Posts Tagged 'expats'

Odd things happen at supermarkets too.

Every weekend the ritual is much the same: drive (partially or fully) hung over through the aggravated heat to the bizarre oasis called Boroko Foodworld at Gordons, buy a newspaper and an orchy, read as much of Messrs. Kelly, Shanahan, Pearson and Adams before getting more woozy, and try not to think about mushrooms. Mushrooms are uncommon – in Kokopo we saw a strange but tasty type of local fungus that is apparently harvested from trees, otherwise they come cheaply in cans (not good) or in brown paper bags from the imported food aisle at Foodworld at a ridiculous cost. So we make do with baked beans, just as we make do with The Weekend Australian in the absence of much else. Yes, life is extraordinarily hard.

Being the haven of expatriates city-wide (more so on Saturday with its influx of Weekend newspapers from the south), Foodworld is a strange simulacrum of a place – a real simulation of a real supermarket from more indulgent, opulent places, shelves gleaming with imported items like olives and quality brooms and twenty types of bloody tinned corn. Meanwhile most people outside earn in a week what we pay for a bottle of olive oil, and the cost of the special newspapers we need to survive would be an outlandish sum for most. Yet like many of Port Moresby’s simulacrums it has an atmosphere redolent of the past forgotten by most, when socks were always pulled up high and a white ham and cheese sandwich with a milkshake was the best you could expect for lunch and cars did not clog the streets let alone the entrance to the supermarket (and as for the colour of the people who drive them, well…).

Inside is cool and different to the dusty hardship of the world outside, even though the regular absentees on the shelves (no Vita Weets? Check in six weeks) allow the psychological distance between here and outside to leak though the gaps on shelves – before the gaps are in turn plugged up by the latest in stupid and unnecessary canned American surplus items… what the hell is hominy, anyone?!?)

When you drive in you traverse a gauntlet of local people selling stuff. For the sellers it’s a case of going where the money is. Tables fashioned as crocodiles and statues of men with masks and spears. If you are seen giving a passing glance to something the seller will start his pitch – boss, fifty kina – and you have to retreat behind a layer of indifference and wait for the traffic to inch onward. A regular group set up under the shade of the tree to sell flowers and plants, and often men from Central Province have crabs for sale, their claws bound and squirming uncomfortably on a sheet of cardboard, every so often being squirted with water to prevent them being cooked alive under the sun. When you drive past they proclaim their wares, except their accent warps the word so they sustain a funny chant of “crebs crebs crebs crebs” as you ease past. I would buy some, but I honestly have no idea what to do with a live crab. One day I saw men selling gigantic lobsters and on one of our first days here over two years ago a grinning man was offering a baby wallaby to passers-by (again in both cases I would no idea what to do with these creatures). The other day a man was selling a baby crocodile. “Nice crocodile” he said as we drove past. “I can see it’s a nice crocodile” I snapped as we went past, “and you shouldn’t be selling that shit.” I was scolded for my outburst and was told it was indeed time for me to get outta Moresby.

Once a man saw we were admiring an item of his – I can’t even recall what it was, which makes the episode even more tragic, was it a table or an ebony bowl or a carved mask? – and tried the usual pitch. It was a big thing, whatever it was, and I think he wanted about five hundred kina. The usual “no thanks” and air of disinterest was met with an offer for about fifty kina discount. We continued driving – but as we were getting out the car the man was there, offering us another fifty kina off. Again the attempt at politely declining before heading inside. The newspaper, the orchy, the muttering at Christopher Pearson, the shopping, and about an hour later we return to the car with a full trolley – to find the man waiting for us again, this time armed with an offer of three hundred kina. Uncomfortable at having to decline again and again, we loaded the car. Two hundred and fifty as we shut the boot. By then we had given up saying no thanks, we don’t really need it. Missus, two hundred as the doors shut. One hundred and fifty as the engine started. Then the last attempt as we drove off – Boss, fifty kina! One tenth of the original price. Our car was moving as he made this final offer, and he was trotting along beside the car, leaning down to address me.

