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A beginner’s guide to understanding expatriates in PNG

Papua-New-Guinea-arrow-shooting-asaroPHIL FITZPATRICK

ONE of the big things the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism changed was how wealth was created and distributed and how people related to each other.

These changes are important to understanding the difference between western expatriates and most of the people in Papua New Guinea.

In their home countries, expatriates live in a society divided by class: upper, middle and working class. Sometimes countries like Australia and America claim to be classless but when subjected to close analysis you will see class determined by wealth.

Membership of a particular class is now defined primarily by wealth and grandness of lifestyle, not by birth.

When expatriates see a person in a village with a small house, few possessions and who is unable to read and write, they can unconsciously regard that person as lower class and inferior.

In expatriate society, people aspire to wealth because this defines their level of success and informs their self-worth.

Class produces a society which is hierarchical. Hierarchy is reflected in all aspects of expatriate life. Companies, like society itself, are ordered in hierarchies: the bosses at the top; the clerks in the middle; and ordinary workers, like labourers, at the bottom.

The existence of a hierarchy in society makes its members very competitive, which can make people act as individuals rather than a group. Relatively few people will ever make it to the top.

This can mean that the wealthy upper class are regarded as ‘winners’ while the poorer working class are seen as ‘losers’.

Belonging to an individualistic society means people need to be independent. They need to look after themselves and their immediate family. They cannot afford to have a lot of relatives who need support hanging around and dipping into their wealth.

Expatriate westerners tend to live in nuclear families and limit the number of children they have. A typical family consists of a man, his wife and two or three children.

For an expatriate, one of the reasons for spending a lifetime accumulating wealth is to live in comfort in old age.  Unlike in Papua New Guinea, old people do not expect their children to look after them when they become frail and unable to work.

Selling and consuming material goodsis a major preoccupation in expatriate society. Even in poorer areas, people’s houses have goods they have bought and no longer use. This buying and selling is a major driving factor in western economies and is encouraged by governments.  Everywhere you go in western countries you will see messages and advertisements exhorting you to buy, buy and keep buying.

To suggest that people share their possessions would be viewed with dismay.  An expatriate might lend his neighbour a shovel but he would never lend him his television set.

Expatriates are also wary about sharing their time and make a distinction between working time and leisure time. Time is valuable and expatriates are conscious about managing time and making the best use of it.

For an expatriate, a job adds meaning to existence and is part of their personal identity.

Because the acquisition of wealth and accumulation of status bearing goods is a driving force in capitalist society, there is intense competition for the best jobs which pay the highest wages.

Expatriates coming to Papua New Guinea are usually well-educated and tend to deal with issues rationally.  Even though some are Christians, they do not generally believe in things like miracles or divine intervention. 

They are highly sceptical about sorcery and magic.  They believe that everything that happens has a logical cause which can be explained in scientific terms.

Just like everything else in capitalist society, land is regarded as a commodity which can be bought and sold.

The differences in the way Papua New Guineans and expatriates regard land, and the way that they deal with it, can create a lot of problems. While an expatriate can vaguely appreciate a Papua New Guinean’s view of land, they see it as a drawback rather than a strength.

Societies in Australia are very large compared to those in Papua New Guinea.  Many cities have populations numbering several millions.  Because their society is ordered in a hierarchical way and because individualism is highly prized, it is necessary to have strong laws which are rigidly enforced to maintain order and to ensure that society operates efficiently. 

Planning is a big feature in expatriate life and plans will be adhered to.

Unlike Papua New Guineans who take pride in the formalities of meetings and negotiations, expatriates tend to adopt a more reserved approach.  In their highly competitive society, outward display of emotion is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

Download the complete paper Cross Cultural Awareness in Papua New Guinea by Phil Fitzpatrick


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Phil Fitzpatrick

Mike and Peter - I've amended the longer paper to make it clear I'm writing about interaction between Papua New Guineans and Europeans and Westernised Asians, as distinct from the recent Chinese, Filipino etc. migrants.

It's a work in progress. Any other comments gratefully accepted.

Mike Jelliffe

Yes, you are correct Peter, thanks for picking that up. I'll rephrase my comment "Given that most expatriates in PNG are, by observation, Caucasian westerners, your article maintains its validity" to clarify, to "Given that most western expatriates in PNG are, by observation, Caucasian, your article maintains its validity", which expresses better what I really wanted to say.

