Friday, December 30, 2005

Overlooking the Overseer

The post is a bit disjointed--I apologize.

For those that won’t make it all the way through this post (I can’t even bother to edit/reread it): Happy New Year.

Despite a general slowness about the air here, it’s been hectic. All the expats, except myself and two others in my house remain. The other house is in similar straits. They aren’t necessarily dire, though a few other expats, and I have myself, complained about the loneliness and boredom. On the plus side, I’ve gotten to know my two other housemates much better. The two here are white south-africans (formerly of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe) who do security work for us. Quite interesting fellows, lotsa stories, only a few of which I’ve heard. Some I probably don’t want to hear. The politics and somewhat expected differences on colonialism and such would probably come to a head. Though we all know each other well enough to know our varying perspectives and politics and such have been discussed. It’s been those types of conversations that are most memorable, where differences are respected and discussed maturely, and we all enjoy having dinner with each other anyway. Given their involvement in colonialist structures and there interactions with me, I’ve bit my tongue a few times, well rather, decided not to probe them on their thoughts and sentiments too deeply.

But, they have definitely got me thinking about the “uncle-tom imperialism” topic again. One other recent development has pushed that issue to a head. I’ve had a fair amount of more responsibility here as I’m covering some critical & daily work for one of the expats on break. This has led me to dealing with a lot more locals and at a different level. The age issue is there to amplify everything too. Though I’m probably not that younger than many of the people working for me, and I’ve had people older than I reporting to me before, I feel like I’m treated as the boss in the overlord sense of the term.

On the flip side, I’m definitely treated differently by the local workers because of my ethnicity (though given how many afghanis don’t have a particular liking for the Pakistani government, I’m not sure it’s a good thing) and ability to speak in urdu with them. I find myself feeling like that buddy boss that one feels comfortable enough to go ask favors and pull string for oneself; a confidant type of role. I’m told things that probably wouldn’t be told to the white expats.

That is definitely a very difficult situation. The annoying part is that when I’m in one situation I wish I were in the other. And this I find true whichever of the two situations I find myself in. It’s not an issue of where my loyalties lay, as that is not a question, but I don’t want to exploit a trust, and I’ve been trying to encourage the locals to talk to the white expats/bosses. Whatever gets the job done most effectively and quickly is an easily stated common and shared goal.

I can put some blinders on and just say that’s all that there is to the matter, the common goal. But theory has ruined me. The power dynamics and structures, institutional and interpersonal greatly affect the path to the goal and the goal itself. The most cynical side of me says it’s a brilliant move by the western world to send the second gen back as “expats” to get the work done; probably quite effective, especially if blinders are put on. A more gracious, and serious, side of me thinks that using the second gen effectively to do such development work can make use of many tools that whites never could. (Sidenote: I think returning first gen immigrants are in a much different situation. Without thinking about it too much, despite whatever naturalization or citizenship they may currently possess, they aren’t the same as someone born in a donor/western country.)

Though I’m guessing that due to the current travails and dominance of liberalism in western/donor nations, and yes the world, it would be difficult to implement a positive/affirmative race/ethnicity based recruiting policy. Though for other sectors, such as for the FBI, CIA, Military and State Dept. the second generation muslims are currently heavily recruited. And logistically, it’s simply impossible for the amount of work that needs to be done here in Afghanistan.

This isn’t simply a white/non-white dynamic. I don’t think I’d be viewed much different than the whites were I in Africa or Guatemala. And, I would assume it is dramatically different for those first/second-generation immigrants returning to their “homelands.” I am fairly certain I would feel different about this were I working in Pakistan (even though this definitely brings up nationality/identity issues, especially in a post-colonial and neo-colonial context.)

I’d love to hear what other non-white minorities of western countries doing development & aid work think and feel about this issue. Especially those with much more experience in this field than I. Maybe another post or some comments? But of course, there is no race/ethnicity policy on commenting on my blog, all please chime in.


Aaman said...

've visited your site a few times and think you're a pretty good blogger.I write for, a leading source of news and opinion. We are starting a new channel/website with a South Asian focus. I wanted to invite you to write for this website. I think you will be a valuable asset to the site.

I could not find your email address on the site, so if you could email me at aamanlamba at gmail com we can discuss this further

Elizabeth said...

Congrats on your tag by Aaman.

I am not white- I look Central Asian and when I worked in Central Asia, because I spoke Russian, I got along quite well with the "locals", though I must say that given education levels there and people's capacities, we were on much more equal footing.

I have found that many Afghans who have spent time in Pakistan have a kind of love-hate relationship with it. They might still feel that Pakistan is responsible for destroying their country, but then again, they also realize that Pakistan has given them a lot as refugees (actually, many of them are unaware that Pakistan's arrangements for Afghan refugees are unparalleled in the world in terms of social benefits, freedom, and openness- too bad for Pakistan). Those who haven't there just feel resentful, sometimes to a degree that is hardly justifiable (look, if Pakistan gives you a gun and tells you to shoot your brother, and you do it, whose fault is that, really?).

