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culture shocked
by katharine mieszkowski


HE'S ONLY KNOWN her for 17 days. But he's already chased her into the women's bathroom in a bar, followed her fleeing taxi in a dilapidated Soviet Lada cab, and jealously tried to jimmy open the door of her apartment with a piece of wire at 3:30 a.m. The night of the foiled break-in, when she arrived home around 5 a.m. from a club to find him sulking and smoking on her stoop, she was livid.

She's a 26-year-old, Russian Internet porn star.

And he's so smitten that he's already considered luring her with an American marriage and potential green card. He knows this can all only end badly. Maybe with a single bullet in his right temple after the wedding? But he doesn't care.

"I'm living in a bad Tom Cruise movie from the mid eighties," confides my lust-tortured friend via Instant Messenger from Kazakhstan. "I'm ruined." He's just one more San Francisco refugee, unemployed but apparently not idle in Central Asia. Sexual obsession: it's a full-time occupation. Having a lovely time in Kazakhstan!

Tales of decadence and betrayal, sin and deceit in Bali, Fiji, Shanghai, and Kazakhstan choke my e-mail inbox. And that's not even counting the spam. It's just a side effect of the post-dot-com diaspora. That severance check goes further almost anywhere other than here, and they're out there seeing just how far it can go.

Another one of my correspondents, who fled San Francisco for Shanghai, leaving behind a vacant $2600-a-month loft, writes about the $8-an-hour massages he's been getting at the hands of the blind in China. "The blind have been massaging the Chinese for thousands of years in the belief that their heightened sense of touch gives them an almost supernatural skill when it comes to massage," he reports.

He enjoyed his most recent massage after staying out until 5:30 a.m. dancing with a girl he'd just met. After the $8 tune-up, the two of them went back to her place to watch a $1.25 pirated DVD of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. But he told me to keep my mouth shut about all of this, since he wouldn't want "to inspire some insipid San Franciscans to move over here. That is the last motherfucking thing that this city needs."

He's not the only one out there who's annoyed at the prospect of running into more wandering e-commerce exiles. One Bay Area traveler, just back from Thailand, says with disgust that there are beaches where you can't lay down your towel without tossing sand on a displaced, out-of-work Internet type just in from San Francisco or New York. Yet somehow all those nouveau colonialists find time between sleeping off hangovers and getting up to no-good to e-mail news of their adventures to friends back home, trapped in our old workaday routines.

My man in Kazakhstan tallies the damage to his dwindling severance with love. His best girl (of less than three weeks) has a new pair of $200 sunglasses and a pair of $120 knee-high black boots. "Do you know how much $200 is in Kazakhstan?" he writes, incredulous at his own bad behavior. His monthly rent over there is just $150, but now he's covering her rent, too. Plus there's the $105 he spent to get her computer fixed.

That's right: In San Francisco he was just one more unemployed hack. In Kazakhstan he's a big-spending playboy with his own very own kept woman.

Never mind that his lady is technically still married to some British guy. Until a few weeks ago this husband was still sending her money to try to win her back. Also there's her 42-year-old British sugar daddy boyfriend, with a wife and three kids back in London, who just cut her off a few months ago. Then there are the irksome phone calls during dinner from a certain married American marine, one of the ones who guard the embassy.

Naturally, he wants to rescue her from all of this, even though he knows it's stupid. He can't help himself. He's thinking of using his frequent-flier miles to bring her to the states, just for a visit, he swears. Apparently, the pirated DVD of Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl has not yet made it to Kazakhstan.

"As your friend, I feel that I have to tell you that this is all a very bad idea," I I.M. back to him from my cubicle here in San Francisco. "Now, WHAT did you do last night?"

E-mail Katharine Mieszkowski at kmad2000@hotmail.com.