We prepare for months to move into communities where we will be the only Americans. We are taught the importance of shedding our privilege and pretense, and are given the skills to accomplish the same. Sustainability is our middle name. Cultural sensitivity, our constant concern. Respect, empowerment, preservation – we have PHD’s in all these subjects. This is what we’ve come for. We are straight professionals at judging anyone who comes off as “too American.”
But what fun would the ex-pat life be without cultural exchange? Where’s the harm – and isn’t there even a lot of benefit? – in goofing off around a fire, sharing recipes and funny accents and style. The 90’s top-pop-hits deserve to be shared (!) and aren’t multi-racial dance parties the best way to bond with your new friends anyway?
And bond we do, and life is groovy and we’re feeling more confident with each passing day. All the training and theory and conviction grows roots and sprouts wings and mixes all the development metaphors, as it turns into a kind of third-culture tie-die project in real life.
We all have to make it over the one-year hump, but once the wind catches your sails, and you can just glide? The life overseas sure gets good.
Speaking for the hubs and I, years and years later, our convictions never did change – our friends’ didn’t either – but the stories around us have diverged from our common campfire start.
I don’t believe one can honestly assess the good he or she has done without equally assessing the bad. This is where I’ve found myself milling about as of late. Perhaps it’s because we just submitted our year-end report (obviously focusing on the good). Or because I recently celebrated my ten year anniversary in this country! Or perhaps it’s because we’ve come face to face with a series of unfortunate examples recently… Whatever the cause, I’m thinking a lot about this ambiguous expat life and trying to evaluate not only my obvious highs but also my lurking lows.
It was several years ago that a friend reached out to me. There wasn’t really a “point” to her message, per se – as in, she wasn’t telling me to “stop doing this” or “start doing that,” but was sharing a meditation of sorts – the concerns of her soul, through which she shared some thoughts and feelings for me to appraise. I forget her wording, but the sentiment has stuck with me. There’s something about your life that feels risky. I just think it’s dangerous when Americans move into an African community and try and “do good.”
My naive and arrogant self was offended. Sister. Friend. I’m not like “those people” – do you not trust me? Can you not see for yourself? Respect, culture, friendship… do no harm – these are tattooed on my heart.
Unfortunately, her admonition came too early in my career. I hadn’t developed the core competency of self-evaluation, and I truly thought that my convictions were enough to hold me to a good standard. But thankfully, all good seeds eventually bear fruit and despite my botched reply, (I’m sorry), I couldn’t un-read those original words and they’ve grown into a larger script – a cautionary tale, as I’ve learned to see how dangerous the overseas existence truly is.
I remember my first afternoon in Fimpulu with embarrassing clarity. My earliest memory in this place is that of casting judgment on an inadequate structure at the clinic, mentioning to my translator, that, “that would need to be changed” and continuing on as if someone had actually invited me to audit anything at all.
In those early days, I spent not enough time asking questions, and far too much time providing answers. A year or two later, I grew disillusioned because things were, in large part, staying quite the same, even though I had expected my presence to be the end of that.
There were myriad times I spoke too fast because I need you to know how smart I am. Broke custom because give me a break people. Disregarded concerns because let me tell you how the developed world does it.
Colonialism comes in all forms – action and attitude – and at various times I have been guilty of both. Lament and repent – there’s been plenty of that – but what has returned me to my friend’s word of caution has been my painful realization that colonialism comes so very easily.
I’ve seen it in my own experience as in so many others. We spend so much time getting in, going deep. Sharing space and stories and the stuff of life. We laugh enough to build bridges and break bread (can you “break nshima?) enough to superglue our relational bonds. But what comes next is where it gets tricky: The growing relationship breeds a certain security and we expats let loose a little, showing our colors (maybe even our knees). We talk more freely and less filtered, capitalizing on our new and exciting “insider status.” It all starts to feel familiar – like home. Expat nirvana, or something equally disorienting.
