On Unreasonable Expectations

There is a reoccurring theme which you come across in expat life whereby one is expected to refrain from saying anything negative about the country you’re living in.  It is worth looking at this in more detail.

It strikes me as odd the idea that a condition of entry into a country is adopting a positive opinion of it.  I think the argument runs along the lines of “you have come here out of choice and for your own benefit, and therefore you should be grateful”.  But this applies equally to people working anywhere.  Are you forced to come to the office every day?  No.  You have the option of posting videos of you singing “Little Red Caboose” on the internet and trying to live on the ad revenue, but instead you’ve chosen to come to the office.  Is coming to the office for your own benefit?  Most surely, or you wouldn’t come, would you?

So should all office workers be expected to adopt a positive opinion of the workplace?  What about factory workers?  What about factory workers in China or Bangladesh?  Can their employers demand their workers only hold positive opinions about the conditions of work on the grounds that if they don’t like it they can f*ck off elsewhere?

Let’s expand it a little.  If a bloke from Twickenham takes a job in Mile End, is he thereafter expected to express no negative opinions about London’s East End?  Does he forfeit that right by virtue of his taking a job there, when he had the option of working locally?

Let’s expand it a little more.  If our chap from Twickenham takes a job in Liverpool, does he have to like it?  Or does a Scouser working in London have to like the place?

I know dozens of people who don’t like London, but that’s where the work is and so that’s where they stay.  They get out when they can, and they look forward to the day they leave.  Is this an insult to Londoners?  Should such people be banned from working in London, if they have the temerity to opine that London is a bit of an overpriced shithole?

Of course not.  But cross a national border, and all of a sudden one is expected to like it or leave.  Well, the world is a bit more complicated than that.  Where you live is just one factor in one’s overall happiness: family, future, health, wealth, job satisfaction, friendships all contribute too.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that being happy with your overall lot does not in itself mean you have to like where you’re living right now.  It helps if you do, but it’s not a precondition.

It is interesting to note that some people think that you should be positive about a country if you are paid to be there, and the more you are paid the more you should be grateful.  Which is an interesting concept.  I generally find the more I am paid to be somewhere, the less I like it.  Nobody paid me to go to Thailand, Germany, or Lithuania.  I have friends who were paid to fight in Afghanistan with the Royal Marines.  They said it was a shithole.  Should they have consulted their pay-packets and said it wasn’t?  I can understand if somebody has moved somewhere permanently to live, independent of work, and then complains he doesn’t like it.  At the very least, you could question why they went there.  But paying somebody to go somewhere or do something and then demanding they enjoy it?  I hope these people don’t ever visit a prostitute.

The thing is, in my line of work the pay increases in line with the hardship or difficulty of the location (in theory, anyway).  So the happiness/compensation ratio remains roughly the same wherever you are.  People in a nice place will complain about their meagre salary, people paid well will complain about the place being a dump.  If the former is acceptable, why not the latter?

Yes, people who go to hardship locations go for the money.  I presume you don’t go to the office simply because daytime TV is crap?  But in most hardship locations it’s less a case of going there because the money is good than being persuaded to go there because that’s where somebody (supposedly) needs you, and here’s a load of money to make you say yes.  Chances are, if foreigners are paid a lot of money to work in your country, few of them really want to be there.  If they did, you wouldn’t need to pay them so much.

Then there’s the “When in Rome…” argument, which is valid – to a point.  Firstly, foreigners are often employed in Rome for the precise reason they are not Romans.  If I was expected to adopt wholesale the working practices of Kuwaitis, Russians, and Nigerians in my respective overseas postings, then my employers neglected to tell me.  I rather suspect I wasn’t.  Secondly, beyond complying with the law, being reasonably well-mannered to individuals in a face-to-face situation, and not causing embarrassment or awkwardness on the part of the locals you meet in person, I don’t see foreigners as having any obligation to behave in any particular manner.

