*****g idea what was going on. She's probably lived in a tent her whole life. Once he found out the baby was a boy and healthy, the 18-year-old father gave not a F**k about anything else. Meanwhile, I was busy keeping 'Mom' from bleeding to death and helping her deliver the placenta.
I'm not the hero there. I'm just the guy who helps make sure that mom and baby live until tomorrow. What they do with the rest of their lives (or what is done TO them) is not my purview. That's the part that runs up against my notions of 'hero.' That's the part that hurts the most.
'Well, what the heck am I doing here?' I ask myself. 'What is my role here?'
Again and again I have encountered other medical practitioners (nurses, doctors and others) who were clearly hired based upon what they can show on paper vs. what they can DO when the poop hits the air mover. Perhaps I need to feel I'm positively contributing to my workplace an our 'unit mission' (props to my Coastie audience). In the context of what and how I do my job, I often find(to my own horror) that I'm the most competent, trained or willfully assertive member of the resuscitation team.
There's my niche!! That's where I fit in!
I have learned to gently guide, direct and supportively 'push' the other medical personnel in my sphere to practice medicine in a way that is focused on the patient more than covering their own (or their manager's) butt. I work with a bunch of smart, driven, caring practitioners. However, I think I'm the only one who's not afraid to say, 'Let's do what we have to do!!' and that's the most important thing I do every day.
Somehow I'm in exactly the right place.
I'm not a hero. I'm not going to pull a comic-book-style rescue on anyone. I think the important thing is that I'm not afraid to give that little 'push' for my patient. Have I grown old enough to realize that the best work I can do here is by stepping back?
I hope so.
Halfway through the letter, I had to refill my pen. I'm going to bed with ink stains on my hands. Does that make me a writer?