rich inner lives

I was sitting with three camping friends at a fire, good buzz on, upstate New York, talking about the state of India now that 60 years has passed since her independence from the British.  They were saying it was good; I was saying it wasn’t.  They are Indian born and raised now over here, I’m an Indian born and raised North American.  It turns out we were quoting different indicators, they the GDP and the number of new millionaires, me the persistence of poverty.  They’re both good indicators, but should probably be put together to make a bigger and better picture.  They won’t be.  Anyway, good buzz quickly turned bad.

Sometime during the melee – it got quite fierce – my status was called into question:  how would you know, you’re a white guy.  I said I’m third culture, which was probably too eggheaded, and one friend snarled, how pretentious.  Yup, too eggheaded.  But it’s just a definition that helps people to understand themselves and their lives.

Third culture simply means someone grew up between worlds – like say India and Canada – and takes on a lot of identifiable character qualities based on this increasingly common, rich and complicated way of living.  For instance, you feel like you belong to both worlds; and you feel alien from both worlds.  You feel judgmental of  people who grew up ‘rooted’ and without a cross cultural experience of living; and you crave rootedness. There are lots of other qualities common to the Third Culture.

I still haven’t forgiven my elementary school friend with whom I camp every summer for calling me pretentious.  I think she’s wrong.  Apparently, this experience has identifiable results which are increasingly common in the globalizing world as more and more people grow up between places.  Dismissing the nature of their upbringings seems wrong headed to me.  They may have something of use to say as the rest of the world gets increasingly nationalistic and tribal.

The following day – after the fight, and everyone sheepishly beginning their morning ablutions and routines and breakfastings – I was drawn away on a walk by a European spouse, perhaps to make the camp site more friendly and bearable.  He’d been filled in by his wife, my classmate.  His bottom line was that poor people like it that way, which he shared with me at the start of our walk, and we were both happy to drop the topic.

Here is a good article on what it means to be third culture, by Chris Lenton in Janera.  The observations are piercing if you have lived third culture but have had trouble understanding the implication for your life.

From the article:

“They are the most interesting people because their rich inner lives belie their often bland… and sometimes wary, presentation of themselves to others.” TCKs are also, studies now show, bright, and courted by employers.


On the flipside, argues Professor Useem, these same qualities may lead to what psychologists call a “prolonged adolescence.” Over 90% of the people surveyed report being out of step with people of their age group. TCKs change jobs frequently and marry and have children far later than the average North American. They continue to move around a lot. They have trouble identifying what they want to do with their lives and most attest to having changed their course of study numerous times.

Third Culture Club, By Chris Lenton in Janera

stateless and nationless

More unvarnished critique of the American religion from an interview with the British academic Terry Eagleton. I think the best definition of vanity, from the point of view of Christianity, is to use scripture to cover for your largely errant belief system.  I’m using child labour; let me stress this passage on talents.  In fact let me move the talents passage to the heart of what I believe, and conveniently forget the rest.  It would also be useful and soothing to work in my nationality and its state of blessedness over all other people.  That way consequence is diminished as I do whatever I want.  Easy peasy.

Eagleton, in a mini jeremiad, says God won’t be used that way.  He won’t let you use his name in that manner.  He won’t let you take it and use it in vain for your vanity.  From the interview —

NS: Though of course the Christianity you present doesn’t sound like a lot of the Christianity one hears in the public sphere, especially in the United States.

TE: I think partly that’s because a lot the authentic meanings of the New Testament have become ideologized or mythologized away. Religion has become a very comfortable ideology for a dollar-worshipping culture. The scandal of the New Testament—the fact that it backs what America calls the losers, that it thinks the dispossessed will inherit the kingdom of God before the respectable bourgeois—all of that has been replaced, particularly in the States, by an idolatrous version. I’m presently at a university campus where we proudly proclaim the slogan “God, Country, and Notre Dame.” I think they have to be told, and indeed I have told them, that God actually takes little interest in countries. Yahweh is presented in the Jewish Bible as stateless and nationless. He can’t be used as a totem or fetish in that way. He slips out of your grasp if you try to do so. His concern is with universal humanity, not with one particular section of it. Such ideologies make it very hard to get a traditional version of Christianity across.