Wherever I am in the world, I generally try not to embarrass people or make them feel awkward by breaching etiquette, trampling roughshod over cultures and customs, and broaching taboo subjects.  But there is a world of difference between avoiding upsetting somebody in your immediate vicinity – who often has a situation thrust upon him – and avoiding making remarks in a general context where there is no individual present who doesn’t have the option of ignoring you.  For example, I don’t criticise religion in front of Nigerians, I’d not discuss the concept of hereditary monarchy with a Thai, I go along with the superstitions of the Russians, and I’d not bring up politics with an American work colleague.  Unless the individual has made it known that he’s up for some robust discussion, then I avoid making them feel awkward or that they need to defend themselves, their country, or their culture.

But on a blog?  Sorry, it’s fair game.  If you feel awkward, then close the browser.  You feel offended?  Tough shit.  Read something else.  Argue your case in the comments or elsewhere to your heart’s content, but nobody has any right to demand I adjust my opinions in order to make strangers in an altogether different location feel less uncomfortable.  Respect is something earned, not demanded, and it certainly isn’t earned by making somebody jump through umpteen bureaucratic hoops at great expense before grudgingly issuing him a visa.

Robust discussion.  I mentioned it before.  Some nationalities have thicker skins than others, and it’s interesting to see who has what in this regard.  There are some nationalities who tolerate almost no criticism of any aspect of their country from foreigners, even if they happen to be in agreement.  It is an interesting measure of how comfortable a nation is with themselves, and the results aren’t always what you’d expect.  Take France, for example.  Fiercely patriotic, see themselves as an alternative to the hegemonic Anglo-Saxons, convinced France is the best country on earth.  But.  As a Brit, I can complain to any Frenchman about the shoddy state of Air France, and he’ll nod in agreement and respond with an anecdote of his own.  I can roll my eyes at the bureaucracy you encounter trying to carry out simple tasks in France – such as open a bank account – and a Frenchman will agree completely.  You can make jokes about the strikes on SNCF and the RER, and they will laugh.  There’s no spluttering outrage and screams of “f*ck off home”.  They accept certain aspects of France are worthy of criticism, and don’t feel the need to defend them.  But what’s more interesting is when you criticise something closer to the heart of a Frenchman: the wine or the food.  Even then, you’re more likely to get a dismissive wave of the hand and a “Pah!  He eez Breeteesh, what would he know about food and wine, furking feesh and cheeps!” than a foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobic rant.  The French are comfortable enough with themselves and their culture that, on an individual level, they don’t feel the need to defend it when some ignorant foreigner comes along.  Who the hell cares what he thinks?

There are few countries like this, and most are large, old, and have an established identity going back centuries.  For all of Australia’s rough-and-ready “harden the f*ck up” stance, they often don’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  The Aussies love to call us Whinging Poms, but its overuse speaks volumes.  Okay, if a Brit moves here to seek a better life and spends the whole time complaining about how shit it is, then the term is apt (and I suspect this is where it originated).  But I see it used more often to avoid acknowledging that this foreigner might actually have a point.  Somebody called me a Whinging Pom when I complained that the internet in the hotel cost A$27.50 for 24hrs (which was capped, and they take care not to advertise the rate on their website), again when I pointed out that supermarket wine is 4 times the price it is in Paris, and once more for not showing sufficient enthusiasm for the notion that Melbourne is a fantastic city.  Now if the Aussies are happy being fleeced at every point and turn and genuinely think that everyone should fall in love with their cities then fair enough.  But an Aussie complaining about London’s parking charges, the cost of petrol, and declaring Manchester to fall somewhat short of fantastic wouldn’t find himself accused by Brits of being…well, anything.  They’d probably agree.

Indeed, the Whinging Pom epithet thing seems have turned into a parody of Australians more than a criticism of Brits.  This post – which was quite obviously a joke – was seized upon in the comments by a semi-literate Australian whose first remark was that he and his countrymen would be happy to see me on the boat back home.  Can you see the French saying that?  Or the Germans?  Me neither.

(Incidentally, one day somebody will write a book on how a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants managed within a few generations to create a society where “fuck off back on the boat you came in on” was considered acceptable mainstream opinion.  In the UK it’s thankfully confined to knuckle-dragging skinheads wearing swastikas.)

