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What Being a U.S.A. Citizen Working in Seismic Exploration and Living Overseas has Taught Me about Culture and Tolerance

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way.

~ Frank Herbert, Dune

I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.

Dalai Lama

Most understand the significance of petroleum and its connection to politics and the running of the modern world’s economies.  Perhaps fewer comprehend its impact on the regional culture and environment.  The “spice” Melange, which is regarded by many as a metaphor for oil in author Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel Dune, was at the center of galactic commerce and conflict.  Frontiers of oil exploration very often coincide with areas of international geopolitical and cultural tension and dispute.  On earth, one of the oldest petroleum industries started in Burma – current Myanmar – which exported crude oil as early as 1853.  In the current depressed petroleum-economic climate, there is on-going seismic exploration offshore Myanmar.  The previously reclusive and sanctioned government of Myanmar has further opened-up to international business by signing deals with foreign energy companies for exploration.  When I had visited Yangon years before, the U.S. Embassy was closed and protected by a wall.  U.S. visitors were told to go to the nearby U.K. Embassy for any problems.  I visited the old city of Bagan and took a trip down the Irrawaddy River and it was wonderful experience as a tourist.  I am living just south of the Myanmar border in Thailand these days.  The geographic region “Burma” had separated from India in 1935, but was still under the control of the British Empire.  Japan’s interest in the region during the onset of WWII was for raw materials and rail transport into China.  The modern name, Myanmar, reflects the rejection of the colonial naming which referenced the regional dominant culture.  Myanmar still struggles for its own cultural identity apart from the Indians who streamed into Burma to aid and support the building of the new colony, as well as the British, Chinese and other dominant National influences.

Myanmar’s neighbor, Thailand, proudly exists as a political anomaly in the region.  Thailand was never formally colonized by European powers.  Prior to colonization of its neighbors, the political map was defined historically through a series of invasions and retreats of the different regional kingdoms.  The Theravada Buddhists religious influence is apparent in the many temples that dawn the landscape.  Near the borders and away from influences of the dominant regional language and culture, Hill Tribes wear different fashion, speak different languages and traditionally practice a version of Animism, but also get the attention now of both Christian and Muslim missionaries in addition to the Buddhists.  This cultural anecdote has been played over time on every continent.  A dominant foreign culture overshadows the regional cultural textures and differences of the indigenous peoples.  Within these textures are the established rivalries and alliances which existed long before.  They seem not to exist when viewed casually from a safe cultural distance that ignores the colored histories and instead supplants a new normalcy.  Thailand has assimilated to become a destination for tourists where Western culture and franchises blend with the traditional culture.  Myanmar had resisted such a blend.  Thailand’s King Mongkut (Rama IV) is highly regarded as a wise leader who bargained to learn the language and customs of Great Britain, while retaining national sovereignty.  This leader and his accomplishments have been reduced to a man who learned such sensibilities from a woman who was hired to teach English to his Court.  Anna and the King of Siam, a semi-historical version of this history has been written by the teacher, Anna Leonowens.  However, that an English woman was involved in the Kingly business of Siam – now Thailand – is rejected and the story, along with its several adaptations, is rejected by the Thai people.  Sometimes dominant cultures overlook the histories before their influence changed the cultural landscape.

While working within the marine seismic business over the years, I have lived and worked in many places which were considered dangerous.  Perhaps my wanderlust and curiosity provided me with a halo such that I never really felt too much in danger.  My first overseas offshore assignment took me to the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi.  Abu Dhabi is an Emirate which recognizes Islam as the official State religion, and the calls to prayer throughout the day remind everyone of this.  Because of visa issues, the vessel crew had 3-5 day stays in the city prior to boarding the vessel and working on the project.  The Company did place some restrictions on activities during the waiting period, but there was still the opportunity to get to know the city a little.  The large project offshore Abu Dhabi lasted quite a long time, and at some point I required an update on my offshore safety certificates.  The extended stay in Abu Dhabi allowed me the time to take the courses there.  My co-workers did not need courses and so I took the course outside the group.   As it happened, the course was almost canceled because of low attendance.  But, as there were two us who could share and practice the lessons together, the course continued.  My classmate was an Iranian.   There was little time to speak of politics or religion.  We did not really consider any problems beyond cooperating to solve the practiced offshore safety lesson requirements.  An American (USA) and Iranian were the only two class participants.  We both successfully completed the course only through working together.  Neither of us could have completed the course alone.  In our daily work lives we mostly need to concentrate and cooperate on the immediate issues at hand, and as interesting and significant as politics and religion is to one’s personal lives, their consideration while working is minimal while navigating and processing shot-point data.  I had different onshore assignment processing seismic data at the office in Abu Dhabi where I also interacted with a variety of Nationalities and religions.

