I MENTIONED THE FEELING of “otherness” in a previous article. The experience or feeling of otherness is a downspin from its parents, culture shock.
Culture shock occurs when one is placed in a situation outside one’s comfort zone; in this case another culture. The affects can be minimal in some people and extreme in others.
In one recent case a new manager for a Papua New Guinea company came in from overseas. He spent several days in Port Moresby and then seemed to disappear. The company found the vehicle with which he had been provided parked outside his hotel but no sign of him.
Further tracking ascertained that he had flown out of the country a day or so earlier. Nothing was heard from him again. In all likelihood the shock of being in a new culture had driven him away.
That is an extreme case. Most people slowly get over it and come to enjoy their new experiences. Very few lose that sense of being different from the majority of people around them in their host country however.
The phenomenon seems to be one that affects people from western cultures moving into developing countries more so than the other way round; although I do recall my parent’s anxiety when moving from England to Australia when I was a child. It didn’t affect me at all; kids seem to be immune to the malady.
You would expect that Papua New Guineans coming to Australia to study or for other reasons would suffer from it but that doesn’t seem to be the case; perhaps their culturally innate state of being laid back offsets it. It would be interesting to know if this is really true.
Being laid back is a useful antidote to culture shock and its ramifications should not be ignored. It probably explains, for instance, why Australia was a comparatively successful colonist in Papua New Guinea.
If the British and Germans had stayed on Papua New Guinea would probably now be a highly stratified society with very rigid behavioural mores, good in some ways but bad in others. If the French had been the colonisers they would probably still be there and everyone would, surprisingly, be relatively happy.
If the Americans had been the colonising power there would probably be much more development and infrastructure but local people would be a lot more marginalised and the culture would have died out long ago.
The American scenario is interesting and you only have to look at the way they manage their wars to appreciate it. In Vietnam, for instance, the Australians, with their experience of insurgents in Malaya, took a stance of winning over hearts and minds.
In Phuoc Tuy Province they gained control by providing medical, educational, and other services and building up infrastructure to win over the people and defeat the Vietcong. In their areas the American approach was to bomb the hell out of the place to gain control.
Remember Robert Duvall’s famous line in Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”? Their approach to a culture that they couldn’t understand was to destroy it. This is all detailed in Paul Ham’s excellent book, Vietnam: The Australian War.
To reiterate, culture shock and its child, otherness, shouldn’t be discounted lightly. The American approach to dealing with other cultures is apparent in the way business is conducted between the developers and landowners of the LNG Project, for instance.
In the Ramu the Chinese, who seem to take a similar approach to the Americans, also deal with landowners in the same heavy-handed manner.
Even worse, of course, are the Malaysians and Rimbunan Hijau. In all cases it is basically because they do not understand the culture and are afraid of it.
You can even see this approach in American and some fundamentalist Australian missionaries in Papua New Guinea. They don’t seek to understand the cultures over which they intrude but are hell bent on replacing them with their own as quickly as possible.
Australian companies take a similar if more subdued line. A capitalist is a capitalist after all. While the managers have trouble coming to grips with Papua New Guinean ways they have an advantage over the Americans, Chinese and Malaysians because they have, as a resource, a band of grumpy old ex-kiaps, planters and the occasionally enlightened anthropologist available to manage their community affairs for them.
These people went through the culture shock thing a long time ago and while they still might have a sense of otherness they understand the culture. The managers don’t understand and don’t seem to want to understand how these scruffy individuals seem to be able to solve their problems for them; they just know that if they don’t use them everything can quickly turn to you-know-what.
There are exceptions to the rule of course; many fine American, Chinese and other expatriates have settled into Papua New Guinea quite comfortably.
If you ask them how they do it they will invariably explain how they have taken the time to learn about local cultures and rather than trying to change them have adjusted their own attitudes and slotted into the niche thus created.
The moral of this story, therefore, is that to be successful in Papua New Guinean business, expatriates need to take time to understand the culture, respect it and most importantly adjust their attitudes accordingly.
To do otherwise is simply inviting disaster and that plane ticket out might be the only viable option.