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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Nationally Confused

When you have lived in and been integrated into more than one culture, exposure to a different mindset changes your own. After that first long sojourn abroad, the true culture shock comes on your first trip back home. People ask seemingly ignorant and annoying questions. You realize that your countrymen’s knowledge of the world is limited to a mixture of TV, myths and illogical conjecture. Their prejudices seem shockingly narrow.

Now that you know a different side of humanity, there’s a temptation to feel a certain smugness in your amplified understanding. That might occur after you’ve integrated into one new culture, inasmuch as such is possible. After the second or third, the smugness evaporates, leading to a feeling of loneliness, of sorts. Few, if any, can identify with your life experiences. You are a foreigner everywhere, even, and perhaps especially, in the place where you were born. Citizenship takes on a very different meaning, as does nationalism. You question the aspects of your own national narrative, with which you may identify, defend, or even reject outright.

Relating to an intimate partner can present a particular dilemma. You are always the foreigner. In many cases, there is a certain cachet to it. In some cases, if foreigners are looked down upon, it can lead to hurtful situations.

Are mentalities so different from one country to the next? I believe they are, especially when you go beyond surface niceties and relate to people in their own language. People have different personalities in different languages. It stands to reason. You learn each language in different environments, at different ages, under different circumstances. Listen to an immigrant speak his native tongue in his adopted country. Listen for the words directly transplanted from the new country’s language into the mother tongue. Although these words almost certainly exist in the immigrant’s native language, the fact that he transplants them show that he had no experience of such a thing prior to moving to his new place.

Language influences mentality. Some languages have no verb tenses. People who speak them as a first idiom relate to time quite differently as opposed to a native speaker of a language with multiple compound tenses. Languages with a subjunctive mood emphasize the subjectivity of certain situations, as opposed to the supposed objectivity of others. Some tongues have a rich lexicon that relates to environmental aspects unique to the respective culture: Inuit languages have many words for ‘snow’, each with it’s own subtle nuances. Japanese has several ways to say ‘no’, ranging from the take-a-hint polite, to the more emphatic variants, used perhaps in the most extreme cases.

Nationality is one pillar, among several, of one’s identity. While nationalism is now frowned on in many Western countries, people undoubtedly cleave to their national and linguistic identity, especially nowadays as we see the sovereignty of nation-state diluted by globalization and the accompanying uniform consumerist customs imposed by corporate cultural imperialism. Insultingly, this pseudo-culture often pays patronizing lip service to local traditions.

Yet, if you have learnt new languages in new environments, or grew up in a home vastly different from those around you, you live in more than one world. Your sense of nationality is eroded. In some cases, it disintegrates completely.

Naturally, I have quite an affinity for people who suffer from such national confusion. It makes me feel more like a citizen of the world; with them, my views seem to challenge fewer non-conscious ideologies, since everything is open to question and interpretation. I will now introduce you to some of the more intriguing people whom I have had the privilege of meeting and befriending in my travels.

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