Archive for January, 2013

Caught in the Middle

by on Saturday, January 19th, 2013

Fishing net on Xiamen beach (1984 technology)

In 1986 Hong Kong was reported to have more McDonald’s outlets per square mile than any other place in the world. In one of them Mary, a quiet woman in her thirties, talked about the two years she spent on the mainland working for two different companies. Thirty years after her arrival in China, we can still learn from her attempts to straddle the cultural divide, as well as the effect living in a different culture had on her. She has a great sense of humor.

Mary’s story

In 1983, after I finished my Chinese course in Hong Kong, I wanted to live with the language and improve my interpreting skills. I took a job where I would have a lot of contact with the Chinese. Maybe I went there with too many illusions, perhaps because I’d been living in Hong Kong all my life and I’d met a lot of the people who’d been there before the Cultural Revolution. I’d also seen the kind of respect and cooperation they showed the so-called Foreign Experts, who were all very positive. I think I was expecting the same kind of thing. Other people said, “Dear, you mustn’t go there. The country’s poor and broke and miserable, and nobody would want to live like that.”

Most of the time I liked being in Canton. The difficulties were the most interesting things, but on a day-to-day basis I felt at home. Because I speak Chinese I had an “in,” and very soon I was having conversations with everybody. I think as a result of this experience I’ve become a far more open, straight-forward person. I’d assumed there would be things I couldn’t say or do, but that was a mistake. At first I was afraid to give an honest opinion for fear or upsetting somebody. However, l found that once I got to know the individuals, they accepted what I said or did, providing it wasn’t ridiculous or ridiculing. If I didn’t like something, like waiting for an hour to get a menu in a restaurant, I’d say so.

I worked for a partnership of foreign and Chinese petroleum-related companies which provided training to oil company personnel. The training cost a lot. The students were Chinese university graduates who had majored in English. They learned about the oil industry and got some basic office skills so they could work as interpreters and take on assorted office jobs. For the first part of the course, they had one Expert from abroad and other speakers who came in briefly. My job was to interpret at meetings between the Expert and the Chinese and to do all the secretarial work involved. I would go to all the lectures and also provide English conversation practice for the students.

The Chinese provided a basic flat in the school for us to use. The professor refused to live there, but we used it during the day. The outside of the building was brick, but the inside was bare concrete. It had two large bedrooms, a large living room with cane furniture, a bamboo mat on the floor, and a squat toilet. There was running water, but not in the toilet. You had to flush it down with a bucket. Solid waste was supposed to be cleaned out and taken out to the farm, but the toilet was not cleaned in the four months we were there. Only unit leaders used the flat, and there was no way any of them would clean the toilet. They gave us an electric fan. The windows in the classroom were just lattice-works of bricks with no glass. The student dormitory rooms were bare concrete with double bunk-beds and mosquito nets and small tables. The only light was a naked light bulb which was too dim to read by.

Even before we arrived the Chinese had expected the professor would refuse to stay in the flat, so they arranged for two rooms in the White Swan, a five-star international hotel.  There’s a Western coffee shop, and in the Chinese restaurants you get white rice which is white in color and dishes which are fairly rich in meat and vegetables, whereas the school canteen served low-quality rice which was a muddy-grey color. The food was extremely sparse in meat and tasted rather disgusting. If you arrived at 12:00 you might get something substantial, but ten minutes later it would be gone and you’d be left with the very rotten cabbage. I think things have improved since then. In the White Swan, of course, we had air-conditioning and heat. The office equipment, like a photocopier and an electric typewriter and all, was kept in my room.

On a typical day, we’d ride out to the training course, which was a forty-minute trip one way, and spend the morning. Sometimes I’d help get the equipment carried up and down the stairs and set up, and then I’d listen to the professor lecture. Later the students split into groups to discuss what they’d just learnt, and we talked about it. Then we’d go back to the hotel for lunch and come back to give the same lecture to another group. We’d return to the hotel for the night, and I’d type and photocopy materials and order dinner for the speakers. In between we’d have to go to the airport to collect the speakers and make sure they got what they wanted.

