My memories were jogged today by a Facebook entry by Jo Parfitt, co-author with Colleen Reichrath-Smith of the fourth edition of A Career in Your Suitcase. Jo was running a course on the topic, in Kuala Lumpur. The book is essential reading for those embarking on the global trail as an accompanying partner/spouse, and who wish to continue either their current career in a new locale, or who are considering a change.
Like most people who have spent large chunks of their life in different countries, I have had a variety of reinventions. One year an editor for an international charity’s magazine, another year working in a scuba store, and so on. Each has required a certain amount of remoulding; of learning a new dialogue along with the basic language of another country.
As expatriates we learn early that spot judgements of our latest surrounds are not a good idea, either in the eyes of other expatriates or, more importantly, in those of our hosts. Those quick condemnations are often wrong, and almost certainly made without the full knowledge of all the facts.
In one of my many roles, though none could be termed ‘a career’, the words ‘non-judgemental’ were written into the manual for honorary consuls. Produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government, I was cautioned to obtain all the pertinent information and then, regardless of my opinion, do my utmost to ensure the fair treatment of all concerned.
With age I had assumed sagacity would magically deter my tendency to speak first and think later. The phrase best used to describe this proclivity is ‘foot in mouth’. Sadly this was not the case. I tried, I really did, and mostly I managed. There was however one incident where I failed, and I regret to say the following is the sanitised version. “What the hell were you thinking?” I asked the bloodied young man standing before me, who had just been released from the open air holding yard of the local gaol in a small despotic African country.
“I dunno know,” he replied, rubbing his bleary bloodshot eyes and glancing back at the bars from behind which faces, still waiting to be released, peered.
“How stupid could you be?” I continued, intent on ignoring the entire manual.
“I dunno know,” he repeated. “Sorry, Apple.”
“Sorry? You’re a bloody idiot. Now go home, get cleaned up and get some sleep. You are not to have a single alcoholic drink. Okay?”
“Yeh, okay,” he agreed, looking down at the blood on his shirt and shoes.
“Be here at 9:15 tomorrow morning and we’ll try and get this sorted out. Do not forget you are out on my recognizance, so don’t blow it.
“I won’t. I promise.”
“And call your father, there will be a fine if nothing else.”
“He’s in the UK.”
“I know he’s in the UK. But you’re going to need money, so call him so he can arrange it.” He looked at me and I felt my anger dissipate. “Would you like me to call him?” I asked, against all advice from the manual.
“No, it’s okay,” he muttered. “He’ll be madder if he hears about this from you,” he said, shuffling off along the dusty pavement, chastened.
I walked home and showered away the unpleasantness of the stuffy and confined room in which I had pleaded his case with the deputy police chief. Pouring the drink I had banned the young man from having, listening to Julio Iglesias floating up through the tinny speakers of a boombox blarring from the lean-to shack doubling as a bar over the road, I realised my lack of non-judgemental assistance was, in this instance, due to a couple of factors: the young man was similar in age to my son; and a real anxiety he would end up in the clink for more than just twelve hours if I couldn’t get him released quickly. Whatever the reason I too was out of line.
TCKs (Third Culture Kids) are sometimes imbued with an almost innate ability to size up a situation quickly and adapt to it, due I am convinced to their early exposure to different cultural events. In my case, though my intercultural awareness and radar are probably above average, my patience with those of my own culture is often sadly lacking.
So when you are contemplating A Career in Your Suitcase make sure to pack the cultural guide on what to say in various situations, and more importantly what not to say. My inability to push the mute button is probably why my latest incarnation is that of a writer.