It was one of those days of indignity where even the simplest tasks ended in failure. A trip to the bank became a bureaucratic farce of extra paperwork. An action performed successfully countless times like hailing a taxi or buying lunch on the street somewhere ended in failure. “This place won today,” one of our colleagues used to announce from time to time. “All I can say is that today I am defeated.”
On this particular day of defeat, we sat commiserating in the office, laughing in that frustrated way that signals final surrender to a greater malign force. One of us said, “This place is like a well-oiled machine. One that’s been shattered to pieces and then poorly reassembled to crash in on itself over and over again.”
Just then, Williams swiveled around in his black leather chair and faced us. He’d been here a decade longer than any of us, so his observations had a little more gravitas to them. He was neither that jaded type everyone avoids at gatherings who abhors everything about his host country nor, equally awful, some irritating Pollyanna apologist. He simply saw both the good and the bad of the place and could generally be relied on for some context.
“You know,” Williams said, “We have a saying here: they fuck it up.”
“What?” we asked incredulously. “That’s not a saying. I mean…you just said it now, but ‘they fuck it up’ is not a saying. That would be like telling us, ‘We have a saying here: it’s raining outside’ or ‘We have a saying here: I’m hungry’.”
Williams looked unbothered as he slowly sipped his green tea from a ceramic mug adorned with dragons or something.
“They fuck it up,” he said again as though he felt no reason to justify himself to us.
Over the next few days, we continued to laugh and retell the story about Williams and his dubious saying to our wider social circle. And then it quickly became a kind of inside joke for us. When the GPS on our taxi app wasn’t working right or a restaurant brought everyone’s order except one, one of us would reliably observe, “They fuck it up,” or “You know, we’ve a got a saying here,” and everyone would burst out laughing.
It was such an odd phrase when you really thought about it, which we never actually did. The bigotry of it aside, it didn’t make a lot of sense as a saying. Who were the they in the expression? The government? The various overseers of the social framework connecting and supporting all the members of this vast community? Every individual citizen of the country by virtue of place of birth? It wasn’t clear. The only thing that was indisputable was that there was a they and that they were responsible for fucking it up, whatever it was.
One of us had flown to Japan for the long weekend but the flight had been delayed for hours because some old peasant woman had kept trying to open the emergency exit door on the runway. As we listened to the story, we all proclaimed in near unison, “They fuck it up.”
An article ran in the news about a beautiful botanical garden that had been trampled to ruin by thousands of people searching for the perfect selfie background for their social media posts. A food stall was exposed for dredging up frying oil from the sewers to reuse. Zoo visitors had stoned a kangaroo to death to try to get it to react for a picture. “They fuck it up,” we confirmed.
And so over time, through some bizarre transubstantiation, “They fuck it up,” became ubiquitous enough in our group lexicon that we guessed you could, in fact, consider it a saying. Sometimes we didn’t even utter the words. One of us would just remark, “I believe the Williams Maxim applies here”, and everyone else would quickly agree, “Oh yes, this is definitely the Williams Maxim at work.”
One of us even said it in front of Williams at work not long before he left the country to go teach public school back home on the Gold Coast somewhere. Some new policy had made transferring money internationally even more onerous, which seemed impossible, and this guy concluded, “They fuck it up.” Williams had no visible reaction but instead just repeated the words in solidarity. It was as though the guy had said, “When it rains, it pours” or “You win some, you lose some.”
Much later we began to wonder if the Williams Maxim had been Williams’s invention at all. We considered whether or not it was actually true that Williams had just been trying to be part of the conversation by offering up this comical non-saying, which had then unexpectedly become a saying through irony and repetition. What if that hadn’t been the case? What if, years before, Williams had first been introduced to, “They fuck it up,” by someone else, laughed at its ridiculous unsuitability as a saying and then joked about it long enough that it gained legitimacy? What if one of us one day would be mocked for relating the same expression to our younger colleagues only to have it then eventually take hold for them too? Maybe the Williams Maxim was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a collection of words that asserted their inevitability as a saying.
Eventually, most of us returned to our home countries or moved on to new foreign locations for work. We settled into our new routines and began to experience the ups and downs of living anywhere. We noticed that the banks were still annoying, the airports were a complete headache full of irrational, maniac travelers and the restaurants regularly made mistakes. When we read the news, it was full of stupid people doing stupid things. None of us had found a paradise free of what had frustrated us so much before. What we now lacked, however, was a pithy go-to saying to capture the essence of our disappointment.