About a month ago, I watched a classic movie called “Bridge on the River Kwai.” This is both a review of that movie and of life as an expat. Because in reality there are so many parallels between this movie and living in a country where the society is so different, so … ad hoc.
River Kwai didn’t win seven Oscars for nothing. The slow build of the plot is dotted by scenery and acting that, for the time, was unprecedented in quality. The idea is that a group of captured British and American soldiers are held in a Japanese PoW camp in what is now Thailand. The conditions around the camp are so wild and infested that escape would surely be met by death due to impotable water and ubiquitous disease.
One American soldier named “Shears” (William Holden) escapes, however. Drama around his ordeal aside, this character seems insignificant for most of the film. Meanwhile, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) experiences a special level of detention in the camp because he won’t cooperate with the building of a bridge. For months, he’s kept in a small doghouse, locked away from sun and fed like an animal. He develops a kind of rickets and looks awful. His acting combined with makeup and setting are edgy in terms of bringing you into the feeling of what it was like. It’s important that we feel how he did, too, because we need to understand the will power driving his actions–that he would volunteer for that experience based on principle.
(BTW: The jungle sets and attention to detail in this film are breathtaking for the year it was made.)
Anyway, the Japanese code of honor eventually overcomes the situation as Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) chooses to release Nicholson over killing himself—the bridge has to be built and he can’t figure out how to do it in time. But Nicholson can.
Upon his release, Nicholson is seized by a drive to make his country proud and defy the circumstances—he’s going to build the best bridge known to man and show all the Japanese (and in his mind, the world) what British leadership and workmanship is capable of achieving.
This is where Shears comes back in. We find him recovering from a harrowing escape and near-death levels of disease in a military hospital setting along a tropical beach. He’s pulled out of a fling with a nurse to face Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) who calls his bluff about his rank and gives him an ultimatum. Either go back to the camp and help the Americans blow up the bridge or face imprisonment for lying about status.
Faced with this decision, Shears reluctantly joins Warden and a young officer (this character adds a dash of innocence and objectivity, as does the medic’s character … you just have to watch it) as they cut back through the tropics and find the bridge. This is where I have to stop the review because this is where the best part of the movie occurs. It’s kind of like an amazing song that just builds and builds and then ‘bam!’ it all comes together. The sheer choreography of the plot—the way that the characters dance their way into your interest and make you squirm in your seat, and the way they seem to stand aside to reveal the bigger idea being expressed—is worth studying if you have any interest in film.
When it’s all over, we see Nicholson, Shears and Warden in completely different lights. We don’t know what to feel at first. But eventually, we are kind of left with the concept of principle.
We realize that Nicholson’s drive based on principle is one we all seem to live by. If we look inside ourselves, we are programmed according to principles. And yet, how does that work out when you are in an environment that is, in so many ways, over your head.
Well, it’s easy, you just continue according to your program and then one day you are forced to open your eyes, wide. You see that everyone and everything around you is so much more complicated than it was when your program was developed, back in your hometown, in your school days, at your kitchen table, dorm, first office job, in your first relationships.
If you’re an expat, you’ve actually made a quantum leap. And this movie hit me so hard over the head precisely because it showed me through its artistic precision how that quantum leap renders many principles and programs obsolete. This is especially the case in Qatar, where the jungle is replaced by the unwillingness to leave a nice, comfy existence. The war backdrop and criss-crossing of cultures is replaced by a maniacal pace of human development and mass influx of people from all cultures chiming in their efforts. We are coexisting and it’s strangely similar to what this wartime film examines.
What I’m finding, after almost five years as an expat, is that I have fought this, hard. I insist on my principles and it’s killing me. However, what other principles and programs are there?
A big part of me wakes up some mornings and wants to scrap them all. But that’s not the key either. In fact it’s stupid AND impossible. It’s a very meticulous process to go through experiences with your programs in place, interact with people, discover that they don’t work, try again based on program modifications and find that they still need tweaking and on and on and on.
This is at every level of socialization and living as an expat–from conversations with a bank teller, to ordering sushi over the phone to explaining your standards to a lover and opening yourself to all of these people’s perspectives, sometimes too late, but at least in time to learn. Now, I don’t think a lot of people do this, actually. I think a lot of people go into another country and say “this is me; this place is weird; I’ll make the best of it—neither are changing.”
But I came here, I left the US, to be changed. I was tired of my insular existence. I was tired of being trapped in my original programs. So here I am–open wide. Looking at myself, tweaking, trying, growing, changing, at a pace I can’t even track, from a person I don’t think I’d recognize if I met her.
I study Nicholson because he was so attached to principle that, well, you just have to watch the movie. I don’t want to end up that way. And so every day, I have to look at the lessons and make the modifications. In some cases, as with Filipinos for instance, I have to manage every situation, yet not so much that I’m cruel or cold, which, when I’m really tired of managing every single thing all day long, is a tall order.
Still, I have to. They come from a place and a lifestyle that is laid back and not as intricate and proactive. In fact it’s downright poor there and for me to critique them is really inhumane. At the same time, I have to forgive myself because I have my programming too … thing is, only one of us is ever in a mode to change it. Me.
I come from the opposite society. It’s like a bull running through a China shop when I get into a business situation with these people. But I see now that I am the one with the understanding of the dynamic. And with that understanding comes responsibility and the opportunity to get stronger, more resilient, more in tune, more dynamic, more present, more intuitive. Just plain more. Every day, it’s another onslaught of lessons, totally improv. I pass, I fail, I ace some, I fall on my face. But I’m in it, and every single time I’m sensitive to what happened.
Principle says: “they can see what’s going on, why don’t they think about creative and proactive ways to solve the problem in front of us?!”
Reality says: “they are present, participating in a system according to rules and either too scared or too new to understand how to take the situation to another level.”
In the movie, principle said: never give in, build the bridge to the highest standards, live off pride and shove it in the face of the Japanese.
But reality said something waaaay different. If you are an expat, watch this movie. Even if you’re not, it’s good.