I've seen that they usually trust Muslims more than any other khariji, including Uzbekistanis, Tajikistanis, etc. It has less to do with ethnicity than with a shared language and religion. I guess the ummah really does exist.

Vasco Pyjama said...

Hmmmmmmmm... interesting post, Mister Q.

Well, as you kinda suspected, I am not white. :P But of the generic yellow-skinned variety. And I have always felt that as an aid worker, I am treated differently as a Chinese woman. But then many things about us determine how people approach us. Like our height, our appearance (you know, emo / garden gnome / piercings / argyle sweater / chic suit, etc etc... :P).

Seriously but, I have found that with my Afghanistan experience... well, I work with mostly Afghan men in their 40s or late 30s. Plus my role is advisory and capacity building. Not so easy when you are a woman who looks 22 and is a short arse. But it's been a process of establishing trust, and establishing that I have something to offer. And I think because I am female, young and not white, people are more able to trust me as the power differential does not seem so large. I do not seem like an 'authority figure'. I think it enables me to kinda do my job more easily. You know, I'm not so scary. :P

But then, my role is advisory, not managerial. I think managers (or overlords, as you call them), have it more difficult. So for example, I have no performance management role.

Regarding issue of sending second generationers back, interesting... I am kinda third generationer (or migrant, depending if you see Singapore as a developed country or not). So I have a greater distance, I suppose. I need to ponder that one further.

Anonymous said...

As a Sino-Ameri-kaaner, happy freaking new years Q.A.S.

- !Q.A.S.

Q. A. Shah said...

Thanks, and happy new year. It looks like that news channel that Aaman is pulling together may turn out to be an interesting site. Do you know of any other bloggers that I should pass on to Aaman ( I was assuming Geeta is desi).

I assume looking Cent. Asian should get you some traction up north, no?

I definately see the love/hate relationship here w/ pakistan. And it was expected, I came knowing well what the ISI and Pakistan has done here. But I have a bit of privilege, to many I'm not really Pakistani, having only visited the country, and coming as an American, and I'm not really an American, parents coming from Pakistan, being muslim, and not white.

I'm not sure where that puts me in the eyes of my "local" co-workers. I will probe and ask when I get comfortable enough.

But you are right to point out that being muslim is probably the biggest privilege i have. (It was funny how many locals asked me if I celebrate christmas though, and not one expat asked, all assuming i didn't). I thought about religion a bit when putting up that post but for some reason it never was a dominating thought as i wrote it. Perhaps a reflection of a, and that i am a secularized american. Which is odd, because in the states so much of my identity is defined by being a muslim, internally imposed and externally imposed identity.

But as far as the ummah and my place in it, that is an offline or off blog discussion.

Excuse my ignorance, but what are "khariji"?

By the way, I may pull your comment out and bring it to the front to discuss religion/ummah, especially in relation to what arab-muslims are thought of here and with the donor/aid country topic. That is if I don't get lazy again and post in a week.

Q. A. Shah said...

I agree that appearance plays a lot into how people view us. But I also think that in the west, race can be overlooked by certain extrinsic identifiers, i.e. a black guy wearing a goth get-up may first be seen as a goth kid rather than a black kid. But racial identity will always come immediate into play and they'll be seen as a black kid whose not into hip-hop like we expect him to be. So despite those other identifiers, i still think race/ethnicity is the overriding tag. Gender is definately right up there too though.

Not surprisingly, gender identity is not what comes as the most significant tag with my interactions with people. It does occasionally, as I work with afghani women, but that dynamic is so puzzling i don't know if i want to think about it. I rather revel in my privilege.

Do you really think that if you were some looming 6'5" chinese women your interactions w/ afghani men would be that different? Thay may speak more to the patriarchical culture, masculine identity and misogyny here, though. An interesting discussion. But i'll revel in my privilege again.

I'm having a bit of difficulty w/ the managerial stuff too, but that was obvious. The other day, an older white (and not my superior, but more senior position wise) chewed out a coworker of mine that reports to me. I was at a loss as to what to do. I talked to my coworker but not the expat. He was being irrational, and my coworker took it well (dismissivly laughed it off, chalked it up as another reason to hate the white man), so i told my coworker to tell me if it happens again, but that i'll leave it alone for now. He was OK with that.

So would it ever be possible in Australia to start a NGO w/ the 2nd gen back idea? I think an NGO in the US could probably take off, and in fact, there are such 'volunteer orgs' but they are very inclusive, i want to see an exclusive one. I think.