–Religion for Radicals: An Interview with Terry Eagleton, Nathan Schneider, The Immanent Frame


author: Terry Eagleton

interview:  Religion for Radicals: An Interview with Terry Eagleton

website: The Immanent Frame

etre de birmingham
January 2, 2010, 5:09 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

In Japanese, the word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair.’  To the Czechs a Hungarian is ‘a pimple.’  Germans call cockroaches ‘Frenchmen’, while the French call lice ‘Spaniards.’  We in the English-speaking world take French leave, but Italians and Norwegians talk about departing like an Englishman, and the Germans talk of running like a Dutchman.  Italians call syphilis ‘the French disease’, while both French and Italians call con games ‘American swindle.’  Belgian taxi drivers call a poor tipper ‘un Anglais.’  To be bored to death in French is ‘etre de Birmingham,’ literally ‘to be from Birmingham’ (which is actually about right).  And in English we have ‘Dutch courage,’ French letters,’ ‘Spanish fly’, ‘Mexican carwash’ (ie. leaving your car out in the rain), and many others.

-from The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson

a nepalese, an irishman and a columbian
December 27, 2009, 10:49 pm
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Here is another excerpt from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Other.  In it he sketches nationalism as a coarse reductive tool we routinely use to categorize and separate people.  Why do we do it?  I don’t know.  I suppose to make ourselves feel better by pointing out how others are different and – by their difference – inferior.

I used to work in an American office in which also worked a Nepalese, a Columbian, an Irishman, a Japanese among the standard Americans.  I know, it sounds like the start of a bad joke.  And ironically, in a way it was a bad joke:  these men from numerous parts of the world would regularly get together in the back of the office to tell racist jokes and banter.  I know I would have joined them if I weren’t cursed by a ‘serious’ gene, and the inability to react wittily in conversations like these.  How could this ritual help them, all first generation immigrant family members to America?  It seemed then and even now like a strange form of cultural suicide.  But they relished it and goaded each other deeper and deeper in.

At the end of this excerpt, Kapuscinski warns that nationalism will lead to hatred of the other.  He is unequivocal:  the hatred that results is inevitable and dangerous.  Here is the excerpt:

The nationalist treats his nation, and in the case of Africa, his state, as the highest value, and all others as something inferior (and often deserving contempt).  Nationalism, like racism, is a tool for identifying and classifying that is used by my Other at any opportunity.  It is a crude, primitive tool that oversimplifies and trivializes one’s image of the Other, because for the nationalist the person of the Other has just one single feature – national affiliation.  It does not matter if someone is young or old, clever or stupid, good or bad – the only thing that counts is whether he or she is Armenian or Turkish, British of Irish, Moroccan or Algerian.  When I live in that world of inflamed nationalisms, I have no name, no profession and no age – I am  purely and simply a Pole.  In Mexico my neighbors call me ‘El Polaco’, and the air hostess in Yakutsk summons me to board the plane by shouting ‘Polsha!’  Among small, scattered nations, such as the Armenians, there is a phenomenal capacity to see the map of the world as a network of points inhabited by concentrations of one’s own compatriots, be it one single family or one single person.  The dangerous feature of nationalism is that an inseparable part of it is hatred for the Other.  The degree of the hatred varies, but its presence is inevitable.

-excerpted from The Other, Kyszard Kapuscinski, Verso, London

the soil you were born on
December 26, 2009, 3:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Patriotism is a source of endless mystery for the global nomad.  And not just the global nomad – someone who grew up between worlds by virtue of his diplomat or international business or missionary parents – but really also anyone who is committed to the precepts of modernism, an interest in the other, difference, the world outside.

Following is an excerpt from Michael Erard’s article Notes on Being Born on Soil at Design Observer.  He describes in 10 points how, with your longing for Texas as strong as it is after you move away, you can make sure your baby’s delivery in Maine is – metaphorically he says – born on Texas soil by slipping a ziplock of dirt under the bed.

Places have a great draw in our emotional lives.  We all exist somewhere between the poles of drifting in the world untethered, and being closely connected to it.  Every time I return to my birth country I feel like – but rarely follow through on – stooping and kissing the ground outside the airport terminal.  I grew up as a foreigner in my birth country India and so my emotions toward it are more complex than were I an Indian national.  In a sense I am allowed to love it, even excessively, and you could never call me a nationalist.  Furthermore, I can call you a nationalist if you are native born and overly emotional about your birthplace and not, like me, a foreigner born on foreign soil, whose emotions derive from extra-nationalist sources.

