"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Being expats does not mean we're entitled to act like jerks !

Something happened, recently, that shook the whole expat community, here - and the Indian, and the NRI communities, too. I first wrote this as a way to reflect (I process my thoughts much better that way), not meaning to publish it, but one of the themes of this blog IS the expatriate life, and why not report the ugly things, as well? Life is not always perfect, after all. So, here goes my own little opinion piece...

In the five and half years that we've lived in Hyderabad, I can say that I have not witnessed any overtly prejudiced or grossly inappropriate behavior from any member of the expat community. Of course, some people do NOT like it, here, and they mumble and grumble the whole time, cannot wait to leave, and usually do as soon as they possibly can, sometimes earlier. It is also true that I do not spend as much time with the expat community as others do. I work, I write, and then the kids come home, which makes it difficult for me to have a busy social life (not to mention that I'm not the most sociable person to begin with.) Still, rumors travel fast, and you always end up knowing a lot of what goes on. So, I was quite astonished when I heard about an incident that happened over New Year's Eve.

Here is what I know : after an evening of fun and much drinking, a few expat men and women decided to go skinny dipping into the swimming pool of their gated community compound. They took off all their clothes and off into the night they went, walking merrily toward the pool. Several Indian members of that gated community saw them, and went after them, some quite angry, and told them to get dressed at once. The expats didn't like it, started arguing, the police was called, and in the end, one of the expats punched an Indian man in the face, money was thrown in the face of the policemen, the few expat men and women involved lost it completely, and insults were hurled back and forth.

Excuse me ???

Such behavior (and I'm talking about the gallivanting in the nude, here, which is what started this distressing chain of incidents) would be unacceptable in pretty much all the countries in the world, but we happen to be in India, where nudity is simply NOT tolerated.

Whether this is hypocrite behavior, and possibly a left-over of the Victorian British colonial rule, does nothing to change the fact that only Indian people can decide whether they want to change their social and cultural rules of conduct - or not - inside their own country. It certainly isn't something that expats (in other words, GUESTS) should take upon themselves to publicly mock, or upset.

As mentioned in a previous post, children in Kindergarten quickly learn that a naked bottom is "shame shame shame." Parents do not appear naked in front of their children. It just isn't done, period. And I know this because my 9-year-old daughter seems to have interesting conversations with her classmates where it transpires that they have never seen their parents naked. Fine. Now, as an expat, what I do inside my home is obviously my business. I do tell my children all the time that there is nothing shameful about a naked body. And they do indeed see me and their father in all states of undress, not because we do it on purpose, but rather because we rarely seem to think of locking or even closing bathroom doors. But we're very aware of the fact that this is not the usual way to behave in India.

Anyone going to a beach, here, will see women dip their feet in the water, maybe even their legs, still wearing their saris or their salwar kameez. When we first arrived, I could not find swimming costumes at Lifestyle, which was the most modern, and at the time basically the only department store in town. The year after, we started seeing a few one piece costumes, usually with attached skirts. And even in Goa, I've seen women wear those suits with cycling shorts.

How anyone in their right mind would conceive to leave their house stark naked, on a night when most people (including children) were up late, celebrating, and walk across a compound to go take a dip in a pool open to all the members of a large gated community is something that defies my understanding. But what comes after is even worse : verbal abuse, insults, physical violence, resistance to the police, etc, etc.

One person who was quite actively involved in the whole thing is going back home (they might have left already, that's how fast it all happened afterwards), and was commenting on their Facebook wall about wanting "to go back to a country where people abide by the rule of law." Thing is, in their country, no one would ever go walking in the street start naked, because the cops would pick them up and lock them in a jail in a matter of minutes. Neither would these people dream of hurling insults to said policemen, of throwing money to their faces, and insulting their neighbors. So what rule of law are they referring to, here ? Why do some expats feel that by coming to another country, they're entitled to special treatment ?

It's interesting to hear the comments, and the shock wave that's been rippling through the whole expat community.

For me, the bottom line remains unchanged. It doesn't really matter where these people are from. One can find insensitive, arrogant, and prejudiced idiots in all the countries of the world. What's sad, in my opinion, is that these people did not understand how they have/had a duty toward, one, the country they represent, and two, the expatriate community as a whole ! As expats, we have a responsibility to behave decently and to show respect for our host country ; just because we are far from home, doesn't mean we can behave in ways that we wouldn't dream of adopting in our own countries ; just because most expats find themselves enjoying perks like maids, drivers, huge houses with marble floors, etc (things they could never have back home), doesn't mean they suddenly become superior citizens with special entitlements. Cultural sensitivity is an absolute must. Whether we agree or not with some of the ways of the country we're living in, it is our duty and responsibility to show an open mind, and most of all, to behave properly and respect the rules and sensitivities or our host country. Because each time an expatriate behaves badly, they not only show themselves under a most unflattering light, they also somehow tarnish the image of all the other members of the community. And that is unacceptable.


Jo Ann v. said...

Arg. How I hate this kind of people. Reminds of a book I read years ago and absolutely hated: Rules of the wild by Francesca Marciano. Or how to live in Kenya without taking the time to know the country and its people. Yuck.

Katia said...

I don't know that book, Jo Ann. I'll look it up.

Robin Pascoe said...


Good for you for writing it all down and making the point that the expat life brings many lovely rights AND responsibilities to respect the local culture. Perhaps you should arrange a screening of that old Marlon Brando movie "The Ugly American" which of course applies to all expats who feel they can do things in other countries they would never, ever do at home. Well done.

Katia said...

Robin, thanks for bringing that movie to my attention. You will not believe this, but I had never heard of it. I just looked it up on the Internet. Sounds interesting. So does the novel that inspired the play and the movie. Will try and find them.