Sunday, October 11, 2015

Can a Person "Invest" in His Own Isolation?

In the downtown areas of Iringa, there is the usual array of Tanzanian eateries serving local favorites like rice and beans, chips and grilled meat, along with localized versions of Chinese, Indian, and Western favorites.  Some of the more high-end restaurants frequented by moneyed local businessmen/officials and foreign tourists on their way to nearby national parks try even harder to specialize those local favorites in a more higher-end setting.  The results, will still fitting for the local environment, create more sanitary and secluded environments for foodies, local and foreign.

But even beyond these nice local restaurants in town that can cater to foreigners, there is a whole new class of expat-oriented restaurants that are operated almost exclusively for the long-term residential foreigner community.  Like resorts outside the town, these operate almost in "words of mouth" basis, attracting repeaters who are willing to put down some serious money (by local standards) to get an even more authentic taste of home.  And to make the feeling of home complete, these restaurants seem to spare no expense in ensuring comfort of the guests.

TVs that play foreign channels are a must in the dining room, along with foreign comfort foods like pastries and dishes that most locals probably have never even heard of, much less tasted.  The staff's English and professional attire are of course impeccable, and the chinaware, glasses, and cutlery lining the table are not something the author has ever witnessed being sold in any of the town's shops.  The restaurants do try to remind the diners of their African locations, though, with table cloths of African motif, locally hand-crafted furniture, and a selection of African beers in bottle.

At the end, to think that such high-maintenance, high-cost restaurants can operate for years and years as viable businesses in a small town with just a few hundred expats of all nationalities does speak volumes about just how these expats are willing to deal with their gastronomical homesickness with some serious money.  The daily rice and beans for lunch, as well as what one can make with limited selections of ingredients (and most fatally, condiments) at the local markets and stores just won't cut it anymore after a couple of weeks.  An escape becomes mandatory.

The result is an almost dual life of the residential foreigner, a day-time job that requires intimate working relationship with local staff and clients, but a night-time barrier with anything that is overtly local.  For any day-time effort to ethically refuse differentiation of local and expat staff in an integrated working environment (out of necessity), by night, people revert to their respective spheres of lives that do not touch each other.  The foreigner bubble exists in such a strong way that the temporary visitor to these integrated workplaces of these would never be able to guess.

Now, expat bubbles are not particularly unique to rural Tanzania.  In every country, people have their own places of comfort where homogeneity of ethnicity, nationality, or culture of the residential minority is maintained.  Understandably, people want to talk to people, in their own leisure times, who would have more common languages.  But at least in places the author have lived in the past, these places are organically formed, rather than deliberately created.  The idea that a restaurant can be priced and decorated for 1% of population is simply ridiculous from a business standpoint.

Yet here, it seems that this tiny community of foreigners have collectively invested in the maintenance of separate institutions for the tiny community.  In the back of their mind, they probably understand that for the places that they normally go to to feel at home, they must constantly patronize them in order for them to continue operating in the same homey feel.  Higher prices for everything on the menu is a small price to pay to ensure that the places remain exclusive, and devoid of locals who do not understand just how precious this sense of exclusivity is.

Perhaps sometimes, it would be nice to invest a little on giving the locals knowledge about foreign lands as well, especially since it can be done so right there in those exclusive foreign restaurants.  If the locals had the chance to taste some of the foreign foods that they have previously never heard before, and even start to like them, then who knows?  Maybe the local markets and shops will become more well-stocked with cheaper foreign ingredients due to increasing demands from the local population.  Wouldn't that be ultimately beneficial for the expat community as well?

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