As we drove home I felt perturbed, guilty – and annoyed at feeling guilty. I wondered at the man’s desperation to sell, thinking of what kind of circumstances he faced, how much trouble he was in, or who he had stolen it off (a cruel thought but not an impossible scenario). But there’s always that odd and slightly shamed feeling when faced by the desperate – I merely gave the object a passing glance, I did not say I wanted it or ask how much it was, I did not want to be followed and would rather be left alone, it would be easier for me if you were not here right now, if you and your desperation just went away. Wonderful, wealthy white guilt. At least if you don’t give a fuck you’re not a hypocrite.

And lo!

And lo! the Good Prophet came down from the mountain.

And the people rejoiced and greeted the Good Prophet with upraised arms.

Actually that’s just the GeeGee busting a move during the warm-up session at the Sir Anthony Siaguru Walk Against Corruption, which a silly dimdim familiar to some of you was heavily (too heavily) involved in organising.

The picture and link are on Ilya’s blog. Ilya is the AAP man in PNG and probably responsible for many of the ghastly stories you read about PNG in the Australian media, but the Walk Against Corruption DID make it into the Sydney Morning Herald so in true communications hack style I must hail him as a gentleman and true professional for getting my issue in press. Also, seeing as he did me the courtesy of announcing the presence of my blog on his own I felt I must return the favour – even though he DID out my secret identity and place of employment. Oh well. Bruce Wayne I aint…

Foreigners and their baggage

… and just in case anyone has been paying attention to the news from over here – no I am not burning and looting any shops owned by Asians!!!

For those who came in late – a bunch of self-styled Port Moresby grassroots defenders (known to the organisation I work for, incidentally, although definitely not approved of) recently organised a few protests against the exploitation of local workers by Asian employers, and also the general corruption and mismanagement of labour and immigration in PNG that allows these situations to continue. These grassroots defenders can often be caught at markets with megaphones, haranguing attentive crowds with megaphones in a fashions quite similar to the many Godly zealots tramping the street.

The grievances are justified if obviously racist at times, however the situation is also beset by plenty of misunderstanding. An example of the former situation would be the Chinese ‘engineers’ brought to PNG on special visas, photographed receiving special treatment at airports from immigration officials and who were subsequently witnessed mopping floors – a job supposedly reserved for local unskilled workers. An example of the latter would be the incident at a Ramu Nickel mine site recently, when a recently injured local worker was evacuated by boat after sustaining a bad injury. His PNGean colleagues insisted he be airlifted out but to no avail, and word soon filtered back to the mine that the man had died en route to hospital. A riot ensued, expensive equipment was destroyed and a few Chinese workers were bashed. The last I heard the injured man whose ‘death’ sparked the incident is still alive and kicking.

The protest organisers say they wanted a peaceful protest and initially I had no reason to disbelieve them. Yet I eventually found this claim hard to stomach having spoken to one of them and gleaned his enthusiasm for an email going around demanding that all Asian ‘cottage’ businesses be torched on December 31 by way of welcoming 2010. The guy was happy enough to be quoted on Radio NZ describing these Asians as ‘animals’ and ‘robbers’ as well. I’m personally happy that I had the chance to inform him that he had just sprung an old Australian/NZ media trap – the depiction of PNG as a country full of savagery and barbarism. Congratulations friend, the world thinks so highly of you and your country as a result of your ‘robbers and animals’ call, while plenty of decent folk continue to get lumped with the travestial flesh-eating spear-chucking stereotype.

In any case the protests were never going to stay peaceful – and it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that if they ever thought would stay peaceful then they are really, really, REALLY dumb. The fallout: Asian-owned shops in Moresby closed after a day of random destruction and looting. People were shot by the cops in the Highlands as they attempted to pillage abandoned Asian trade stores. A lot of small-time, hard working shop owners are probably thinking of a career in another country (that would include third-fourth-fifth generation Papua New Guineans of Asian descent as well!). The people who they probably didn’t pay enough are now probably going to get paid nothing at all. Meanwhile a certain Malaysian logging and trading company responsible for the worst illegal logging in the country still happily plies its trade, a certain Malaysian tuna cannery still has plans to expand its operations, and a certain Chinese owned mine probably still has ‘engineers’ mopping floors. Asian gambling and illegal visa rings will still operate, the seedy criminal underworld I can only speculate on still makes a nice buck of two, and the dodgy officials in immigration and labour departments (not to mention fatcat department heads and members of parliament) get even fatter and happier. But never mind, a blow has been struck against the vendors of cheap imported button-up shirts and bain-marie stews. Viva le lynch mob!