For me the difficult part was the interpreting and the liaising because the professor had never been near China before. He was a Scotsman who’d come to China expecting the same kind of efficiency he’d seen in Singapore. I found it very difficult to be in the middle of that situation.  For example, at that time the White Swan was the only hotel for foreigners in Guangzhou. We were living on the eighth floor. The oil companies were just beginning to come in, and  Occidental Oil decided they wanted the whole eighth floor. The night before, the hotel management came and told us we’d have to move in the morning, but for the same rate they offered us a room at the top of the hotel. I thought this was great, but it reduced the man I was working with to a wreck—extreme anger. He said he didn’t want to be treated like that, being told at the last minute that he had to move. I said, “But this is the Chinese way.” If they had a banquet they would always come at 6:00 and say, “Please come to the banquet at 7:00.” For me the anger was one of the hardest things I had to deal with. The lack of knowledge and too high expectations produced anger on both sides.

Oh yes, the Chinese got annoyed at us, too. For example, when we first got there we had a van which belonged to the work unit. Vans were precious, and not every work unit had one.  The first morning the leader said, “We’ll pick you up and take you out there.” We’d told the students to be ready at 9:00. Some time after 8:00 a man picked us up and drove us to his office. At 8:45 we asked what was going on.

“Oh, we have to pick up so-and-so, and we have to drive by there and drop this person off.”

We were thinking about the fact that by not showing up on time we were not keeping our side of the bargain with the students. As far as the leaders were concerned, the students could wait.  There was a lot of that kind of friction all the time.

The driver hadn’t wanted to be a driver. I was always surprised at the way he talked back to his leader and the way he treated us. The students had a long walk from the school to the bus stop in the village. We’d say to the driver, “We’d like the students to have a ride to their bus stop.” He wouldn’t reply. He’d just close his mouth, shut the door, and drive off and leave the students behind. We didn’t realize his leader had told him not to let anybody else ride in the van. Then he’d go back and shout at his leader. I was really surprised at that, because in Hong Kong nobody ever voices any complaints. It’s a job and you do it. In China people believed their job descriptions: “I am the driver.  I drive. I don’t carry luggage.” Or, “I’m a typist. I type.”

We also had problems with ignorance on the Hong Kong side, which never thought of problems like getting equipment into China. We arrived with a photocopier, a tape recorder, a typewriter, and various other pieces of electrical equipment. Hong Kong hadn’t thought to mention to the Chinese that we had all this baggage. At Canton, customs wouldn’t let us in. Fortunately one of the students knew one of the customs officers, so the problem was solved in an hour. After that, every time we had such a problem, that student talked to his friend in customs. The Hong Kong people had no idea how inefficient things were in China, and they didn’t seem to have the knack of communicating with the Chinese. We’d go to the Chinese and say, “We need some [imported] paper for the photocopier.”

“Oh yes, we’ll get you some.”

They never did, so I’d call Hong Kong with a list of what we needed.

“OK, we’ll bring it up on our next trip in two weeks’ time.”

In the meantime we had to do without. It took me a couple of weeks before I understood that you don’t go to the Chinese and tell them what you want. I found out by chance. We had a TV and a video machine for showing cassettes which we kept in the flat at school. The leaders took to staying in the flat since we weren’t using it. One day one of them asked for the key.

“Well, listen,” I said, “I’ll give you the key on one condition—that you leave the TV just as we left it so we won’t have to go through a half-hour hassle.”

He looked at me and said, “You mean it takes half an hour to fix the TV?”

“Yes, it does.”

The leaders looked very guilty. I knew they’d got the message, so I handed over the key. It was just a trade-off, but I said it very politely. They looked at each other and said, “Hey, you know, she’s really being wise today.” They never touched the TV again.

The first part of the course was very intensive—all about petroleum, where to look for it, how to get it, how to produce it. The speakers included engineers, office managers from the oil companies, a contract lawyer. Then the oil part finished, the professor left, and I stayed. Another girl came, and we shared the office work instruction. We talked about offices and filing systems, we taught some typing and shorthand, and we got an accountant to come in and teach some basic accounting.