I had just arrived to Da Lat, Viet Nam and had wandered into a coffee shop when I was told that the World Trade Center buildings in New York, U.S. had been destroyed along with the Pentagon building! The coffee shop staff had recognized that I was an American (U.S.).  I was in disbelief.  Probably for the first time during my travels abroad, I actually took a taxi specifically to find an internet café as soon as possible to learn more details.  While this was my first visit to Da Lat, I had traveled through Viet Nam before during my time off the vessels.  Throughout my journeys to the different tourist exhibits on prior trips, I had experienced the sobering encounter with the U.S. – my country – history of its past military adventures within that country from their perspectives.  I had seen many photos and displays of equipment and destruction, and visited arrays of tunnels dug during the conflict.  The Viet Nam people – at least through the government tourist sites – seemed to separate the people of the U.S. from its government.  Many seemed to have forgiven the U.S. adventures.  President Clinton had visited and there was hope for the future of Viet Nam re-entering the family of nations for trade and tourism.  The people of Viet Nam were generally concerned and sympathetic toward me and the loss to the USA on 9-11, while at the same time vivid memories were preserved of a less-than-gentle past.

I was working offshore Saudi Arabia near the border with Kuwait when there was the build-up and preparation for military action in Iraq which followed 9-11.  The seismic and support vessels had to pass by several naval vessels – hospital and support ships – on the way to the survey site.  Some of the crew had opted out of that assignment and did not make it to this project rotation.  Military aircraft were seen and heard flying above.  There had been a series of conditions that were put in place to determine whether the project work would even continue.  Whether or not the action was affirmed, or other military activity which escalated the dangers to crew defined the criteria of whether the survey would be completed.  Many of the conditions were in fact violated with the risks being re-evaluated and conditions reset.  Many of the crew were upset, but the rotation completed.  Travel onshore within the country was monitored and secured for the mostly Western crew.  While on the vessels, I worked among individuals from many different countries with different religions, including Islam.  Muslims were co-workers, vessel crew, client representatives, and clients themselves.  The projects were purposed to provide seismic maps to locate oil and gas reserves, and not to hash-out international relations beyond cooperating to complete the project.  Nevertheless, it would have been impossible to ignore the political environment and ramifications surrounding that geophysical survey project especially.

There are two traditions in Northern Ireland. There are two main religious denominations. But there is only one true moral denomination. And it wants peace.

David Trimble

Local content carries an expansive meaning, but within the oil and gas industry it is generally recognized as an intervention by a national government aimed at ensuring that the majority of the goods and services required at each stage of the oil and gas value chain are locally supplied.

Jubilee Easo and Angela Wallace

On the way to one of my first rotation assignments onshore in Luanda, Angola, the flight was delayed en route (for lack of fuel, of all things), and so there was some chance to get to know other passengers beyond those seated nearby on the plane.  I met South African “miners” who were also delayed.  Not thinking too much beyond simple pleasantries, I assumed they too were involved in mineral exploration of a different sort.  But, these “miners” were on their way to Angola missioned to find undetonated munitions from the long civil war which finally ended in 2002.  Angola had become a Cold War battlefield for over 26 years.  Security for foreign workers was an important consideration given the history.  As a geophysicist and former backpacker who had trekked through many countries, I never felt any danger.  The Luanda seismic data processing center was a friendly mix of Irish, Dutch, Italian, Egyptian, Greek, English, and myself, U.S.A., amongst the Angolan hosts.  The most tension that I ever felt around me while in Angola was during the World Cup competition.  I never really engaged in political discussions while working within the country.  On the other hand, the level of my Portuguese challenged complicated conversation of any local topic.  However, Angola, with its rapid rise as a significant oil producer on the African continent, has not diversified its economy so much and so the drop in oil prices has had an impact.  The office dynamic in Lagos, Nigeria was similarly filled with diversity.  In addition to the international diversity, the office also included Christian and Muslim Nigerians cooperating and working together.  Foreign companies who want contracts for work within both Angola and Nigeria do so under the agreement to provide “local content” or in other words train, develop, and employ people and businesses from the local culture.  Countries now do not want to be culturally dominated and overwhelmed by foreign interests above their own National interests and fend off complete corporate colonization.

Following many rotation assignments on vessels and in West Africa, my first “stationary” assignment was at a seismic data processing center in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia.  The Petronas Towers is an indicator of the significance of the petroleum industry to Malaysia.  KL is a very culturally diverse city.  While the majority of Malaysians are Muslims, many cultures and religions are officially recognized.  There are more public holiday’s there than any other country where I had worked.  Although, European Union membership mandates a mandatory five-week holiday schedule.  The blend of Asian and Western influence is felt throughout the city.  Like so many countries, including the U.S., one of Malaysia’s celebration days is for when they gained their independence from Great Britain.  The other public holiday’s honor Islam, Chinese, and India traditions.  KL hosts a truly global workforce, many from the oil and gas sector.  As a U.S. citizen, I understood that the hosts in the countries where I worked had different political views from that of the government of the U.S., especially concerning some of the anti-Islamic rhetoric which was a back-drop to the U.S. – my country of citizenship – led invasions of predominantly Islamic dominated countries.  But, just as in Viet Nam, people separate national leadership ideology from that of their citizens.  Perhaps it is because within most countries, citizens deal with the textured differences which are part of their local and national political experience outside the dominant culture.  And this is what one can learn when they place themselves apart from the hegemonic perspective.

