Saturday, 26 November 2016

Reverse culture shock

People often talk about reverse culture shock, like it's just another first-world problem. For example:
- Having to leave the house an hour early to get to work on time, and they're *still* running late.
- Experiencing rude customer service at a shop.
- ZOMG beer is so expensive again.
- All I want to talk about is my amazing travels over the past years, and none of my friends really get it.

These certainly can be challenging experiences for a recently-returned expat. But it's not what keeps me up at night.

I'll tell you what does.

When working in a developing country, you become super-aware of all the usual development issues. Whether it's gender inequality, hatred / discrimination against those of a particular cultural identity, access to education, gender-based violence, insufficient rule of law, political corruption, or just an unwillingness to follow due process, you become more finely attuned to the social justice pitfalls of the region.

And there are definitely times when I've thought to myself, "This place is f***ed. I just want to go home."

The problem is - by that stage, I already had a rose-tinted perspective what things were really like back home. Maybe before I left, my immediate social circle was more progressive, or maybe I'd just forgotten. And it's easier to be judgmental when you're an outsider looking in.

But returning home - to "civilisation" when your brain is on development worker mode is a bit like turning the light on when you've got night-vision goggles on. It's overwhelming.

And it's not just neglect or apathy when it comes to social justice matters. People actively fight against what I consider to be progressive social stances. From politicians using refugees and terrorism as a way of dividing communities and scoring political points, to people being openly racist and misogynistic in the streets, and taunting "lefties" to go hide in their "safe spaces", lest they be "triggered". It's getting really nasty, and I don't remember things being this bad when I left? Maybe it was, and I just hadn't noticed. Working and travelling overseas broadens your perspective, but also makes you notice these things more.

Worst of all, it feels like those who aren't perpetrating, are too self-involved in their own lives to worry about what's going on around them. Maybe it's a survival instinct, and they've got enough on their minds, worrying about their careers and mortgages and families and upcoming business meetings. 

I can understand that. I've been lucky, and since returning two months ago, managed to pick up work with some amazing employers, but it's kept me so busy that it's all that I can really focus on right now, along with working out where I'm going to live, and if I need to leave the house an hour early to get to work on time.

But when I look up from my work, and listen to the prevailing discourse, can't help but feel that sense of dread that this country is going to hell in a handbasket, and it's taking us all with it.

So, maybe that's what reverse culture shock is - an inability to manage one's expectations because you've come to see the world more clearly for what it really is.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Unexpected Journey continues...

So, this afternoon, I am back on the road again, both figuratively and actually.

When I spoke at the ALIA National Conference in 2014, my paper was titled "The road goes ever on and on: a Librarian's Unexpected Journey." I never expected that my choice to become a librarian would take me to Darwin, let alone PNG, Vietnam, and the Balkans. I honestly don't know what will come next, but I'm comfortable with that now...

I'm also heading to Belgrade for a few days. From Pristina, it's a problematic journey, as I need to enter Serbia via one of its official border crossings, which means travelling two hours in the opposite direction (i.e. South) and then catching another bus from Skopje, Macedonia, which will then take me North the long way around. But I'm looking forward to spending some relaxing time floating on the Danube River and visiting the fortress in Novi Sad.

If you're keen to keep following my adventures, feel free to check out my instagram account where I'll try to take photos of pretty things and places along the way.

Otherwise, that's me checking out of BlogJune for yet another year. Who knows where I'll be, once next June comes around...

- A.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The double-edged sword of democracy...

I like the fact that I come from a democratic country. I also appreciate that, in Australia, democracy is enforced through compulsory voting.

For an example of what happens when voting isn't compulsory, look no further than the recent EU Referendum in the UK. You'll read that 51.9% voted exit, whilst 48.1% voted remain.

What perhaps is more accurate is:
37.4% of registered voters voted exit
34.7% of registered voters voted remain
0.05% of registered voters submitted a blank or informal vote
27.8% of registered voters didn't even vote

And that's not even counting the number of adult UK citizens or residents who weren't registered.