I talked about things like how to take minutes and how to behave in an office. “Don’t go around spitting out the window. Don’t turn up at the office in your slippers [flip-flops] or your pajamas, don’t just pick up the telephone and say “wei” [hello]. Don’t just sit there chatting. Try to be constructive, even if it’s difficult.” We had some knife and fork discussions because interpreters often have to eat with the person they’re interpreting for. “Don’t eat your fried egg off your knife.” It was just little bits that came in as the situation arose. We had thirty students but only fifteen typewriters, so we did the same session morning and afternoon. I was teaching six hours a day, five days a week.

The instruction was not as effective as it should have been. Since I was working on the petroleum part for three months, I didn’t have time to prepare my own course. In the evening I’d spend four hours preparing for the next day. The Chinese didn’t understand the concept of preparation, but they understood hard work. They would come over to the hotel at 10:00 at night, and I’d be typing, and they would be pleased. “Hey, this is good.  This is what we want.”  But they didn’t know what I was doing or what things we needed. I said, “Look, if the students are going to learn to type, I want them to learn to type properly. These tables are the wrong height.”

They promised some decent tables, but I never saw any.  The students learned to type sitting very precariously on piles of whatever we could find. There problems with the language lab. But the thing was, with the Chinese everything had to be slowly brought to their attention. There was no point in trying to tell them all at once because they wouldn’t take it in until they accepted you.  By the time that happened, the course was finished.

In the first few months in Guanzhou, I enjoyed having people came around and ask for help. I was stuck in the hotel, I had no contacts. I didn’t have to go and buy groceries because I just ate in the restaurants in the hotel. There were no everyday life situations. So it was a relief once the students found out that they wouldn’t get stopped too much from coming into the hotel [because they were ordinary Chinese. Their visit to a foreigner was probably also written down.]  They’d get me to write the words of the songs they were listening to, country-western songs and Bob Dylan. They liked slow songs because they could understand what was being said. For them part of the fun was just seeing what was inside the hotel. [In those days walking into the White Swan meant going from poverty and dirt and noise to the largest chandelier you’ve ever seen.]

The students were far more articulate than I am, but I never knew how much I could say or how honest they were. Sometimes we’d get into wondering about Hong Kong and whether it would become like China. They’d say, “Well, if the Hong Kong people don’t toe the line, we’ll just march over them. This is our country.”  I repeated this to somebody else, who said, “Yes, that’s what it says in the papers for the work units, so we have to quote it.”

Sometimes I was caught between the Westerners and the Chinese, particularly at my second job. If I wanted something done for my boss or another “real” foreigner, people would accept it as part of the office routine. But I found it very hard to change things on the Western side to accommodate the Chinese. Since I couldn’t deliver to the Chinese, I couldn’t get anything for myself. I’d say, “I need a train ticket.”

“Sorry, they’re too difficult to get.  We’re not going to try for you.”

When I complained, I heard, “If you want them to treat you like a Chinese, don’t expect them to give you Western service.”

I just wanted to be treated like a person, without having to make treats or references to “my boss, the president.” I think the Chinese were aware that I wanted more human contact. Spending the time of day with them was familiarity, right? A dangerous thing.

In 1983 we took a field trip with the students to an oil base where there were warehouses and supply ships. It took about twelve hours to drive there from Canton. The students went in a big bus, and the Expert and I went in a little one. The professor liked to smoke cigars—cheroots—so nobody liked to travel with him. In the van we argued about whether he would smoke or not and whether the windows would be opened or closed. When we stopped at outhouses, he’d walk around behind them. He couldn’t stand to go inside.

All the girls came in their best dresses and their high-heeled shoes to go walking around on supply ships and warehouses, which are the dirtiest kind of places you can imagine, I suppose because they were going to have their pictures taken all over the place. The blokes came in their best clothes too, but it wasn’t quite as obvious. There was a compound built by one of the oil companies, with swimming pool and a supermarket and villas for the foreign employees. It was very nice. We walked in unknowingly, and these hysterical French ladies got up and yelled, “Out, out!  Take your dirty shoes out of our swimming pool area.”

The students said, “This is China. You can’t tell us to get out. We are going to stand here and have our pictures taken.” So they arranged themselves for the photo while the French women shouted. That was one situation where I did feel very much in the middle. I was holding the camera, and I wanted to leave.

