Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Same Language Blues.

Just because a country speaks the same language that you speak, does not mean that it cannot create misunderstandings and embarrassing situations. I was once bounced out of a bar in Australia. This is how it happened: I saw a bar in Sydney as I was walking down the street, and heard music coming from it. I became curious and decided to check it out. In front of it, there was a Fijian-looking bouncer. As I approached the door, I heard him say something that sounded like “right, right”, and I assumed that he wanted me to go in through the right part of the door. I pushed it and walked in. As I was looking at a singer and for a place to sit down, I suddenly felt a strong hand on my shoulder and felt that I was being pushed outside. He was actually very brusque in his behavior and treated me as a bum or a troublemaker. After I was kicked out in such an unceremonious and barbaric fashion, I stared at the bouncer in amazement. He told me that I could not come in in my track pants (I was wearing them because it was very cold out). He said that people inside were all nicely dressed (sneakers and jeans) and that I was not dressed appropriately. I got very upset and told him that I was a tourist and a college instructor and not a bum. He looked very apologetic, and I went back to my hotel, changed into something more decent and went back into the bar. He did let me in this time.

Only one month later I realized what had happened. The words that I thought were “right, right” were in fact “wait, wait!” The Aussies pronounce “wait” as “white”, and my brain automatically converted it into “right” as I boldly stepped into the bar only to be shoved out of it for being inappropriately dressed and not following the instructions of the bouncer.

I also remember vainly looking for a pharmacy in Sydney until it dawned on me that there are no such stores in Oz. They are called “Chemist’s”. And few ladies respond to “ma’m”. I remember trying to get the attention of waitresses and sales clerks and they simply would not respond. I had to yell so that they would simply turn and look at me just because my voice was loud. Aussies do not understand that term, for the most part.


Happiness by Comparison.

When you arrive in a new country, you feel happy because it has many things that your old destination does not. Some SE Asian countries have many beautiful women that you can look at every day and be just happy feasting your eyes on them. Some VNese refugees to the US would say that ‘every day in America was a holiday” for them. Many people from Egypt living in Australia would be ecstatic about how uncrowded and organized the country was.

However, happiness and joy by comparison does not last. OK, you are happy because the new country has so many new advantages but very soon you start taking them for granted and stop noticing them. Six months down the line you start remembering the good things about the old country that you used to take for granted there but they do not exist in the new one. American expats in the Third World begin to realize just how inefficient everything is, how bad the customer service is, the food and other products are of low quality and that there is no place to go and complain about it.

Those moving from Third World countries to the First World ones; after half a year or so, begin seeing just how cold and impersonal everything is, how hard it is to make friends in the new place and how utterly boring life there can be. They also realize that many things that were either free or very cheap back home now cost big money. Sure, they now own a car but they can no longer buy a cheap boat, for example or have servants as they used to back home.

As always, happiness by comparison only lasts for so long. A wise PT expatriate learns not to be swayed either by the initial ecstasy or by the disappointments that set in later. He or she take everything, good and bad, for granted and since he/she is always on the move, the ability to take the good and the bad from every country in stride becomes their shield from serious disillusionments when living in all these different places.

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