Hit from Behind

By Cherie Brown

Employment as an educator beyond one’s own country alongside other similar professional exiles brings a unique set of challenges, and sometimes glorious opportunities, to toss about a little light cultural ‘baggage.’

The jokes and quips and cultural references of an in group, who share a common background, may not always be transparent to everyone else within one’s small international teaching community, since we come from (to each other at least) diverse romantic and exotic locations, but there will always be one or two kindred souls with whom we can share a knowing chuckle, or if we are superlatively lucky, someone who we can, with a degree of impunity, completely wind up with a well-planned, well-executed and affectionate prank.

Aussies and New Zealanders are particularly skilled at this, since we have, at many points, a strong shared history, but also a long-standing, mutually tender disdain for each other, a bit like that of irascible but ultimately loyal young siblings when they come under fire from a common enemy. Mostly, this is expressed through our rival claims to the invention of the hyperglycemic dessert Pavlova, or the roots of the recipe for ANZAC biscuits, or when we feel particularly miffed, the enthusiasm with which we are each likely to disavow ownership of Russell Crowe when he has been behaving badly, or conversely, to declare him our blood cousin when he has not. Simply put, we fully enjoy, nay purposely seek out, occasions on which to “pull the other’s leg” as we say. It’s a kind of patriotic responsibility, exacerbated by being cast up in Neverland, where we can taunt a few cultural crocodiles and hopefully, get away without losing a hand.


Let me elaborate. I think I’m a reasonably typical Kiwi (apart from my abhorrence of rugby, but that’s a whole other story, best saved for a cold Speights in a South Island pub that has a handy exit). Stereotypically practical, down-to-earth, I’m normally a go-with-the-flow type, phlegmatic, somewhat introverted even, in the acknowledged self-deprecating way which is the cultural legacy of 19th Century British colonial farming stock.) My colleague M on the other hand is your usual noisy Australian specimen. Honest and direct, a tad cheeky, and only ever occasionally in need of a soapy mouth rinse. (I blame the convicts.) Above all, when a new idea comes along, he’s unfailingly and delightfully enthusiastic. We share a common sense of Australasian humor, he’s a fabulous sounding board, and a good all round bloke, always willing to have a go at anything… once… You know the type.

Anyway, besides being a lovely guy, he’s a talented fellow educator who inspires my own teaching practice no end, and an excellent listener, who (bless him) never fails to consider my ideas and opinions thoughtfully. All in all, he’s a great ‘mate’ (and for those of you who don’t fully understand English from Downunder, I hasten to add, that word has the strict connotation of ‘friend’, nothing more.) We’ve been near-office neighbors in the EAP Department of our university for several years, and incorrigible verbal jousters ever since we first discovered from which side of the Tasman slime we respectively emerged.

The basic function of our habitual daily repartee, and I surmise, that of other expats who huddle together in similar alien institutions and off-shore professional organizations, is to keep each other sane. If I were really honest, I would say it’s M’s job to keep ME sane… he’s lived abroad longer than I have, so he’s already a bit far gone, but I have come to realize, in the face of the confusing cultural maze which those of us working in distant lands negotiate daily, we expats do, in fact, need a reasonably regular diet of this kind of slightly hysterical collegial banter.

Anyway, back to the point. As I said, M (bless him) is a ‘Stray-yin’, and since I’m a ‘Kiwi’, that automatically puts us, on the metaphorical playing field of life, on friendly, but opposing teams.

And the good-natured rivalry is definitely there, in the form of effervescent teasing and noisy baiting, when I descend on his office for our ritual, end-of-work-day, ten-minute or so ‘catch up.’

You know the sort of thing… Which is better, Aussie Rules or Rugby? The correct pronunciation of the vowels ‘i’ and ‘e’, the quality and nature of relationships between farmers on either side of ‘The Ditch’ and their sheep. The morality of certain bowling techniques in games of international cricket. (Of the latter, let’s just say, Kiwis have loooong memories…)

On these occasions, M and I tend to share funny stories and interesting bits of trivia we have collected through the day, or we complain, with rolling eyes and heavy sighs, about the latest absurdities of our shared not-so-favourite Antipodean politicians.

Earlier, on this particular day, in search of an interesting reading text to use in my class, I had come across a website about an English guy, a certain Roy Bates, a broadcaster, who in the 60’s had gone, literally, out to sea to operate a pirate radio station, beyond the bounds of British legal jurisdiction. Doing this enabled him to broadcast how, when and what he wanted, without the interference of British lawmakers. His base? An old left-over fortress from World War II known as “Fort Roughs Tower”. At the time that Bates took control of the aging structure, it was just outside British territorial waters, sitting, in stormy weather, at an alarming angle in the treacherous North Sea. From there, he was a free man and could do as he pleased.

To truncate the narrative, Bates eventually declared his floating, fortified radio station to be an independent country, with himself Head of State. The name of this tiny new ‘country?’ Sea Land.

Unsurprisingly, this demonstration of independence upset the rigid philtrums of the British establishment, who were not at all happy about the sudden appearance of a new and somewhat belligerent power right on their doorstep.

In pursuit of national ‘security maintenance’, someone eventually sent out a ship, but it ventured just a little too close to the new Principality for Bates’s liking. According to Bates, the crew of this unfortunate vessel had shouted obscenities at his young citizens (Bates’s two teenage children). In response, the younger male Bates apparently fired warning shots across the bow of the boat, forcing it to retreat in a cloud of black smoke.