Peter Turner

Sori Mike, maybe Caucasian Westerners predominate at the Papua Yacht Club, and other drinking holes around the place, but there are far more 'look north' dudes around these days than whitey, even counting the 'fly in - fly out' tourists.

They just aren't as visible.

Rashmii Amoah

Phil - great read! Any chance you could thread the contents of Summary somewhere into the Introduction of the paper? The words you used (in Summary) are very clear and important for all to see and read. I really appreciated those words. I also had a particular liking for the discussion on page 28. Thank you.

Mike Jelliffe

Appreciated your article Phil. In bullet point format as it is, it is a good summary of some of the issues creating misunderstandings. I will certainly recommend it to others to read.

Western nations today are multi-cultural, so we have statistics that one in four Australians has an Asian face and heritage, and so on.

This means that the "class" concept is actually also influenced by ethnicity. That makes it more difficult to label "expatriate westerners" accurately because the influence of their original culture will remain, especially if that includes dominant values espoused by their religion.

Given that most expatriates in PNG are, by observation, Caucasian westerners, your article maintains its validity.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Good point Chips - I'll include it in the paper.

Chips Mackellar

With the greatest respect Phil, I agree with Chris to the extent that I think you have over emphasised the class structure of Australia by omitting the dynamic of class mobility.

That is, the ability of those born low to rise high by diligence and ability.

You only have to look at some of our national leaders to see how this mobility operates. For example, Paul Keating was a high school dropout, yet became Prime Minister. Bill Hayden began working life as a policeman yet became Governor-General, and our current prime minister began his education at the local public school. Thence, by way of Sydney Grammar, Sydney Uni, thence as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, he became a barrister, merchant banker, multi millionaire, and is now prime minister.

There are thousands of examples of those who bypassed the class structure to rise to the top, and this is what makes Australia the land of opportunities.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I had a problem with finding a suitable substitute for 'class' Chris. As you point out, the term has Marxist overtones that don't really represent modern perceptions.

These days we tend to use it to label a wider range of behaviours, the most recent being the 'political class', which is a concept that I don't think Marx or Engels really discussed.

These days we are probably all a little bit bourgeois and a little bit capitalist. It's interesting to think that the lumpen proletariat (peasants), who Marx despised, still exist in PNG though.

Perhaps I should point this out in the longer paper?

Chris Overland

This is a great piece of writing Phil.

I think that most Australians of Caucasian origin are entirely unaware of their own cultural history and its peculiarities.

After all, just like Papua New Guineans, when we grow up within a particular cultural environment we simply pick up the "rules of the game" mostly by osmosis, so there is little conscious analysis of how and why we think and act the way we do.

Add to this a common but quite erroneous belief that the way we order our society and live our lives is inherently superior and you have a recipe for a great deal of misunderstanding.

So called "western civilisation" has a lot going for it but is still very far from perfection, so a little humility is needed, as is caution about trying to impose the whole package on others without regard to the unique characteristics of their society.

It should be compulsory for all Australians to read and understand a paper about us such as that you have written about Papua New Guinea.

One minor concern I have with your article is the use of the term "class" to characterise how our society is ordered.

Class in the traditional Marxist sense was about more than just socio-economic status: it was also about how social position was determined by birth and the associated inability to readily move between classes, regardless of personal effort or merit.

In our much more egalitarian and homogenised world, I think that class is no longer an accurate way to describe how social status and influence is defined and understood.

Nonetheless, I agree that there still are some subtle and not so subtle signals of social status to be found in things like our accents, use of language, place of residence, type of job and so forth.

I doubt that the average Papua New Guinean would recognise these unless he or she had had a long association with Australians.

As you rightly point out, social position in modern Australia is now largely determined by reference to wealth, although I am quite sure that being born into a wealthy family, going to Geelong Grammar and getting a job courtesy of your Dad's business and political connections can still smooth the road to wealth and influence.

All that said, I don't know of a short hand term that adequately conveys where a person sits within our modern social structure.

In planning terms, it was common to talk about which "socio-economic quintile" a person was in, but this is a pretty clumsy expression, so maybe class, misleading as it may be, is still the best short hand term available to us.

Anyway, I look forward to the next installment of your Beginners Guide to Expatriates which is a great device for writing a commentary on modern Australian culture.

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