Familiar foreigns.

Familiarity can be shocking. Sounds strange, and admittedly it’s not always true – familiarity is obviously often a relief, a comfort. The dependable idea is that familiarity is a rare thing, an oasis, a refuge in a mealstrom of the strange and new. But sometimes there’s an inversion that goes on when you see something from your homeplace ripped from its context. Something well-known but not necessarily loved, something at once everyday but undeserving of contemplation, thrust from its usual habitat and put on a wierd pedestal of dissonance. Dissonant to who? To me of course – to other people it’s just another thing, an artefact of the everyday, regardless of origin or cultural context. The thought that it’s essentially a foreign thing may not be significant – after all, this is a place where technically all trappings of modern life have been imported or imposed within the last century or so. Are objects foreign when just about everything IS foreign?

Clothing for instance. The bulk of clothes worn over here are second-hand, and most of them get shipped over from Australia. North Queensland Cowboys and other rugby league paraphernalia are common. Tacky souvenier garments, many depicting the Aussie flag, are also frequently spotted. One of the young guards at the compound wears a red Liquorland shirt – there’s a former employee’s name stitched on it, I think it says ‘Michael’, but the guard’s name is Paul. He seemed pleased when I explained Liquorland was a ‘stoa blong SP na wiski’. Another guard wears an Electrical Trades Union shirt. A motley of fashion observed at one PMV stop alone last week included a shirt commemorating the Ipswich City Council Nevil Bonner Golf Day, a schoolgirl’s bag asserting that Port Stephens Council was “Always One Step Ahead”, and a guy with a Belmore Hercules Soccer Club 1971 top. The other day in Tabari Place (ie Boroko Market or Boroko Square as I have been erroneously calling it) I spotted a wiry old woman squatting in the dirt at the market, her hair unkempt and her skin weathered by merely living, wearing a black t-shirt bearing a bold slogan in large print: MODELS SUCK. 

Seeing people who are familiar is just as wierd. By ‘people who are familiar’ I simply mean white people who I assume are Australian. Unless they have been introduced (and often even if they have) the question ‘what the hell is your story?’ always jumps to the foremost parts of your thoughts. White people stand out, even in expat havens like Gordons Foodworld and Ela Beach Markets, and the notion that they are intruders of some kind is prevalent in my assessments – despite my own newness here, and despite my own obvious imported self. The thought of seeing a white person in Australia registers no second thought or questioning, even though they all without exception have an ancestry of immigrants and invaders. Over here the sight of a whitey piques curiosity, immediate judgement, and often suspicion. Kit is often bemused and confounded by the sight of AusAid advisers and staff wearing perfectly ironed long-sleeve public servant shirts – how can they be so resolutely the same over here? Yet behaviours of expats is often not the same, despite appearances. The familiarity of whiteness jostles with the hilltop compound living, the ubiquitous cars for transport, the enclaves of shopping and entertainment and socialising that set the expats apart. People who in a sense belong to a similar place as you nonetheless lead lives that would never be entertained back home. Are you elite, or just shitscared?

Dust, marsupials, cassowaries, scrappy vegetation, tropical greens, gleaming waters. Sometimes the landscape around here makes me think that this is just a part of North Queensland gone wierd. It’s as if the very dirt here is the same. Maybe a geologist would affirm or deny that. The senses can be hoodwinked by the landscape around here, for it affirms the fact that the northernmost tip of home is so tantalisingly close, that the land masses were once joined an eon ago – the sense arises that something can’t be that different if it is that close. But there is water between us, there are passports to stamp, letters go in Air Mail envelopes. Even the ABC radio reminds you that you’re elsewhere while dangling morsels of familiarity before you – an hour of test cricket followed by Pacific current affairs broadcast nonetheless from Melbourne, or Radio National news preceded by locally broadcast news read in Tok Pisin (“Prime Minister bilong Australia i tok olsem i gat planti bigpela wari blong world financial crisis”). Yes, North Queensland all askew – then again, who is to say that North Queensland isn’t the place that warps the original intent? I have also felt like an alien there.