A Charmed Life

by on Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

This interview took place in Manila shortly before Andria’s departure for Spain. It’s a very straight-forward expression of what was on her mind, and she hopes people don’t find it too negative.  Many thanks to Andria for the lovely pictures.

Andria’s story

I’m Irish, but I haven’t lived in Ireland since I was twenty-one. Brian, my husband, is British. We met in Dubai fourteen years ago, then left for England, where we got married and lived for two years. We hated the English weather. It rains 90% of the year. We hated the tax. In the Middle East you’ve got no tax, and in England you’re taxed to the hilt. So we said, “England’s not for us.” We didn’t want to live in Ireland for the same reasons.

When Brian’s company was starting an online site in Gibraltar, he was asked to go there once a month and then to be based there. Gibraltar’s just off Spain, and it’s all rock and concrete. I thought, “No I couldn’t live in Gibraltar, but I could live just across the border in Spain.” At that time my mum was retired in southern Spain. A new motorway had just been finished linking her area to Gibraltar, so it was now only twenty-five minutes away. For the first few years we rented a house. After I got pregnant with Lucas we bought our house. By the time we left, we’d been there eight and a half years.

Spain’s beautiful, but I didn’t like it for the first two years. I didn’t know anybody there except my mum. On the coast where we were living there were lots of wealthy retirement people playing golf, and no jobs for young families. We moved up the mountain to a place called Gaucin, a small village but with a lot of expats. After I got pregnant we moved back to civilization. Most of the people I know there are foreigners. Before the recession of the last couple of years, there was a very big work boom in construction. People emigrated to Spain from the dreary European countries to start fresh. Now when I go back to Spain I’ll be going home to a big group of friends of all different nationalities.

We came here expecting living in Manila to be cheap. We thought wherever we lived would be similar to the lifestyle we left. We moved to Makati [the financial center of the Philippines, a big city in Metro Manila], we discovered that living there  in a place with nice furniture and elevators that looked and smelled clean was going to cost us way more than where we came from. Our rent in the five-star condos at  Shangri-la Grand was 140,000 pesos a month [about $3,182 at the time] for a tiny, two-bedroom apartment without even a balcony. I don’t like living in cities. This much concrete is just depressing. I feel half dead. I need to be surrounded by nature. It was also very difficult traveling with a young child, battling with taxi drivers, getting into unsafe taxis, struggling with the communication problem and not being understood.

I don’t have a big social life, so I spend a lot of time at home. I need to feel I can walk into my home and feel happy. Home has always been a priority for us. After a year and nine months of my being miserable in Makati, Brian and I agreed that I should go back to Spain. Someone suggested, “The Philippines is very beautiful, why don’t you go to one of the islands?”

“I’m not living out in the middle of nowhere on an island that’s not civilized.”

“Boracay is very civilized.”

I’d been there for a holiday, but I didn’t know that it had an international school and it definitely would be an outdoor lifestyle. Go to the beach, do lots of swimming and other fun-filled activities. I went down and I checked it out. We moved to Boracay, with my husband commuting at the weekend. It was probably my best time here—so laid back. Boracay to me was paradise. But after seven or eight months Brian was exhausted with flying down every Saturday morning and going back on Monday mornings, especially if flights were delayed and he had to go to another airport. So he said, “Please come back to Manila.”

“I can’t go back to Makati.” I couldn’t do it to Lucas, taking him out of a place where he goes to the beach for an hour after school and putting him back in a place where he’s stuck indoors without friends to pop around and see. And the same for me.

Then we learned that the skyway was open between Makati and Muntinlupa. Brian said, “Look, if you’ll come back to Manila we can check out living it a house with a garden in Alabang.”

“Okay, yeah, sure.”

I fell in love with Alabang.  Why? Trees, man, it’s got beautiful boulevards of trees. The Ayala-Alabang community is a bird sanctuary. I love to walk the dog and to take Lucas out on his bike. It would seem like a very charmed life, all right. Rent in Alabang is a slightly more than the condo in Makati, but for 150,000 pesos a month [$3,700] we’re getting a lot large, four-bedroom house with a pool.