The conflict went to court, but the liberally minded and wise judge ruled in favour of Prince Roy, arguing that British law had no jurisdiction over the Principality as it lay outside Britain’s (at that time) three-mile economic exclusion zone. Thus, the Prince defeated the mighty English navy, and Britannia, no longer ruler of the watery deep (nor the air waves), just had to ‘suck it up,’ as we say in less courteous parts of Oceania.

The members of the government of Sea Land (the Prince, his wife and their children) turned out to be a progressive and entrepreneurial lot. Eventually, they discovered the marketing potential of the Internet. Via their website, you can now purchase, among other interesting paraphernalia, the following goodies; a certificate indicating citizenship (which will also allow you to claim a connection with Jeremy Clarkson, former host of the popular TV show, ‘Top Gear’, who also has citizenship), a passport (recognized internationally and most valuable), stamps and coins (valid) and a noble title, even.

Yes, you too, for a modest fee, can become a Count or Countess, a Baron or Baroness, though sadly, the royal titles of Prince and Princess are reserved for the Head of State and his immediate descendants.

I found this all rather fascinating, and kind of funny, and I felt like a bit of a laugh, so off I went, at day’s end, to M’s office to let him know of this rare and bless-ed chance to expand his international presence. As his southern cousin, I considered it an act of great magnanimity to inform him of this platinum opportunity, so that he might always have an alternative ‘right of passage’ should he ever experience any difficulties trying to enter a foreign country with an… Australian passport.

Of course, M and I laughed about all this, but knowing my tendency to ‘take the mickey’ he was slightly dubious about the veracity of my story. In spite of all my protestations that I was telling him the truth, he decided, as every good academic (and every fair-dinkum Aussie farm boy) should, to get the information directly from the horse’s mouth. He went straight online, to Professor G-engine., to check out the source of my information.  

He typed a few key words, pushed enter, and sat back in wonder as the details of this strange and compelling land, and its export goods, appeared on his screen, confirming all I had told him.

There, indeed, was the old fortress, just as I had described it, though nowadays looking slightly wobbly on its sea legs and considerably less than pristine. Peeling paint, rusting bars of twisted metal, overall, rather grey and uninviting. But it is located in the notoriously wild and treacherous North Sea, after all. A bit of wear and tear is to be expected.

“So, what do you think?” I asked him. “Wouldn’t you like to …  you know… get a passport, apply for citizenship… just for the hell of it? Could be fun, yes?”

As I had expected, M agreed with me. “Yeah, could come in useful, I s’pose”, he said, laughing.

“But, it looks a bit tatty, don’t you think?” says I, “Could do with a bit of a tidy up, eh?  I mean, if they really want to attract more business, they should do a reno. Give it a coat of fresh paint at least!”

Again, as I had anticipated, M agreed with me.

“So, if they tarted it up a bit… made it look tidy… You know, not so old and run down, you’d be keen?” I pressed him.

“Yeah”, said M. The idea seemed to have grabbed his full attention now (as I said, he’s a thoughtful listener). I had expected this, so I persevered…

“So M, what you are REALLY saying is, if it was refurbished, you would definitely like to become a citizen, yes?”

“Yeah,” said M again. (Very articulate Australian he is.) “Why not?”

“So, if that’s the case,” I continued, trying hard to contain my mirth, “What you mean is that even though you are a loyal Australian, what you really want, deep down in your soul, is to become a citizen of … New SEAland. Right?”

The trap into which he had so readily fallen, now slowly dawned on him. M, clutched his head in despair and groaned. He bowed low, banging his forehead slowly and deliberately on the desk in front of him… twice…

 “You planned that,” he said, deeply chagrined that he had been so easily trounced.

Unable to stop myself, I laughed, right out loud, but not completely unkindly.

“Should have recorded that,” I said, laughing even harder, “Gotcha!”

Again, M groaned. A sound of deep distress, something akin to that of a cow just separated from her first-born calf, emanated from deep within his belly.

“New SEAland! Arrrggghhh!”

At that point, I howled with total abandon. The tears flowed, and M’s tissue box was plundered as I dabbed at my streaming eyes.[1]

Just to put this in context, I must let you know, I have acquired something of a reputation for punishing my workmates with very bad puns. I cannot help it, it’s another characteristic that lies deep within the Kiwi DNA. For years, my colleagues have been taking flight at the sight of me, to escape the mental anguish this hereditary condition inflicts upon them. M is no exception. In fact, after this onslaught, he’s considering therapy…

Unfortunately, as all those who experience them know, such small cross-cultural victories usually come with serious and ongoing consequences. Let this tale serve as a warning to all expat educators out there who choose to enter the fray. You may have the upper hand one day, but the next? Truth is, I now live in a state of unrelenting trepidation. I am pretty… darned… sure, at some stage, in the not-too-distant future, as I wander of an evening along the long, lonely corridors of our university, I am likely to be hit on the head, from behind, by something very hard. Probably a well-polished cricket ball, intentionally bowled… Underarm. Ouch![2]

[1] Said tissue box is normally reserved for students in a state of stress – an uncommon occurrence, I must add, since M, Aussie heritage notwithstanding, is a truly kind and compassionate educator.

[2] Reference to a notorious event during a one day international cricket match in 1981 between New Zealand and Australia, which New Zealanders have never gotten ‘over’ (pardon the pun). Google it.