Can you hack it?
Anthony Bispham, a Briton who learned the hard way to live overseas, differs from the previous author and writes an exposé more in line with the “swim or sink” approach to life.
In the previous article, the author refers to what is now called “culture shock,” a term which I find extremely grating, and as someone with a span of 30 years living and working for extended periods in ten of the developing, and sometimes downright uncivilized countries, I feel I can speak from a modicum of experience.
I can confidently say that I have never been conscious of experiencing “culture shock.” I have, however, always been aware that I must be prepared to adapt to different environments and ways of life. I can also say the same for my wife, who nearly always has accompanied me.
When I was young and had been pushed into one of the “respectable” professions, I had to decide whether I wished to pursue my career overseas —Britain still had the vestiges of an Empire— or within the United Kingdom.
I had always been fascinated by the stories of expatriates. They described the different customs and practices, the religions, the diseases, the food, the violence and, indeed, the smells. It was overseas for me and I joined a company that operated in different areas of the world. I sat in their London head office for nearly three years being watched. Sunburnt individuals who I only knew as names on a cable would occasionally pass through the office. I envied them. They were the cream of the organization who were trusted to work on their own initiative, looking after the company’s interests in foreign parts.
One day I was called to the company secretary’s office. “There’s a vacancy in West Africa,” he said, “we think you can probably handle it. We are going to give you a try.” I had made the grade! They thought I was good enough to work overseas.
Within a month I was in Africa and, after another, my wife joined me with a five month old baby. London early in the morning; three hops later, they went to bed that same night in the bush.
“Culture shock...” the expression had not yet been coined. We were new to the life but the old hands were willing to explain the rules. We had little or no electricity, nor air conditioning, very few imported items, all the water had to be boiled and then filtered, and we had to learn to communicate in a form of English akin to a foreign language.
The first night my wife arrived she found a three inch cockroach in the bedroom. “Are there many of those here?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, “millions.” “Oh,” she said and that was that. She joined the Corona Society, a long established organization for British women that combined social activities with “good works” and “learned the ropes.”
We became members of the club and learned to drink like fish (it was compulsory), deal with crafty African servants, outwit the corrupt police, and live safely in a violent society which held human life of little value. At the end of that tour we could hold our heads high. We were West Africa hands, having survived one of the hardest “schools” in the world. After that, everything else just had to be downhill and it was, except for two more tours back in West Africa.
It did not enter our heads that we were experiencing “culture shock.” We were adapting to a different way of life. The idea of failure did not occur to us because we found the whole thing fascinating and to fail meant that your overseas career was finished. No one else would ever employ you because you had not measured up to snuff.
But what do we find nowadays? Employees of foreign companies and organizations, who know nothing about the world in general, being taken off the street and sent to a cushy posting like the Dominican Republic and then finding that even this tranquil and happy society gives them problems. Worse still are the ones that first come here on holiday and then return to what they consider a paradise. You only have to read The NEWS to see the telltale symptoms of the counterfeit expatriate. They moan about the transport system, it’s dangerous. The water, it’s dangerous. The electricity, it’s dangerous. “Oh, look, what dear little exploited shoeshine boys!” “Would you believe the traffic policeman asked me for money?” “The women have such a hard deal.” Where do these newcomers think they are?
Has my family and I had it easy? Well yes, if you call having malaria, being deported, spells in prison, nearly meeting your end in the midst of a striking drugged-up rent-a-mob, being given stewed intestines when seriously ill in a bush hospital, coping with endemic corruption and violent crime, being kicked out of your house in the night, two dramatic motor accidents, and encountering death in all its saddest and gory forms easy.
No one knew about this so-called “culture shock” until the mid-seventies. At that time I was in the Arabian Gulf. We needed two hundred engineers and foremen. The building of the Gulf’s infrastructure was then in full spate and it was difficult to recruit properly seasoned people, even for a company paying high salaries and with a century of overseas tradition. There were simply not enough old timers around, so we were forced to recruit novices or, as they are known in my world, rabbits.