Actually, when I was living in Boracay and Brian was commuting down, at one stage we were lonely for each other, and he said, “Look, I’m not happy. We have a nice lifestyle, but it doesn’t suit either of us. What’s the point of earning a nice salary if you’re miserable?” He went to his company and he said, “I’m sorry. I’ve done two years here. We’re living separately.”

“What will it take for you to stay?” That was when he was offered the house, the school, the car, the driver.

Then down in Alabang I listened to all of these expat families and found out it’s the standard package for them. They said, “What? You’ve been living in the country and paying for most of it yourself?”

I really enjoyed Alabang. I could have stayed for another year or so. But Brian’s company knew we wanted to go back to Spain in about twelve months’ time, and they asked him how he’d feel about going back earlier and opening an office. So it was perfect.

I do feel very grateful. I don’t take our nice lifestyle for granted. When Brian and I have tried something new it was never ever been about the money. For us it will always be about how our quality of life is together and how happy we are. We’ve been happy broke together. He’s worked his way up, and now good things are happening. I’m aware that this might not last forever. Everything passes. So that’s kind of where we are now.

As I said, the level of friendliness here has made me feel very much at home and very comfortable in my own skin. The guys are very friendly. Filipino men love women. It doesn’t matter where they come from. But the guys are definitely friendlier than the women. I found Filipinas difficult to become friends with. For example, when we were living in the Shang in Makati, I’d be at the pool with Lucas, and I wouldn’t see the mothers. The ya-yas [nannies] and the helpers would be there with the kids. I learned that Wednesday morning was for mothers and the kids. So I tried to make friends with these women and their babies, and it was no go—no invitations to come for coffee, no nothing, just very basic politeness. I thought, “What the hell is this? Do I smell? Is there something wrong with me?”

Generally I’ve found women’s groups here to be very cliquey. I don’t understand the mentality. I don’t understand this obsession to lighten their skin. Do they not want to be friends because they’re slightly jealous of white women? Although I certainly can’t say this was true with every Filipino woman I’ve come across. Maybe it’s just Western women they’re just more reserved or guarded around. They’re certainly not like that around Western men.

I come from a place where I have lots and lots of girlfriends, and the lack of connection with women has led me to be very homesick. I complained to someone who said, “If you go up and talk to a Filipino couple she’ll be wondering if you’re going to steal her husband.”

“What? That’s absurd. I wouldn’t be worried about my husband’s talking to a Filipina, even though most of them are so gorgeous.”

[I suggested that this reserve and jealousy on the part of women in both Korea and the Philippines might be due to women’s lack of power.]

Right. I can understand, absolutely. I’ve come from an environment where a woman can say exactly the same things as a guy would say and no one will blink an eye. They can talk about the same subjects. A woman’s point of view will be taken at the table just as quickly as a man’s point of view. [This was not the case in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, particularly if you were seen as “the wife” or “the girlfriend”].

I’ve found the Philippines to be an extremely chauvinistic environment, which didn’t really bother me because I’m from rural Ireland and I went out with mommy’s Irish boys. But my parents were divorced when I was young, so I grew up in a house with four very strong, bolshy, outspoken women. You had to fight for everything, and that was okay in the company my family kept. When I came here I found out that being loud-mouthy was not accepted. If you’re too opinionated, even with the guys, people wonder if you’re being sarcastic. Sarcasm is not understood here.

During the first year I had to learn to adjust to my environment, which went against my nature. It took a lot of self-doubt. I was getting reactions I never had before. For example, we’d be out having coffee and something would pop into my head and I’d say it. Like I might say, “I would take the piss out of somebody” [tease or make fun of someone]. I could see people were thinking, “What is she talking about? What did she mean by that?” Whereas in Ireland, England or Spain everyone would be roaring laughing. So I realized I’d have to be careful. It was really hard, going out for coffee and then afterwards feeling sick with myself because I’d unintentionally offended somebody.

In a way I wouldn’t change that now because I’d never had to moderate myself before and there were times when I wished I had. It’s a maturity thing. I don’t want to make someone feel uncomfortable, whereas I used to not give a shit if they were or not. So I’ve changed a lot, and I have more changing to do. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to adjust.