Q. A. Shah said...


Thank you. Happy New Year to you too. So i can count the sino-ameri-kaaner friends i have with 3 fingers. only one has ever refered to themselves as sino. so if i'm right, aren't you too busy to read the blog these days? And if i'm guessing right, keep me updated about your travels to this continent.

Asiyah said...

Regarding the Pakistani thing, I think that it also depends on the attitude that you convey. I know plenty of Afghans who absolutely despise the Pakistani government, but they have plenty of Pakistani friends. If you were rude or didn't respect them, then you become another 'overlord'.

I certainly know where you are coming from regarding being the 'bridge'. Random women in my office stop and ask me about getting their sister a job here. I'm Afghan, female and yet have the freedom to speak to my bosses, which makes me an effective bridge...But my dynamic is even more different since I'm in an all-Afghan environment, rather than an organization where the white folks were the bosses and all the Afghans the worker bees. Come to think of it, I haven't ever been in that sort of position. I've always worked in Afghan (even though they may be westernized Afghans) led organizations. I think my issue is more 'gender' related than ethnicity.

I also think that religion plays a larger part of it. They probably view you the same way they view me (as an Afghan-American). They decide the level of my Afghan-ness by the fluency of my Dari, the traditions that i know or am comfortable with and by measuring my Muslim-ness...

It's a complicated world we live in.

Q. A. Shah said...

I think given the population of Pakistan, there are probably more Pakistanis that despise their government. Actually, I’m certain of that, even without any facts or citations. I hope I’m not rude, but simply, with the position I’m in, at times, I have to be that “boss.” I hope I do it humanely. And the situation would be no different were I doing this in the U.S...I am just uncomfortable being someone’s boss. I hope those that I work with think of me as a coworker, rather than a boss or overlord.

But, yeah, the “bridge” thing is difficult. I think I may have it easier. Though I think I’m looked at as a compatriot at times, I still probably have more separation than you. I hope they don’t think you’re being disloyal when you can’t help them out. Are you 1st generation or 2nd generation American? I think that would play a significant difference. And, my sympathies to you, I don’t want to even think about the messed up gender dynamics here. A non-native afghan woman in a power position, a messy situation I imagine. Btw, are you still working in Afghanistan? If so, what are you working on? If you feel comfortable sharing, I know many aren’t given security and all, and being a woman surely doesn’t help that I bet.

You’re right that religion is probably the most significant issue. But here, race and religion are nearly interchangeable, or rather causally related. I think the fact that I don’t speak Dari, and associate so well with the other expats led a few Afghanis to ask or tease out how much of a muslim I was. Another complicated issue for a complicated world as you said.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, QASIM! "Khariji" means foreigner, or more specifically, outsider, in Persian. You are a khariji. I am a khariji.

It's not that I think that most Afghans put so much emphasis on religion. It's just that so many of them (at least, the ones who stayed here in Asia) were taught that their main identity is that of a Muslim.

You may be "secularized", but most Muslims here would assume that you don't touch pork, or other "dirty" foods, and that you are "clean".

How many Afghans, assuming that I am a Muslim because of my husband, have gone on and on to me about the disgusting habits of khariji, with their unclean ways of washing, lack of ablution, and pork-eating! I pretend not to understand and usually they leave off.

Of course, despite the fact that some people do make an issue of it, it's still not everybody. I would guess that at least half the people I meet here either do not believe it's a big issue, or do their best to keep it to themselves.

As for my looks- one thing I've learned is that you can't change your nationality, except to become an American or Canadian. People might "mistake" you for "one of theirs", but you can never become one. So in the end, there is no advantage.

Q. A. Shah said...

Thanks for the info. I'm gonna have to start using that word.

I agree that its not necessarily the 'strictness' of following Islam that is the issue. In fact there seems to be a move away from that view, especially post Taliban. I've had several discussions w/ locals about that. The prevailing attitude is one of liberal or tolerant Islam.

But I don't think you can be a "secular muslim". I can be a secular pakistani or afghani or saudi, etc...but not muslim. I can be a non-practicing or 'loose' muslim, but not a secular per se.

Are you bothered by the assumption that you are muslim becuase of your husband? I'm not surprised by that assumption being made here. But what is their reaction if you choose to share that you are not a muslim?

With out being "one of theirs", which I never assumed I was, or assumed that they thought I was, I think there still is an advantage if you're similar enough. But that is just peoples parochialism and xenophobia. Maybe one shouldn't take advantage of that...

Elizabeth said...

I am not surprised or bothered that they assume I am a Muslim, because after all, I could have predicted it. A lot of people do convert. In Pakistan, people turned quite hostile finding I had not converted. They said, "Well, you should be. It's very bad to be a Christian. Christians go to hell." Here, they just avert their eyes, which is interesting. I am not sure if they feel more sorry for me, or for my husband.

In Tajikistan I've found they are much more open and kind, and usually start going on about how we are all brothers in the book and how there is one God.