We had many failures, four or five actually losing their minds and being evacuated under sedation with medical escorts. It cost us money, and in common with other companies at the time, our London office was approached by an organization that said it specialized in preparing employees for overseas life.
Our directors, who were old overseas hands themselves, decided it was worth investigating. Their conclusion? It was an attempt by poseur rabbits to make money out of other rabbits. Nevertheless, for a time this organization made a very nice profit from naive companies.
I believe that most of today’s "culture shock" problems stem from the fact that people are recruited from backgrounds without a tradition of overseas service, and with only a cursory prior assessment by people who do not know what they should be assessing. I have even worked with one Dutch company which forced its domestic employees to work overseas under pain of redundancy.
They were always in trouble, had no inkling of how to relate to the natives and even those that lasted more than a year of perceived misery, then went home for good when their children reached the age of eleven. Boarding school, something which we and our children had no difficulty in accepting, could not be contemplated.
If you are going to succeed in the expatriate way of life, you must have a burning desire to “hack it.” You must also remember that outside of Northern Europe and even more so, North America, life by comparison runs from the less organized to total anarchy. If you do not revel in it, stay at home. If you find yourself thinking that life is better in your own country, go home.
If you believe the hyped-up stories of the rabbits who are pretending that they are making it, e.g., all foreigners are going to be kicked out, there will be a revolution next month, start packing. If social inequality and an unfair distribution of wealth plays on your conscience, go back and sort out those very same problems in your own country. Do not be tempted to meddle in other people’s societies—you will probably do more harm than good. If everything gets on top of you to the extent that you feel the need to seek the advice of a professional therapist, perhaps you are just not cut out to be an expatriate.
If you are lucky enough to be in the Dominican Republic, the easiest and happiest country I have ever lived in, and still feel that you need to seek therapy, ask yourself why you cannot rationalize and solve your own problems.
Therapy is an industry which encourages people to use its services, rather than summon up their own strengths to cope with life. The therapist might say, “but all we do is help them develop those strengths.” Maybe, but that is something that should have been sorted out long ago during one’s formative years. As many schools now employ their own therapists, under the guise of counselors, then it is little wonder that some never learn to stand on their own two feet.
Self reliance is a fundamental requirement of life and one of the best ways to develop it is to consider yourself a bit of an ass, if, and I exclude clinical conditions, you have to run to a therapist. By that, I do not mean you should not seek the benefit of others’ experience.
Maybe I come from a hard school, but its graduates are people to whom I can relate. They can be relied upon to pull together and help each other. When it comes to making their own entertainment they are the best. As for helping and contributing to the local community, they are second to none, but it is done without interfering with the traditional order. They broach no nonsense from petty officialdom and would rather spend an hour by the roadside than pay a bribe to a policeman. They acknowledge very few “no-go” areas and refuse to be bullied. They approach each country with almost no pre-conceptions but their experience tells them what to look for in order to gain a rapid understanding of their environment.
Following are my recommendations for those who wish to “hack it.”
1. Always remember that you are the foreigner and be hard with yourself.
2. This very short life always has a humorous side, enjoy it.
3. Talk to experienced expatriates. Do not listen to “know it all” rabbits.
4. Speaking the local language sometimes helps, but it is far more important to understand local values and other basic forms of communication.
5. Look for all the ways life in your country of residence is better than that in your own. In my experience, the less developed a country is, the more there are.
6. Recognize that as an expatriate you are superior to those who stay cozily at home.
7. Read no books about “cultural” transition. Read all the books you can find about the country’s history, especially any past relationships, whether good or bad, with your own.
8. Never make assumptions about a new location, a trap that even the very experienced can fall into.
9. Remember that you are lucky to be living in a different environment. You have the opportunity given only to a minority to broaden your outlook beyond the restricted values of your own society. You are sacrificing nothing, only receiving.
How do you know when you have made it? When you are told that you have a week to pack two suitcases because you are being transferred to Zwechsutoland and only have one question: Is it dry?.