So here’s the thing.  Life is complicated folks, and opinions vary.  Some people think cricket – which I love – is a boring, waste of time, and I think they are ignorant fools.  But it doesn’t bother me, and I would not expect a waitress serving the gins at Lords to refrain from saying that it’s a silly game and anyway Cook can’t bat for shit since he assumed the captaincy when she’s posting on Facebook in the evening.  Not everything need be taken as a personal insult, you know.

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14 Responses to On Unreasonable Expectations

  1. Bardon says:

    Hey if you really want to see some good old Aussie bashing, then you must go over and see TNA’s writings at The New Australian http://thenewaustralian.org/.

    He has a black belt in this art and makes all other critiques appear like an Australian Tourist Board release in comparison.

  2. Every now and then, I have a conversation in London with some Brit who asks me why I chose to leave Australia, often expressed with a sense of wonder given what a crap place said Brit thinks London is and what a paradise he believes Australia to be. I then explain the things I don’t like about Australia, and then the Brit responds with “How can you criticise your own country like that?”, despite the fact that he himself has been criticising his own country with rather more vehemence than I have been using for most of the conversation. Brits don’t have a problem with your criticising their country, but sometimes get annoyed with you if you don’t participate in criticising it enough.

    (I hope you appreciate the fact that you have supermarket wine in Melbourne, by the way. Supermarkets are not allowed to sell it in much of the country).

  3. dh says:

    Tim,

    Get used to it, it’s the Australian way! Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi,Oi,Oi. Vomit!

    Say anything against RE at a BBQ and you’ll be in a fight double quick time and in need of your Royal Marine mates.

  4. Joe Blow says:

    +1 for TNA, most amusing and way way over the heads of the locals.

    The ‘wrap the flag around me’ responses on the Nigerian entry was most amusing. Having worked with both good and bad from Nigeria.
    The faux outrage was unsurprising and to be expected, you need to count your fingers after shaking hands with those.

  5. Bardon says:

    I’m not so sure dh, I think those lads from the Royal Marines will be flat out retreating from their 4-0 defeat in Afghanistan before they can devote some of their time to barbecue protection duties down under.

  6. Tim Newman says:

    The Royal Marines fought in the Afghan Wars?! You’ve really gotta start reading history books, mate.

  7. Bardon says:

    The point is that Afghanistan are now 4-0 up against the Poms in the war winning stakes, and after what happened during their past defeats and the outright shame of Basra, they are feeling the pressure in trying to retreat with what little honour is left. It’s not exactly what they would call their finest hour at the moment, so your RM mates wont be on barbecue duty for a while, thats all.

  8. Tim Newman says:

    Nothing like a bit of amateur online psychological diagnosis, is there? I mean, it’s a growing field, full of credibility, but I’ve never seen it applied to Royal Marines by a bloke in Australia before!

  9. TNA says:

    Cheers for the hat-tip Bardon and Joe Blow.

    Tim,

    You’re a braver man than me, Gunga Din; I write under a nom de plume. Mainly for two reasons;

    1. My industry is very small and I need a new job every 6 months or so. If a Google search of my name brings up anything unsavoury or controversial, I wouldn’t get gigs.
    2. The Australians are not the frontier nation they would have you believe and, in fact, generally have gossamer-like skins when it comes to receiving even the mildest of joshing or jibes.

    The Nigerian post was a classic. My Pakistani friends like to remind me about the UN corruption register which details the worst countries for corruption. Pakistan is often in 2nd place and Nigeria takes top spot.

    Of course, Pakistan bribed Nigeria to take 1st place though…….

  10. Jane says:

    The point isn’t that people have to like your rude generalisations and new colonialist posts on Nigeria. The point is if you can’t see how your posts on Nigeria specifically are offensive then you really should be writing in a diary and not in a blog for the world to see. Making further generalisations about which nationalities can and can’t ‘take’ your ‘opinions’ is arrogant and a passive aggressive way to deal with the issue. Conversely if you’re going to ‘blog’ in a public forum (it doesn’t get more public than the Internet) then you should be able to take negative feedback without posting and reposting addendums or rejoinders. You are not God and your word is not fact – news flash.
    If you’re so confident that referring to Nigerians as ‘the lads that used to work for you’ or saying ‘getting used to the Nigerians’ (or words to that effect) is ok and not in fact derogatory or reflective of a neo colonialist approach or mindset, put the blog posts back up! Oh and this is just my ‘opinion’, you don’t have to like it of course.

