Friday, 18 May 2018

The Simple truths about living in an expat compound.

A senior colleague stopped by my desk yesterday to ask me to be a Buddy for a new person about to join us. He said they thought I would be good for helping her settle in Qatar and the new firm. I of course, was happy to be asked. I must come across quite friendly and easygoing, I told myself. 

So isn’t it ironic, don't you think, as Alanis would say, that, the very same morning I ended up in a silly, pointless argument with one of the best friends in Doha? A kind of argument that originated seemingly out of nothing and thus was even more upsetting and confusing. However, it got me thinking once again about relationships in general, and expat ones in particular. 

Living in a compound is basically like living in a kommunalka- a Soviet era communal apartment. If you have no idea what those were, they were big flats with separate rooms occupied by various families, who shared one large kitchen facility and a couple of bathrooms. A very simple recipe for a spectacular disaster. The only difference is in a compound we have our own kitchens and bathrooms, and we have to co-exist with at least five other nationalities, all in one melting pot together, with all our wonderful cultural quirkiness, religious beliefs and understandings of what is acceptable by social etiquette. 

What I have to explain, before I go any further, is that we are very lucky with our compound. It is a friendly one, we party a lot, and we help each other out when extra babysitting or school trips are needed. But, of course, we are all very different. It is easy to forget about that, especially if you take into account the fact that most of us have been living here for over five years. In fact, as I pointed out to one of my neighbours the other day, our little daughters have lived almost all of their lives in entirety in Doha, and in this very compound. Think about that. So yes, we are all from different countries yet we do have an awful lot in common, living next door to each other for this long, away from our childhood friends and extended families, sharing same issues, same stresses and worries, and same joys for this long. 

And, with my birthday approaching (too quickly!) again this summer, I suddenly realised, looking at my guest list, that most of the people on it have been at my birthday parties for five years in a row. I struggle to think when in my life I would have had the same friends celebrating with me every year for that long.  

Even when I lived in Baku, where you could have said was my home and things should have been a lot more stable and consistent, the birthday crowd changed from year to year- beaus, colleagues and friends coming and going,  faces replacing faces, relatives passing away. Life cannot stay stagnant, wherever you live. 

Yet, I managed, I was lucky, to have the same core bunch still here, celebrating with me on my birthday, every year since I moved to Doha. And I managed not to fall out with any of them. Yet.

That surely, counts for something. But....There is always a but. Like I said, living in a compound is not easy for friendships. There are some truths that I have learnt and they are not sad or disappointing, they are just the reality; and I think once you realise this simple fact, you can accept many human behavioural issues more graciously and philosophically. 

So, here is my list of things you should be prepared for, should you ever choose to be an expat and live in a compound environment. 

Everybody fakes. 

I used to categorise people I met in life into Genuine and Fake. To be honest, I still do. However, I am more realistic and accepting these days about us, adults and the things we all have to pretend about at some point or the other. We smile at people we despise; we are polite when we want to bite someone’s head off and we say things we don’t mean. This occasional fake behaviour is a common universal trait we all share, let me assure you, no matter where we come from. It is just part of adult, human, survival-in-society tactic. 

Everyone gossips. 

There is endless gossip in a compound life, it is all around you, about you, from you, to you...who said what, who did what, who told someone a big secret and asked not to pass it on only for all of us to know almost immediately, of course… Someone asked me once not to tell something to a particular person because they thought that person was a big gossip. That’s quite funny, I thought, as I had already heard the news from someone else. You never know. You think you do, because some people are generally more open, like me, and talk a lot. But that could be where you fail to realise that you can’t predict who and why- that also is a very important element here- why they would pass some info on. Some gossip just for entertainment. Others deliberately pass on damaging, distorted things, things that they use to deliberately spoil your friendship with someone else. 

Miscommunication and misunderstandings happen. Often. 

I believe that most failed friendships here happen due to misunderstanding, and that is very sad and incredibly frustrating. I've always believed in clearing things up, should there be any misunderstanding between me and my friends. However, it doesn’t always work. You have to remember the cultural differences, too. People of some nationalities are surprisingly closed off, and it is impossible to get them to talk openly. That causes a lot of problems I never anticipated happening to me. I can talk about anything an everything, but that is not always welcome or helpful. 

People see everything through their own prism. 

And yes, as it happens with prisms, it will distort the events, but you can't help that. 
You can do something that is okay in your opinion and back where you came from, but it might cause a huge offence somewhere in Alaska. One friend of mine was once telling me she thought men from one particular European nationality were awfully rude and ill-mannered- when she walked into the room at some party, they didn't all jump up from their seats. I personally wouldn't have noticed. So, in most cases, I prefer to tell people if I am upset about something they have done, and for them to let me know. Sometimes you can talk about it, and you both go Oh! I see…But sometimes that cultural wall is simply too high. Like in that religious song my child loved to sing in our local church toddler group in England.  'It's too high to get over it, it’s too wide to get round it, it's too low to get under it… So my personal approach is…'gotta go through that door'. Try and break through the cultural misunderstanding wall, but be prepared to get a few bumps and bruises on the way. 

Final point.

Giving them a taste of own medicine never works. Because, and this is a very amusing ability of us, humans... we often don’t realise when we are being rude or unreasonable or hurt someone’s feelings. We simply don’t see it. We only notice when other people are mean to us. So we are outraged! And we complain and we take offence and we go to other friends and say such and such was so rude to me! When we have, very often, done the exact same thing to someone else before. 

But THE Final, final point to all this is...nobody is entirely good or bad, fake or genuine, a gossip or not. It is confusing, yet somehow true. 

One of my favourite movies was Crash. The stories of very different people: white and black, Hispanic and Persian, rich and poor...interweave during two days in Los Angeles, messing with all your assumptions and stereotypes of good and bad, showing you how someone you assumed to be a good person accidentally murdered someone, and someone you thought was a horrible racist saved a black woman from a burning car, risking his own life. 

Most of us are good-at least in our own minds, and at some point during the day. 

And we can all be assholes. Depends on our cultural prism, and the mood we are in, and the time of the month, and whether we get enough sleep or/and sex, and whether we are on some stupid detox diet, and....and..and....

the end. 


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