It seems too often that people pretend amiability on the big things outside because it is easier than dealing with acrimony in the small differences within.  The ideals of the U.S., through its Constitution, profess religious freedom and tolerance.  While Christianity is the numerically largest classified religion within the U.S., there are hundreds of denominations – types – of Christianity with their own churches which populate every city. Each denomination professes its own unique interpretation of the Gospel and The Holy Bible.  Some interpretations are much different from others, to the extent that within the U.S. and abroad some denominations that also identify as Christian may not consider the others Christian at all!  All U.S. religions are then layered over indigenous beliefs.  In fact, to the extent that Islam honors Jesus as a prophet born of the similarly highly regarded virgin mother, some practicing denominations of Islam on the other side of the world may be closer ideologically, in many significant ways, to one’s own beliefs than those professed by the church across the street.   And of course, the U.S. also is home to a vast population who originned from many different countries and/or who practiced many different non-Christian religions.  And then there are the textures beyond religious affiliation.  Sentiments and resentments from the U.S. War between the Northern and Southern States or Civil War, persists over 150 years from when it was finished.  There are two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, which compete to hold power within the country.  The Republicans are Conservative, whereas the Democrats are Progressive.  Some profess the balance of power which is derived from States Rights, while another may say it comes from the Central – Federal Government.These are the textures within the dominant culture (and military) on the globe.  The stated foreign and domestic political strategy and objectives of each party are much different, while the elections which determine which policies prevail may be numerically very close.  And the truth is that every country or religion has a diversity expanding from its own central or professed ideology which intersects and diverges through the cultures which surround it.  And this is why one should have no fear of Muslims.  There is no ubiquitous Islam in the same way that there is no ubiquitous Christian.  These are but surface identifiers which cover textured layers of diversity.  The points of contention are in the details.

Identifiers not attached to actions espoused in the ideology should not count for too much.  If one identifies as a Christian, then certain emulation of the actions of Jesus Christ is expected, not necessarily the wearing of a cross necklace or tattoo.  There are many proclaimed Christians incarcerated for violent non-Christian actions.  The infamous corporate swindler Enron professed core values of Communication, Respect, and Integrity.  Yet, Enron’s own CEO Jeffrey Skilling was convicted on not abiding by those values, amongst other things.  Self-proclaimed identifiers are just that.  I have lived and worked amongst many Muslims and have been treated respectfully and ethically.  I can say the same about Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists.  I have worked within countries whose political history and ideology more closely identifies with the U.S. and for corporate entities espousing lofty ideals, and yet I have been treated horribly.  IS and Al Queda both self-identify as Muslims.  Both denounce U.S. politics, militarism, and culture.  However, underneath the identifier “Muslim”, IS and Al Queda disagree ideologically in several significant ways.  And what does this tell us?  It tells us that identifying and labelling by a broad brush of religious affiliation tells us very little about the individuals or groups culture, beliefs and motivators similar to identifying an individual or group as “Christian”, “Hindu” or “Buddhist”.  It is a shiny easy to spot veneer covering a complex conglomerate of different textures.  But, both the significant problems as well as their solutions exist below that veneer.  There may be many points of disagreement, just as there are many points of commonality.  Without understanding this, a solution or point of agreement for some may differ significantly from others with the same religious affiliation.

Oil reservoirs form below in the subsurface rock formations and trespass the geographic political borders above them.  Oil is also a global commodity for energy production and economic growth.   Because of this, oil and gas exploration becomes not only dependent on the interpretation of geological intricacies which encase the commodity, but more so on the political and cultural environment which define and govern its exploration and exploitation.  More and more nations want sovereignty and control over the development and access to this resource.  An animosity or fear of Muslims is foolish and counterproductive for those involved in oil exploration and production.  Muslims occupy the political space.  The regional and cultural tensions within the political borders of countries such as Nigeria illustrate this.  Nigeria militant group Boko Haram, which translates to English as Western education is forbidden, originally affiliated itself with Al Queda.  However, recently Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).  This is significant because it underscores the ideological and objective differences between the two Islamic groups.  Both Islam aligned groups oppose Western ideology, but also oppose each other because their interpretations of Islam are unique.  Such differences complicate situations in Syria, for instance, where there are no clear or congruent policies which coincide with Western dominated interests.  Both Islamic groups partially fund their activities through the theft of oil in the regions of conflict.  If Western countries conflate Islam through combining both Al Queda and IS as the same Islam when they clearly are not, then more moderate Muslims who wish to be part of the global community are left with little alternative than to stand against such overly simplistic rhetoric.  What is lost with poor generalization is the many textures and differences within Islam.  The West should understand such generalizations simply through reviewing their tumultuous histories of challenging dominant Christian denominations to form their own.  I have no fear of Muslims or Islam because such emotion is too general and rebuts personal experience.  Like oil exploration, the difference is in better understanding the details.  Let’s not forget that.

Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.

Mahatma Gandhi

We tend to become like the worst in those we oppose.

Frank Herbert