r/K nations or the national character and the expatriate experience

August 12 marks a private anniversary of sorts: thirty years -- what words should I use -- in exile? abroad? on the road? Thirty years, seven countries, five languages, three continents. Dozens and dozens of classical art forms.

An irresistible desire overcomes one from time to time, usually at night, to try to synthesize that enormous mountain of half-digested information collected more or less haphazardly over the years. The desire is always best resisted, but when it isn't, the results, though certainly useless analytically (no one has a brain big enough to synthesize properly), are not necessarily entirely uninteresting. At the very least they offer something curious to quibble about with friends after a couple drinks.

For instance: that all nations can be divided (tongue-in-cheek) into two types: the r nations and the K nations 1.

Let the K nations be those like Japan, Thailand, Turkey and Portugal: where people are polite, considerate, reasonably welcoming and helpful towards strangers, but with a certain measure of reserve, a comforting distance. One lives in such places with great comfort and with very little bother; but also with no local friends: the natives are impenetrable; all efforts at establishing close friendships are gently but firmly rebuffed. Out of necessity, expats in such places turn towards each other and the expat life is good, social, interesting.

And then there are the r nations: like India, Taiwan, and Bali, where the natives have no sense of propriety and crowd upon strangers overwhelming them with sociable, warm, generous hospitality, instant friendships, searching questions (what on earth are you doing here, yar?), uninvited droppings-by to inquire about Aunty's health, outrageous gifts calling for a revanche, causing in the process all sorts of sticky pleasures and -- problems (should I be paying for this? what do they want of me, really? but I do not want to go see cinema at 1 am!). In such countries expat life is downright hostile, every foreign resident seeing himself as a sort of Marco Polo smoothly entering his exotic milieu and rudely shaken to see that another has entered it also, and just as smoothly.

Where does Poland fit into all this? I am not sure: I never seem to go there feeling foreign enough; but foreigners seem to like being there for its welcoming social life, so perhaps it is an r nation.

Where the United States fits into all this, I am not sure. Perhaps nowhere. The United States is the New World, by design and intention, and it does not fit the old world mold in any way I know.


1 The reference is to the r/K selection theory. It is meant to be facetious.


chris miller said...

Being an "r" person, myself, I have to say that I'm quite surprised that you've been wandering the world for such a long time.

Has it really been thirty years? I can't imagine you beginning before the age of thirty -- but it also seems, now. that you are far younger than 60.

Well, there you have it.

We "r" people are just damn curious.

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