No matter how skeptical you might be able your ability to influence politics, this is an important lesson - if you vote, then it counts. And it's scary that a minority of people in the UK can make this kind of decision that will have social and economical repercussions across the globe.

I mention this because, in two days, Australia has its Federal Election. It's a big one - the result of a double-dissolution of parliament (not to be confused with being doubly-disillusioned, which is what I imagine many people feel about the current two-party system).

Being overseas, it would be easy for me to say, "Oh, I'm out of the country, and it's too hard to find a way to vote." It happened last time, when I went to the Australian Embassy in Singapore to vote, only to find that they'd published the dates incorrectly on the website, and so I wasn't able to vote, and Tony Abbott became Prime Minister.

This time I'm going to try a bit harder. If I can make it to a voting poll, then so should you. Do your research on your candidates, make sure you've made time to visit a voting station, and exercise your democratic right.

On the point of doing research, I should mention that group voting tickets have been abolished as of this year. So, for the first time, you can vote about the line in the senate, and not worry about your voting being fed into a party's referencing deals. You get to control where your preferences go.

So, Australians, make sure you vote. It's your responsibility, and with great responsibility comes great power. If you don't, then somebody else will, and you may not like the result.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Libraries gave us power...

This is pretty much what I envisage working in a Canadian Library would be like...

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is a neoclassical building that straddles the international border in Quebec and Vermont. The Opera House opened on June 7, 1904, and was deliberately built on the border between Canada and the United States. It was declared a heritage building by both countries in the 1970s. A thick black line runs beneath the seats of the opera house and diagonally across the center of the library's reading room to mark the international boundary. Today, the library has two different entrances (one from each country), and hence, two different addresses. Exiting the library through the opposite entrance requires one to report to the country's customs thereafter. [Wikipedia] Found and photographed by @todseelie. #haskelllibrary #internationalborder #curiousity #explore #adventure #amazing #wanderlust #neverstopexploring #photooftheday #picoftheday #travel #wonder #mytinyatlas #adventure #travel #travelingram #atlasobscura #hidden
A photo posted by Atlas Obscura (@atlasobscura) on

Stereotypes aside (because we all know how much librarians enjoy stereotypes), one of the fascinating parts of working in librarianship / information management abroad is observing the various cultural attitudes to organising, seeking and accessing information. And much of this is tied up with the local attitudes to authority and power.

Whilst I come from a background where we value transparency and open access as a way of removing barriers, others value the scarcity of some information, and the leverage available to those who wield it. The old idea that books should be locked away, lest those who are not worthy are exposed to them, are extended to electronic files. Or they see information as having a commercial value - if it can be organised into marketable knowledge products, then they will make a tidy profit.

As information becomes more accessible and abundant, it is that scarce knowledge that becomes the real information commodity. It's not necessarily something that I've considered at depth in Australia - I guess I've always come to appreciate information as something that's ubiquitous and open, and libraries do wonders as a great disseminator and equaliser. However, it's these rare commodities that libraries hold that are also important. Whether it's the magic of witnessing a unique ancient manuscript first-hand, or getting the first copy of a popular author's upcoming novel, or being responsible for handling strictly confidential information. In a manner of speaking, libraries do give us power, by the way of knowledge. So, by that token, with great libraries comes great responsibility.

Monday, 27 June 2016

To blog or not to blog about work...

I used to blog about work a lot. This was back in 2007, when I was a new librarian and would blog about my experiences as a new professional, the successes and setbacks, aspirations and frustrations. I was also very careful not to directly criticise my employer - if there was criticism, it was always directed at the industry at large, which also seemed to work, since many of the endemic problems of the industry are common across the sector.

Also, through my studies, there has been a growing trend for LIS students to be tasked with writing a blog, as a means of reflecting on professional topics, and critiquing them against their own personal and professional findings. Similarly, in the wildly successful "23 things" e-learning program, librarians were encouraged to blog as a means of actively reflecting on and sharing their learning experience, in the context of the application of new technologies in their own work. This is certainly most effective when critiquing their own work environment, and evaluating the relevance / feasibility of introducing of such technologies to their workplace.

