“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby
Many years ago, I and a few other expats were hanging out in someone’s apartment in Erdenet, Mongolia, playing a game of “Why it sucks” with an inflatable globe our hostess had lying around. The gist of the game was that we’d toss the globe up and catch it, and wherever the catcher’s finger landed (I think we went with the right-hand index finger) we all had to say why that place sucks. It was usually pretty easy—I remember landing on Somalia, for example—but sometimes we had to be creative, especially when our fingers landed on some of our favorite places. It wasn’t fair to say, “Hey, I like it there!” We had to provide a convincing reason for why that particular place was, basically, a shithole.
It wasn’t lost on us that Erdenet, the city we were in, could be described by some people as a shithole. Small, poor, and isolated, it basically is a shithole, at least by most measures. If Erdenet was a shithole, though, it was our shithole, and we loved it.
A Soviet-built cement smudge on an otherwise barren stretch of hills, Erdenet exists entirely because of its copper mine, one of the largest in the world, and the mine’s slag heap looms over the southern side of the city. It’s prettier than it sounds, though.
I spent a year in Erdenet, and spent a good part of my very expensive Internet connection regaling my friends back home with stories of my more most off-the-wall encounters. Like the time my friend’s cows starting grazing in front of City Hall and got sent off to cow jail. Or how I’d go to a restaurant and instead of asking for the menu I’d ask, “What food is there today?” and oftentimes the answer would be “None.” Or how my neighbor’s car would stall whenever it stopped, so instead of stopping he would just slow down as he approached intersections. I described how in the summer the ground was scorched, dry and crunchy, and in winter everything was covered in a thick layer of ice, and spring and fall didn’t really exist except that in April giant sandstorms would sweep up from the Gobi desert.
And when my contract was up, and I had to return home, my friends and family were shocked that I immediately started making plans to return. “That place sounds like a real shithole.”
Which it was. But fifteen or so years later, all of us who were there playing “Why it sucks” that day have all found reasons to go back, at least to visit.
My students were middle schoolers then, and are now all grown up. I follow them on Facebook, and occasionally we exchange emails. For kids that were growing up in a very isolated mining town on the edge of Siberia, they have done remarkably well for themselves. A few are doctors now, and there are some lawyers in the mix, too. One got a degree from the London School of Economics, worked in Singapore, and then returned to Mongolia to forge a small business empire. Another has apparently become a very successful fashion model.
My brightest student that year was the math teacher’s daughter. Her dad was a driver, which was a euphemism for “unemployed,” and they didn’t have much in the way of money, but it was a loving household and this girl was one of the most innately talented people I’ve ever met. It boggles my mind to imagine what she could have become had she grown up in an environment worthy of her abilities, exposed to all the best things the world has to offer, instead of, you know, a shithole.
She’s done quite well with herself, though. Now almost thirty, she lives in Seoul with her husband, where they operate (and possibly own—my language skills are weak) a boutique hotel. I catch glimpses of her life on Facebook, on vacation in Paris, at a family reunion in Ulaanbaatar, remodeling her kitchen, or gushing over her young son and his wacky baby adventures. Judging from what i can understand on the comments on her posts, I am not the only one who is proud and a little jealous of the life she’s made for herself.
She came to America once, about ten years ago when she still wasn’t sure which direction she would go in. She spent the summer working at a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She didn’t say as much to me because she knew how much I love my industrial northeast, but clearly America was disappointing. Before she arrived she had talked about quitting her job early and spending a week or two exploring America; in the end, though, she finished her contract, pocketed her money and went home, and has never mentioned going back to the States.
She wouldn’t be the first to call New Jersey a shithole.
I like New Jersey, though. Not all of it, but it’s my kind of shithole. Then again, I’m a big fan of the Bronx, which is considered a world-class shithole. And my only complaint about Brooklyn is that it isn’t shitty enough anymore.
Come to think of it, many of my favorite places are, at least to some eyes, shitholes. I love Tajikistan, for example. I had a great time in a city called Qurghonteppa, even though my hotel was freezing cold in summer and the restaurant’s “continental breakfast” was a half a roll of store-bought cream-filled cookies arranged on a plate with a dry cucumber slice on the side (there was a much nicer restaurant across the street, which is probably why they didn’t bother preparing breakfast). I strolled through town with a local high school teacher who had been born there but grew up in East Germany, and returned home when he heard that his old school had so few teachers that it was going to close.
I was in Jaffna just a few months after the government of Sri Lanka began allowing tourists back in. I can see from pictures that the city has since been cleaned up and restored to at least some of its former glory, but when I was there it was a postwar shithole haunted by hollowed-out bullet-scarred houses. In the middle of the street not far from my hotel soldiers dug out a covered foxhole from which they pointed machine guns out onto whoever was walking up and down that street. I had dinner at the home of a friend of a friend, a human rights advocate who sent his family to Colombo and then London but stayed there himself to speak up for others. His house was quite spare, even by Sri Lankan standards, and he described some of the hardships he faced in his line of work; but it was one of the most elegant dinners I’ve ever had, and the deviled cuttlefish was hands-down the best meal I had in Sri Lanka. Jaffna itself, wounded as it was, remained a beguiling and beautiful place, and I kept thinking to myself that this without much work this could become one of the world’s most celebrated beach towns.
The world is a beautiful place. Just about all of it. Beaches are beautiful, whether they are sandy or rocky, or if the water is blue or gray. Forests are beautiful, tropical or otherwise. Rivers, lakes, wide open fields, rolling hills, endless plains—it’s all quite beautiful. The austere beauty of deserts have been celebrated, and even raw wastelands in remote areas. It’s all beautiful. Cities, too, whether they are ancient or ultramodern, enormous or dinky.
So what makes one place great and another a shithole? I suppose it’s the eye of the beholder; my father, for example, once turned down a trip to Venice because he saw a picture of laundry hanging from a window and decided that made it a “ghetto,” which is my dad’s preferred version of shithole. I love New York, but I know a bunch of people who dismiss the entire city and wonder how anyone could live there. Personally, I find those sprawling anonymous suburbs to be shitholes, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from moving there. I’ve heard people badmouth Prague, Japan, and all of southeast Asia. And they weren’t just playing a drinking game with friends and an inflatable globe.
So, again, what makes one place great and another awful? I think at the end of the day it’s the people. When I look back on all the places I’ve been, the ones that pull on me the most were the ones where I made the greatest friends. And honestly, if you aren’t making friends, maybe you are the shithole. I think about my genius Mongolian student, who took a hard pass on America and is now enriching South Korea, both with her money and her beautiful family. And my friends who took their skills away from Germany and London and brought their talent and greatness to some very difficult places.
I’ve been lucky to go to all these shitholes and learn that no matter where we come from, at the end of the day we are all people, for better or worse. But mostly for better. Some of us are shitty, and some are pretty awesome, and most fall somewhere in between. We laugh, love, suffer, and deserve respect, pretty much all the same. We are all trying our best. I’ve been very lucky, indeed, and I need to remind myself from time to time that not everybody has been so blessed, and while I can judge or be upset, at the end of the day I get my best revenge by planning another trip to another shithole, and making my world that much bigger and more beautiful in the process.