So what about the baggie with the soil under the bed your wife is screaming in, giving birth to your baby?  At first I thought it is a fetishization of me, where I’m from, my forefathers.  And then I remembered my impulse to kiss the ground outside the airport.  So, I’m ambivalent but still tilt toward judgement of excessive patriotism.  Especially in the context of a culture / country that remains largely silent in the face of the dominant – and highly toxic – tendency toward nationalism and patriotism.

Here is the excerpt:

1. I was born on soil; so were you. Which is to say, we were born in a place and no other, to which our forebears feel attached, and if we do too we may proclaim, “I was born on the soil of this place,” in order to stake a claim of identity. From time to time you hear stories about patriots in exile who make the leap of enabling their children to enjoy the symbolic equivalence of having been born in the motherland through an implementation of the metaphor in its most literal way: putting dirt under a woman who is giving birth.

2. You may not think this practice actually exists. It’s true, you don’t hear about children born on, say, Delaware soil. In 1993, the Weekly World News reported on a woman from Texas, a “Lone Star lady,” who wanted her baby born on Texas soil in New York City. “The soil was sterilized, sealed in a sterile pouch, and placed beneath the woman,” read the article. “Baby born on Texas soil — in New York!” the headline exclaimed. When I moved to Texas in the early 1990s, I heard similar tales. Apocrypha, I thought. Then I left the state, and it was my turn.


9. Later I read in a thread that the office of the governor of Texas will send a package of hospital-approved dirt along with a certificate (which suggests that being born on soil is not, in fact, enough). But the woman who answered the governor’s information line told me she’d heard of no such thing.

-excerpted from Notes on Being Born on Soil, Michael Erard, Design Observer

to die in a holy place
October 19, 2009, 2:43 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

This is an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje‘s The English Patient.  One of the story lines in the novel is about explorers looking for a mythical desert oasis city.  Madox – the man who kills himself in the excerpt below – is a quiet explorer who has just returned to his wife back home, his work interrupted by the war’s incursion into the north African desert.

One of Ondaatje’s themes is nationalism.  When the Church becomes a propaganda arm of a warring state, civilized people kill themselves.  At least this civilized man does.  The uncivilized demur and look for profits.  And the flunkie priest in his robes blathers on.

It was July 1939.  They caught a bus from their village into Yeovil.  The bus had been slow and so they had been late for the service.  At the back of the crowded church, in order to find seats they decided to sit separately.  When the sermon began half an hour later, it was jingoistic and without any doubt in its support of the war.  The priest intoned blithely about battle, blessing the government and the men about to enter the war.  Madox listened as the sermon grew more impassioned.  He pulled out the desert pistol, bent over and shot himself in the heart.  He was dead immediately.  A great silence.  Desert silence.  Planeless silence.  They heard his body collapse against the pew.  Nothing else moved.  The priest frozen in a gesture.  It was like those silences when a glass funnel round a candle in church splits and all faces turn.  His wife walked down the centre aisle, stopped at his row, muttered something, and they let her in beside him.  She knelt down, her arms enclosing him.


It is important to die in holy places.  That was one of the secrets of the desert.  So Madox walked into a church in Somerset, a place he felt had lost its holiness, and he committed what he believed was a holy act.

~Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

the power and the dishonesty
July 21, 2009, 10:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Here is the definition of nationalism from George Orwell’s famous essay Notes on Nationalism written at the close of the second world war in 1945.  Sixty years on now and it’s still the defining quality of our times, so perhaps now we should just state that nationalism is viral or perennial or human.

There are a number of ideas in these paragraphs that are worth understanding.  The craziness of taking on the project of human classification; the madness of naming them good and evil.  The willful and total subsumation of the person into the work for more power.  The ability to finely balance hunger for power and delusion.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.


A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

-From Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell, 1945

pity you’re not like us
April 1, 2009, 5:13 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

Another excerpt from Kapuscinski’s book The Other.  Here he describes the tendency for strong cultures/nations to become self important with results that range from narcissism to aggression.  We see this tendency living here in America, in conversations, glazed over looks, refusals to engage.

The next problem in contacts between us and them, the Others, is that all civilizations have a tendency towards narcissism, and the stronger the civilization, the more clearly this tendency will appear.  It spurs civilizations into conflict with others, triggering their arrogance and lust for domination.  This always involves contempt for Others.  In old China this arrogance took on a very subtle form — it was expressed through pity for anyone who was not born Chinese.  This narcissism was and is masked by all manner of rhetoric — usually to do with being the chosen race, or having been summoned to a salvation mission, or both combined.

-Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Other