This is my first experience with Asian culture, and I’ve found it’s just so different. What do I mean by that? Wherever I’ve been, when people don’t understand what you say they’ll tell you. “Can you say that again slower?” Here I can be talking to someone, like in a shop or a restaurant, and I’ll get lots of head-nodding but a completely wrong order. Last week I was in Max’s. I said, “Do you have decaf coffee?”

“Yes, ma’am.”


“Yeah, yeah.”

And I got brought a Lipton’s tea.

That kind of thing happens to me all the time. I don’t know. Is it my accent or what? I’ve spoken to other people who’ve said the same thing—asking for something and getting lots of head nodding and yes, yes, yes while the person is just standing there and you know there’s no comprehension. I’ll go into a shop and I ask for something, and it’s like “No, ma’am.” Then I’ll walk two aisles down and there it is. [Filipinos express the same kinds of frustrations.]

I think also my expectations were too high. I’d heard most educated people speak pretty good English. But it’s a totally different English. It reminds me of Gibraltar, where people speak a few words of Spanish and a few words of English and switch back and forth. I’m more frustrated by the language barrier than I expected to be. Obviously I’m not as patient as I thought I was. I ask myself why I can’t be more patient about these little things. But I’m used to working and living at a higher speed. That’s probably, now that I’ve said it, been one of the biggest frustrations for me, just how slow life is here on a day-to-day basis.

People don’t arrive on time—if at all. I now have a part-time helper who comes in twice a week. I get a text a couple of hours before she’s due saying she’s not well or offering some other excuse. Does she not need the money? It’s mind-boggling. Unlike me, Brian is very level-headed, and yet several times he’s had this experience talking to employees: “I wouldn’t be shouting. I’d just say, ‘I’m not happy with what you’ve done. This is not what I asked for. Would you mind going back again and doing it this way?’” Then the man would cry. Girls also. If they came back to work, it would be a week later, or they would just not come back again ever.

We learned that you must be very careful not to insult anybody and or make them lose face. Pride is such a huge thing here, which is why people won’t say, “I don’t understand.” I have an Israeli friend here who took a French course where there were only two foreigners in the class. She said not one Filipina ever asked a question. At the end of three or four weeks, there was a test and most of the class failed it, so the teacher went back over everything. My friend was so frustrated.

But there have been lots of wonderful things here. I got to live on a tropical island. I’d always wanted to learn to dive. I took a course at the end of the first year when we went to Bohol, and then I took the advanced course in Boracay, so I have the international diving certificate. In Boracay both Brian and I learned to kite surf. We’d been trying to do it in Spain for years, just on weekends, depending on the weather. We’d only get so far and then the season would come to an end. In Boracay my son was in school during the day, so I was free. I mean, who gets to do that?

It’s extraordinary to have helpers and drivers. I’ve loved that, but I’ve also come out the other side. I wouldn’t mind having a driver because in Spain I do a lot of driving on a daily basis, but I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I need a full-time, live-in helper. I like my privacy. I don’t like to have somebody else’s drama in my house. But I’ve delighted that I had the experience. Living here has been very good for my marriage because I haven’t needed to work, so our weekends haven’t been stressful, running around trying to get a lot of household stuff done. Our time together has been quality time. Living here has been great for Lucas as well. He was born in Spain. He was speaking Spanish when he started to talk. When we moved here we asked our live-in helper to speak Tagalog with him, and within six months he was speaking tons of it. For the first two years he wanted to go back to Spain. When we went for the summer he asked when we were going back to Manila. He missed his school and his room. He’s been very happy here. So it’s been good.

In the last few months I’ve tried to simplify my life. I feel less stress, but at the same time I’m ready to go home to Spain. I’m about to have my second child. I want to be around my family more. My sisters are starting families, and I want Lucas to be part of his extended family. I am ready for sure.

A reader writes:

As a woman who has tried to make it personally and professionally in Asia (Japan) for most of my adult life, I find that  Andria’s experiences and sentiments resonate with me. The feeling of never truly belonging and the loneliness that comes with that seems to be an inescapable part of expat life in some countries. It’s hard to realize that that Western “openness” and friendliness will not magically open doors. The alternative of “going local” is simply not viable. A sense of community is quite temporal and transient. You may have it for a while, but everything is always in a state of constant flux in the expat world.