Sooner or later while working abroad, your values are likely to be challenged. If the salary is good, helping to build a next egg and financial security for you and your family, you may face a quandary. Keep quiet, do what’s expected, accept what might be unprofessional or abusive treatment, or ask questions, challenge the conventional wisdom, draw the line on what you’re willing to do, speak up (even diplomatically or with a smile), blow the whistle, and risk loss of relationships, expulsion, termination or resignation.
Foreigners often feel they have less power and authority in the workplace than in their home countries. Sometimes, however, especially in high-level positions, the rules, transparency, protections and accountability workers would face at home are not present in the foreign country. In some cases, expats actually have more power and authority than they would at home.
Are you nation-building? Helping a country modernize? Engaging in cultural imperialism? Are you collaborating with oppressors? Casting a blind eye to unprofessional, abusive, illegal behavior and corruption, or participating in it?
As I encountered resistance from students who were required to learn English in the form of widespread cheating, I began to wonder whether I was a cultural imperialist — attempting to impose my language and values on nations or at least students that did not really want them.
And yet English is the global language of business. Students and nations who embrace English will unquestionably expand economic opportunities if they learn to speak it. But requirements to learn English can come from the top down — a country’s leadership, or parents — without buy-in from the students.
I could imagine the resistance or rebellion in the United States if the top leadership of the country insisted that the entire population must become fluent in Spanish or some other language. In a global economy, I was privileged not to have to learn a foreign language. Others had to learn my native language.
I joked with my brother-in-law that I was paid to speak English. He retorted, “I’ll pay you to shut up.” A Turkish colleague loved this anecdote, and reminded me of it often. “I’ll pay you to shut up.”
When I started teaching communications at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE, leaders told us we were nation-building: a young country, only 40 years old, needed help creating professional media and educational standards, modernizing its media infrastructure, learning about media law, journalism, public relations; the marketplace of ideas, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The university embraced accreditation requirements from American institutions.
These Western accreditation standards required me to teach the rationale behind freedom of speech, press, religion, the right of citizens to petition their government and engage in freedom of assembly. But I also had to inform students, without expressing an opinion that the UAE government enforced media laws that by Western standards were severe. And I had to report that the UAE frequently cracked down on free speech rights.
When students advocated authoritarian positions, I did not argue or challenge them. I simply showed them the choices societies have to make, each with an upside and a downside. I hoped they would learn from the historical experiences of Europeans and Americans, but ultimately their country would have to make its own choices.
I engaged in self-censorship in terms of what I taught students. I did not ask obvious questions on sensitive topics. I cast blind eyes to obvious injustice. I did not challenge or speak out against obvious wrong-doing. At times, I asked myself whether I was collaborating with oppressors. You can only do this so long before you feel you are losing your intellectual integrity.