Friday, January 20, 2006

Status and Impressions

I have, on several occasions, read the writings of ladies who were wives of American officers, and who spent a large chunk of their lives accompanying their husbands on their overseas postings. They would describe their lives in Germany, Japan, and other such locations with the most positive of terms. The people were lovely, the cultural experience, overall, was priceless and the hospitality of the local population was unmatched. Everybody was so friendly and welcoming. They had learned some of the local culture and language, too. Then, they went back home after having seen how great people in those countries were, taking with them precious memories that would now last a lifetime.

Of course, they had a great time. They did not stay in a country that was an enemy of the US. Not at the time, at least. Both Germany and Japan had been conquered during WWII and they now very much respect the winner- the American military, that is. The wives, and their army or air force spouses, too, were taken care of by the US government, and had not become a burden on the local economy. The couples and their children, if with them, basically represented Uncle Sam while in those countries, or, at least, this is how many local people saw their role: they were America to them, the powerful, the wealthy, the unbeatable. As such, they were most certainly well treated. It sure had helped again that none of those countries were at war with the US, and that the US bases there were not under attack at the moment. Because if they had been stationed there when a war was going on, they would have had a different impression of the place; that is, if the wives had been allowed to be there to begin with.

Of course, most of the people around the bases were very helpful - they had already gotten used to the presence of the troops and learned to deal with them. Many had even opened businesses there to cater to the military personnel and were now waiting on them hand and foot as these have become a source of income.

These women and their husbands did not have to go into the local community and look for a job. They were not poor immigrants or foreign laborers. They were respectable envoys of a mighty nation. Now, if they had been wives of Turkish workers coming to Germany to make a living and compete with the local labor force for scarce employment, and thus take jobs from the Germans, they may not have been so thrilled about the hospitality of the people. If in Japan, instead of being a robust US military officer, you had been a poor nobody coming alone to look for a job as an English teacher or someone like that, without having the proper connections and introductions, you would have seen a different Japan- a suspicious and mistrustful one, xenophobic and rude. Or, if you had been brought in as a Korean colonial subject to do manual labor for the Japanese Imperial Government, you would not have to say much about the affability and charm of the Japanese people. Most probably you would have thought that you had ended up in the Hades and were now surrounded by devils and other such demons.

Your efforts to fit into the local culture would also be appreciated in different ways depending on your status. A high-ranking officer in the US military who speaks some Japanese or German will be praised for his efforts and very much appreciated. A poor immigrant worker, on the other hand, who is looking for a job there, will probably be told that he has an ugly accent, and that he is dumb, even though he may speak the language much better than the officer. So, depending on one’ s status and what one symbolizes to the locals, one’s impressions of the country will vary. A nation that seems to be populated by cultured and friendly people to one group, will appear to be a hateful hell-hole to others, a place from which they would want to escape as soon they possibly could.

Many places in the world are like that- people there respect whom they see as the powerful, the rich and of high status, even if they had been enemies in the past. However, few there have any regard or even pity for those poorer than they are, and who are coming to the country to do hard work to help their families back home. You will often than not be scorned and treated like dirt. And, depending upon in which category you will find yourself in a foreign country, you will either take with you fond memories of wonderful encounters with a fascinating culture, or seething resentment and even outright boiling hatred of your oppressors. It just depends on who and what you are and what you are doing there.

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