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.