Monday, January 20, 2014

Some Common Sense Hints for Expats in Far Away Places

article from March 16, 2011
By Jamie Douglas

Whether you have chosen to live on foreign shores on your own for whatever reasons, or your multi-national corporation has decided to transfer you to some godforsaken hole because there are minerals there to be exploited, one thing we all have in common: we are on foreign soil, exuding the wealth and power of the colonial nations. The USA, being considered a superpower by even the lowliest camel herder in Timbuktu, might as well have been a colonial power with the influence it projects – No insult at all intended to the camel herders in Timbuktu, or any other members of Bedouin tribes that roam the inhospitable terrain of the Sahara and Sahel regions, as I did half a lifetime ago. I learned that these people, while surviving on the fringe of civilization, are not so isolated as to not know about world events. But of course, most of you will be living in conditions that are far better than the above mentioned. So, if you find yourself and your immediate family suddenly uprooted from Houston or New York, enter the adventure with open mind and heart.

First of all, familiarize yourself with the culture you are about to be immersed in. Understand that there are many different customs around the planet, and not all of them will tolerate your teenage daughter running to town in shorts and tank top. It may seem like a very backward thing to people who are used to exposing as much skin as is legal in the USA, but in Islamic countries, for example, such displays are considered blasphemous and in direct violation of the law. Hopefully, your human resources department will have briefed you on the essentials before dispatching you to into the great unknown.

In spite of the damage done by the Bush II administration, people still interact on a very personal level, so if you are a tolerant, non-judgmental individual, whether in high school or management, people will accept and befriend you, and you will be invited to their homes (reciprocate!). You will learn a great deal about the country and its history and culture, which in many instances is incredibly ancient and rich. Encourage your children to befriend kids of their age group, and bring them into your home to expose them to a little bit of your own culture. I found that my daughter Aimee was my cultural ambassador, no matter where we went. That, of course, led to social interactions with her friends’ parents and other relatives, as sometimes, several generations live in the same modest home.

The most amazing thing happened to Julie and me toward the end of the Reagan-inspired civil war in Nicaragua. We were on the way to Costa Rica, and having crossed the border from Honduras into Nicaragua late in the day, after a stop at the duty-free store, where we bought several bottles of Nicaragua’s best, Flor de Caña Gran Reserva (aged 7 years) Rum, we arrived in Ocotal, where the former hotel was closed, the swimming pool having been the site of the execution of 17 Sandinistas, with the blood stains and bullet holes still clearly visible.

After searching around the town, we discovered that the only people able to offer us shelter were the proprietors of one of the local whorehouses. Well that was that, and we were not disturbed by it, so I got Julie a room while I spent the night in our van parked inside the courtyard surrounded by the chickens and pigs running loose in the yard, right next to the donkey.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. So, after claiming our few square meters in the Casa de Ill Repute, we bought some bottles of that fine Nicaraguan beer, Toña, sat on the curb outside the gate, and sure enough, very soon, a group of people collected around us. We decided to break out the rum as well as the Stolichnaya Vodka we also acquired at the duty free, which led to many new friendships, without a hostile syllable being directed toward us, and we all agreed that it was not really the people of Nicaragua against the people of the United States. It came down to a simple matter that someone summed up perfectly as “your fucked-up government against our fucked-up government!”

And that is the life of expatriates. We never know what kind of curveballs the US State Department may throw against our host country. But by befriending the locals and mixing with them, absorbing some of their culture and allowing them to share in some of ours, things should stay on an even keel, unless, of course, you suddenly find yourself between factions in a civil war, such as what has unfolded in Libya.

No matter where you end up, try to blend in. Drive the kind of car the locals tend to drive. Leave your Suburbans, Yukons and Hummers in storage, and try not to stand out too much. You can be a goodwill ambassador for your country by not displaying excessiveness and reaching out to others in friendship. It may pay off for future generations who will not think of norteamericanos only as the imperialists that came and looted the mineral riches of their countries.

Treat your international neighbors like you would treat your family!

Jamie Douglas

[Image of Ocotal, Nicaragua, via Spanish Wikipedia]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.