Welcome to my blog. I write about fitting in, sticking out, and missing the motherland as a serial foreigner.

A no-means-no country

A no-means-no country

One of my friends is in the middle of moving from the US to Saudi Arabia, and reading her stories of paperwork and bureaucracy reminded me of how there are two types of countries in this world: countries where no means no (like Finland and usually the US), and countries where no means no, but maybe yes, and maybe maybe (like Russia and most of the Middle Eastern countries I've lived in).

You might think it's objectively better to live in a no-means-no country, where rules have meaning and you can't just do as you please at the expense of others. And to a large extent, it is. If your neighbor starts sawing wood outside to build a deck at 2am in a no-means-no country, well, that's against the rules and you can call someone to enforce that. After living in countries where this is not the case (we had downstairs neighbors in one country who ran their industrial sewing machines all night long during Ramadan and it shook the whole building), I will never be able to take that for granted: the simple idea of "that's against the rules, and I want you to stop, and you have to."

But the flip side of a no-means-no country is that there is often very little room for discretion or forgiveness or sometimes even reason. If paperwork is rejected or a process is done wrong, that's it. No means no.

In a no means no/yes/maybe country, it can be frustrating because you might follow every step of an official process and then be rejected. But said rejection can be changed into a maybe or a yes if the person in charge is in a good mood, or takes pity on you, or disagrees with the official policy and chooses to look the other way. It's terrifying, but also liberating... when it's working in your favor.

Wrapped up in all this is another dichotomy of countries: make-an-appointment countries and just-show-up countries. The UAE is very much a just-show-up country - if you want something done or you need to talk to someone, just go there, unannounced. You'll likely be fed tea or even a complete meal while the business gets done.

I am so embarrassed to even admit that my first week or two in Finland, I treated it like a just-show-up country even though it is totally a make-an-appointment country! I blush to remember that when I was trying to arrange the girls' school once I'd arrived in Turku, I just...showed up there. To talk to the principal! Unannounced! As a total stranger! Looking back, I can't believe I did that. (For the record, the principal must have been used to dealing with clueless, unintentionally rude foreigners and spent an unhurried hour helping me even though he was surely very busy.)

I think on the whole I appreciate living in a no-means-no country, until something official doesn't go my way. Then I wish I could just walk in, drink some (herbal) tea and talk it over, and walk out with a no-means-yes.

August 17th, outsourced

Evening Snack