  11. Adelabi says:

    Tim, why did you unpublish the Nigeria post. Been reading since Friday and it is one we need as a reminder of how low we have gone.

    Minding the naysayers isn’t the best option Tim. People who think Lads is derogatory need their education questioned.

    I’m living in Lagos and people complain everyday but never bold enough to speak out to this criminals in power but take up arms against those who speak for them. Isn’t this ironic and stupid?

    Tim don’t be surprised, some of those commenting are agents of the oppressors. So many of them now have online goons that they pay to counter whatever thing that counters them or say the truth about the country.

    Its a shame Tim, BIG one.

    You now have a fan in me Tim.

  12. Tim, is this why the commentary — End of an Assignment in Nigeria — disappeared?

    HKT

  13. TNA says:

    “Corruption is endemic in Nigeria = neo colonialist, eh Jane?

    Brilliant. I bet you’re one of those people who suffer from terrible vifence, aren’t you?

  14. Ugbake Eguegu says:

    Dear Jane. I respect your passion and get why you are upset. Having said that, and I could be slammed for poking my head in this matter, Tim has only shared what he experienced/feels following his 3 year stay in Nigeria. I went to America (5days, Q2, 2012) and was treated very badly by an American impound lot manager whose attitude was so terrible; I have been utterly put off the country! I find Houston TX unrealistic, boring, loud and not as intimate as London or Zanzibar for that matter. Why can’t I say this in my blog? I have been in Nigeria now for 5 years after a spending some time in the UK but still get nostalgic anytime I hear some good UK music (e.g. Florence + The Machine). I miss my Victorian flat in Richmond, the park I used to spend a lot of time when I had a few days off and still hope I could eat the scones I used to get from my local Sainsburys every single morning, even though I’m now back in Lagos. Tim did not create Nigeria, we did. If his experience was blissful, I’m sure he would have said so as I have of my Richmond experience. I fell in love with Richmond not out of a mandate but out of an experience I had, which Tim says he did not have in Nigeria. And to be honest that I have not had in the 5 years I have been back. I hardly go out because I end up feeling stressed when I do simply because Lagos is not organised! A few mins from my house, there is a stationary police van that hosts Eight AK47 armed policemen who are prepped to stop and harass people without any solid reason only so they can be satisfactorily bribed. Last week, my neighbour’s security men decided to burn the bush outside her house, which had some old tires in it and ended up filling my entire house with so much smoke that my house smelt life a bonfire for a week. Guess what, on Monday evening (this week) after my house started smelling OK again, they burnt the bush once more (even though I asked them not to the 1st time they did this). Please what do we expect Tim to appreciate and celebrate? And mind you even if there are things to celebrate he still reserves the right not to do so on his own blog. What do we want him to do, Lie? I took our son who recently visited from the UK around Lagos and there was not much to show him. Apart from a guy selling meat (raw liver) to passengers in a mini-bus as they drove under a bridge in Marina. The young boy almost passed out! By 4pm our National Museum at Onikan was closed…4pm?! I took him to our National Theatre and was harassed by a big guy who said we cannot take pictures outside the National Theatre??? Not pictures of artefacts o…the National Theatre itself! See Jane, I have a cousin that had to move to Ghana because his only daughter was kidnapped in PHC a few years ago. Now, we will say this also happens in the UK and we would be right. The only difference though is ours is never gets covered adequately and theirs becomes an event of national coverage and concern, usually with a perpetrator brought to justice. In my view, we should appreciate Tim for being honest (unlike the foreigners who open Porsche showrooms in Lagos to take away our small monies whilst telling us what we want to hear) and know that he has every right to be. You see if people of his conscience and quality did not fight their monarchs and rulers in the early to mid 1900s we would possibly be only 10million Africans in total today because they would have wiped us out and completely and taken ALL our lands! If we follow your logic and expectations, none like Tim ought to have stood up then and called it like it was. We have work to do! When people criticise me, I look inward and change what needs to be changed. I suggest we do the same because the man has not lied!

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