Reflecting on ten years and observing how different situations have drawn out of me a more pronounced colonialism, I assert this equation as “fact”:
Culture + relationships + collaboration – extreme vigilance = accidental colonialism
You and I are friends and we both want development here and we work so well together and so CLEARLY all the words coming out of my mouth are brilliant and thank you for agreeing with me totally I’m so excited this is great! Wanna take a selfie to commemorate this moment?
And the resentment builds and the effectiveness wanes because the American has stopped tip-toeing around and has gone full-tilt star spangled banner but the host culture won’t say anything because, culture, … and the damage is done.
We’ve seen it in ourselves – Jeremy and I both have – and in countless others as well. I cannot even tell you how many groups I’ve chaired where I led us down a culturally irrelevant path… for years… before I figured out it wasn’t working and everyone else responded with, oh thank heavens! We’ve been waiting for you to realize how terrible your idea was! I scrolls thorough the “annals of hubris” in my brain and I revisit all the times that I have imposed timed decision making, facilitated “say you’re sorry” conflict resolution, or lectured egalitarian principles as marriage counseling. In many cases these are great ideas! If only they were instituted in an American context and had any relevance to my neighbors at all.
Not long ago, we watched a *could have been beautiful* partnership fall to ruins as a team of Zambians got steamrolled by a better-trained, more-knowledgeable American. The diverse team had a common goal to guide them, but cultural sensitivity was in short supply. The American assumed that because systems and structures and knowledge were obviously lacking that all those things would be universally welcomed… in any form. The pace and style of change were forcefully American – so much so that the Zambian staff couldn’t cope up and had to pull the plug. They acknowledged their co-worker’s competence, but could not get past certain habits – book-based evidence over years of experience, dismissing core Zambian values, insistence on direct communication, inflexibility with schedules and times. It’s like the American doesn’t want to learn from black skin, the Zambians cited. Ouch. Accidental colonialism at its finest.
Still more recently, we endured a unique cultural clash in which Jeremy and I were leading group of Zambians who were staffing an event for a team of Americans. The visitors were running a tightly-scheduled, high-stakes, American-by-all-definitions program and wanted us to help the Zambians get on board by keeping time, participating directly, and ensuring a certain level of precision. After working through a host of complaints, the Americans advised that we take greater care to “build our staff’s capacity” – guidance that fell somewhat flat as we sympathized more with our Zambian co-workers, viewing the unmet-expectations not a matter of capacity but of a differing value system. (America-splaning is a real skill. Tag that on LinkedIn.)
The truly unfortunate thing is that neither of these situations was ever properly debriefed. Communicating failure to the well-intentioned foreigner is not the easiest.
Um hi, you are accidentally imposing your cultural presuppositions on the host culture, which means you are accidentally colonizing an otherwise valid mission.
We’ve seen more than one American take offense that the Zambian counterpart never confronted the American with their complaints. Uhhh… Oops again, friends. Even the insistence that “if there’s a problem, it’s your responsibility to come talk to me” is cultural imperialism.
Thanks to time, lots of grace, maturity and observation, I’ve gotten better at hearing my words before they leave my mouth. But what’s more, learning to evaluate my motivation has been the single most important habit I’ve cultivated in ten years abroad. It is a safeguard of sorts, despite needing to be constantly refined. Conscious effort goes a long way, but the subversive nature of culture is that it just IS – without us really realizing its sway over our whole being.
Not a one of us has ever meant to impose, or control or dominate, but many expats falsely assume that as long as they mean well and laugh and love, that they are somehow safe. But in reality, life overseas has more layers than a chocolate parfait, and like my South African calculus teacher used to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
I don’t think that the potential for harm negates the importance of trying. Not at all. When I think back on all that has been accomplished and all the ways that our community has grown, I can conservatively guess that 999 out of 1,000 co-workers and acquaintances would say, it’s been worth it! I am forever indebted, though, to the Americans and Zambians alike who have taught and corrected us, and who walk with us still, ensuring that we do less and less harm with each passing season, for everyone’s sake.