However, through recent years, I've had progressively diminishing license to reflect and critique my professional work in practice, through a blog. During my assignments with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, participants were instructed to refrain from posting anything on social media that might bring the program, the host country, or the host organisation into disrepute. Now, being in a developing country, there are going to be an assortment of challenges, whether it be the local approach to professional practices, social barriers, lack of resources, and the list goes on. And, given that miscommunication and misunderstanding is also easy in this context, if one of my colleagues were to discover a blog where I describe all the problems of working in said country, it may not be received well by my host organisation or country. So, that much is understandable, and if I ever blogged about my work in the AVID program, it would focus on the positive experiences.

Most recently, though, I've been in a position where I don't blog about work at all. I don't even mention my current employer's name on social media; the only connection I have to my employer is through my LinkedIn page. To blog about work would be to jeopardise my entire future career in the sector, and the only time that any real critical discourse comes into the public sphere is when a high-level official retires and their parting gift is a damning testimonial. Again, I understand that operational information can be sensitive, and criticism can bring the organisation into disrepute, but I still do believe that having open discourse on professional practices is a healthy way to address some of the issues in the industry. On the other hand, by creating insular bubbles, there is the risk that the critical evaluation of practices will be, at best, discouraged, and at worst, result in negative repercussions.

This, of course, is pure speculation - I'm not exactly at liberty to blog about these issues to more specific detail. I wish I could - it would certainly be of interest to others working in information management who might be interested in entering my sector.

Do you blog about work? If so, what limitations do you set about what you will or won't blog about?

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Sort-of-Monday Meme

So, it might be Monday in Australia, where Fiona is blogging, but it's still Sunday here. And because I'm a little short on substance, I thought I'd use it as a convenient topic for today's blog. So here goes...
  1. The most recent text you received was… thanks! See u in a few min
  2. What is an overused word or saying that you hate? Lately, it's been "edition" - especially when it's not about a written publication.
  3. What was the last book that you read? Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
  4. The best purchase you’ve made recently? A tote bag from the Bodelian Library.
  5. What was the last image you posted on social media and why? 

  6. A photo posted by Andrew F (@lib_idol) on

  7. What was the last movie you saw? Warcraft. Yes, I admit it. It was terrible, and yet still better than Batman vs Superman.
  8. What is the last risk you took and how did it turn out? Deciding not to renew my current contract. So far, it feels like it has been the right decision.
  9. What kind of mood were you in today? Irritable. I wanted to wake up early and go for a long walk before it got too hot. I slept in, and then it was too hot.
  10. What has been your biggest challenge lately? Personal budgeting.
  11. What is one new thing you have learned? Catfish are the only animals that naturally have an odd number of whiskers.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Bitten by the travel bug...

There was a time when I was never really interested in travel. After moving to Darwin back in 2006, I was in a unique position to be able to travel all over the outback, as well as be a short and relatively cheap flight away from Singapore and the rest of South-East Asia. I had a decent salary, and six weeks of annual leave. But, to be honest, I was mostly focused on my career, and didn't see the appeal of travelling; I didn't even have a passport back then. Looking back, I cringe when I think of how much I spent on trips down to Sydney and Melbourne, when I could have been visiting new and otherwise exciting places.

Now, almost ten years later, it's a different story. My work has taken me to the other side of the world, and with it, new and fascinating places. The more I travel, the more I want to travel, so much so that it's become part of who I am now. Every time I visit a new place, and pick up a map of the city, I eventually bring it home and stick it up on my wall. It's a growing reminder of how incredible my life has been this past year, and how much more there is yet to discover.

Challenge for the day - name all these locations...
It's also made me appreciate the diversity of the region I live in. It's amazing to think that I live within a couple of hours' flight from over fifty different countries. And my perpetual FOMO compels me to try to see as many of them as possible in my time here. So far, in these past 14 months, I've tallied 17 countries, so there's still plenty to go... I'm hoping to add at least five or six more in the next few months!

And finally, it's made me determined to make the most of the opportunities to also be a tourist in Australia. Whilst I've visited plenty of my home nation, there's still much that I have yet to discover!