Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Being in UAE and Qatar tends to put things in perspective for me, uncomfortable perspective though it is.
I was barely able to find an actual Emirati in the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, now as I look around Doha, I see only one young boy in Arab clothes who is plausibly Qatari. In fact, foreigners account for almost 90 percent of the population of Qatar. And obvious racial hierarchies obtain.
South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) besides Filipinos dominate in numbers. On the humbler streets of Doha, it’s easy to wonder whether one has mistakenly landed in Manila or Dhaka. They power Qatar’s service industries, working in the jobs that, one assumes, the Qataris consider beneath them. Without the Filipinos, most of the shops in the malls would have no attendants, restaurants would have no waiters, and hotels would have no maids. Without South Asians, most of the city’s taxis would have to stand idle for lack of drivers.
The British, who once controlled Qatar, already shipped South Asians all around their empire to serve their colonial masters. “They do as they are told,” the lone African taxi driver that I’ve met in Doha said of the South Asians, “unlike us Africans.” The Filipinos, on the other hand, supply much of the staff on cruise ships all around the world, where their jobs are to serve the passengers expecting to be pampered. Filipino domestic workers travel to the wealthier parts of East Asia like Singapore and Hong Kong and my native Taiwan to cook and to clean and to care for the elderly. The way the Filipino workers of Qatar call me “sir,” the practiced way in which that servile word rolls off their tongue, gives me creeps.
There are white people here as well. There are the Americans and Western Europeans in business suits; there are the exceptionally pretty young Slavic women brought in to model dresses on catwalks. But you’ll never see them waiting tables. The Qataris sit above all the rest, owners of the oil and gas that pour of the ground and thus masters of their own country.
The clear and unabashed racial hierarchy feels Hegelian and makes those of us steeped in Western liberalism uncomfortable. But it’s precisely this discomfort that now makes me think. Perhaps — a point that Qatar seems eager to underscore for me — the world runs on, has always run on, and will always run on these hierarchical distinctions. Perhaps Western liberalism is little more than wishful thinking, a fig leaf that inadequately covers what we don’t want to acknowledge.
The strange situation in Qatar where foreign workers far outnumber the local masters reminds me of ancient Rome, where the slave population may well have exceeded that of the free and definitely exceeded the wealthy senatorial class many times over. At one point, one senator made the boneheaded suggestion that the slaves of Rome be made to wear uniforms. The rest of the senate immediately shot down the proposal: if the slaves wore uniforms, then their numerical superiority would be instantly obvious, which could only encourage slave revolts.
Ancient Rome was typical of society generally in defining an in-group (the senatorial class and the wealthy, which was the same thing), whom the law protected, and an out-group (slaves and ex-slaves and the poor), whom the law controlled, down to the crucifixions of rebellious slaves like Spartacus and a certain unruly cult-leader from Nazareth. Crucifixion was in fact reserved only for slaves and non-citizens, which explains why Peter was crucified but Paul was beheaded.
That is what the law is, what it does, according to Foucault in Discipline and Punish: the law draws a line between the lawful and the unlawful, which is supposed to map onto the in-group and the out-group, respectively. The law protects the one and binds the other.
Fast forward to America of the recent past. The in-group, the whites, were free to do as they pleased with the out-group, the “coloreds.” Both under slavery and during Jim Crow, whites could lynch blacks without any consequences, while a black man could get lynched if he so much as looked at a white woman the wrong way. And the law, most infamously the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case of 1857, said that that was the way things were meant to be. Even now, cases abound that show that members of the out-group shouldn’t even play with toys or carry phones, while members of the in-group can fire at will and probably walk free.
Western liberalism either denies that there should be in-groups and out-groups or denies that the groups should be partly or wholly defined by race. In service of the former attitude, in Western democracies we want to believe that anyone regardless of who they are will enjoy the “equal protection of the law.” By now, I’ve grown cynical enough as to regard this attitude as too naive to deserve a response. Sure, in theory, the lowliest character in American society can litigate all the way to the Supreme Court. But I’ve seen enough of how things work in practice.
The traditional framing of the “American dream” instead acknowledges the existence of in-groups and out-groups. This hackneyed view says that anyone can “make it” in America if they only have talent and will work hard. “Anyone” is a way of saying irrespective of racial or familial origins. But what does it mean to “make it”? Nothing other than inclusion in the in-group, becoming one of the people whom the law protects rather than binds.
The more Marxist end of Western political philosophy sees the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups while ignoring race. The bourgeoisie was the in-group, according to Marx, and the proletariat out-group had to initiate a revolution to break in. The trouble in countries that have actually tried Communism is that invariably a new in-group immediately forms, such as members of the ruling party. And if economics fully explained the distinction between the in and the out, then race should not be a factor — except the lived experience of real people emphatically says otherwise.
It’s a tricky thing for me to consider where I am on these class and racial hierarchies. In the Western country where I grew up, New Zealand, and the Western country where I studied and worked, the US, the Asian cuts a strange figure who seems halfway in and halfway out. Insofar as a large proportion of Asians are well-educated and work in white-collar jobs, we seem to be in. Insofar as casual racism against Asians is socially acceptable, insofar as my neighbors in New York City felt they were within their rights to bar me from my own apartment, we seem to be out.
Being in Qatar makes me consider the matter from another angle. A while ago I caught online a performance by an Asian-American comedian (who exactly I can’t remember). Part of the routine involved him saying that he wasn’t even “one of the fancy Asians — you know, Chinese or Korean or Japanese.” The “non-fancy” Asians, according to him, were the Vietnamese, the Thai, and yes, the Filipinos. Here in Qatar, I have had numerous Filipinos ask me, with a strange ring of curiosity in their voices, “Sir, where are you from?” And I can see very clearly why they ask. They’re trying to work out how “fancy” an Asian I am, given that to them I’m clearly not Filipino. Dutifully, I have invariably answered that I’m from Taiwan. That answer places me squarely in the racial hierarchy of East Asia on a rung above them, which, let’s face it, is why I say it.
But if a white person asks me where I’m from? You better believe that I’m going to say New Zealand, my other home, because that answer places me in the in-group of Western citizenship. It’s a way of demanding that I deserve the courtesy due to one who is in. And when, a few months ago, an Australian I met on the road kept calling me a “fake New Zealander” on the basis of my race, I cursed him out to defend my rights and privileges.
But there it is: my rights and privileges. Though I ostensibly complain about the racial definition of in-groups and out-groups, am I not really just upset that I’m not always atop the hierarchy? Am I not — much like the people I criticize — primarily concerned about defending my own interests? By demanding to be treated as a member of the in-group, or at least more “in” than the Filipino waitress before me, I am profiting from the racial hierarchy and reinforcing it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."