March 2, 2010

Provincialism Everywhere

Every nation-state maintains a sort of a cultural matrix with a myth about its glorious past, its comfortable present and even a better future. An average citizen of such a nation-state, unless he is well-traveled, well-read, and multi-lingual, swallows such nationalistic myths hook, line and sinker. Often, as one would expect it to happen just that way, this mythology is not shared by the neighboring nation-states who have their own versions of how great they themselves are, and how not-so-great the other country is. The story is not only limited to nation-states, but holds equally true for cities, neighborhoods and even villages. A non-traveler most often thinks that he lives in a place where everything is right and better than in other places.

Such an attitude is a manifestation of Worldwide Provincialism Extraordinaire, a force not to be ignored as one makes his home in all these new places. One needs to be very diplomatic when one meets his hosts and try not to complain about the inconveniences one experiences there, as the natives will never take your complaints kindly. The rare person that does, will probably agree with you but won’t be able to help you, however, most will just say” If you don’t like it, why are you still here?”. Hence, when in foreign lands, do not ever criticize the country, village or area, except in confidence, tactfully, and to other expats. And only if you must.

I remember I was once in Bangkok and a Thai neighbor decided to drop in with his girlfriend. After exchanging some pleasantries and making some international small talk with me of the" Where are you from?", "How long have you been in Thailand, etc?" kind, he proceeded to deliver a glorious speech on the greatness of his country, the magnificence of its King and how other nations, particularly Western nations ( including Russia- which is West to Asian peoples) were out to exploit it and rip it off. His speech was fervent and passionate and I kept nodding and smiling while recalling so many similar speeches that I have heard from as many other nationals- Nicaraguans, Russians, Puerto Ricans, Japanese and so many others about how great they were, how kind and friendly and hospitable, and how everybody else was out to get them, exploit them, rape their women and take away their natural resources.

Just write a script, leave blanks where the name of the country is and start the harangue. They will all sound the same.

Nation-states, in general, are very protective of everything that they view as part of their domain, be it the territory, cultural treasures, women or jobs. Such nationalism is what keeps people from migrating freely around the world as they used to in the past. It also keeps large areas in some countries unpopulated and in other countries- overpopulated. Even though many countries are capable of absorbing large numbers of people, they will zealously guard every inch of their territory and only allow very small numbers of migrants in, most often those whom they do not view as threats and only on their own terms.

In most of Europe and Asia, nationalism has always been tied to people who, for millennia, belonged to the same ethnic groups, had the same type of names and physical appearance and lived in the same places since what they perceive to be the beginning of their history. Europe and Asia, consequently, been two difficult places to settle and be accepted in. Recent riots in France have proved that to be true. There are some places where things are easier. Countries such as Singapore and Philippines who for centuries have been home to all kinds of ethnic groups and who have absorbed them are somewhat exceptional. One can, in fact become a Singaporean or a Filipino. One cannot become truly Japanese or Korean, though. Thailand has also absorbed immigrants, particularly of another Asian origin declaring them to be Thai once they were naturalized.

In Europe, Great Britain has been very good to immigrants in spite of what some people perceive to be the notorious British “coldness“. As recently as the 19th century people could just come to the Kingdom, Anglicize their names and live there, and they would be thought of as locals as long as they looked, talked and behaved as such. Russia was also once open, and many foreigners became absorbed into its mainstream and considered Russian provided they were willing to be baptized into the Orthodox faith.

Things changed in the 20th century as forces of nationalism became stronger and migrations became harder to carry out in these two places.

Nationalism in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa seems to have been of the nativistic variety: It would be of the “ I was born here, therefore I am this, and you were not born here, therefore you are not”. Hence, you would have the conflict of the native-born towards the foreign-born for quite some time although it would only last for one generation. That conflict also existed alongside the discord between the true indigenous population vs. the native-born white people who looked and behaved as their colonial forefathers, something that did not exist in Europe or Asia.

In Africa, there were two types of “nationalisms” . There is the original African tribalism which has nothing to do with “ I was born here” factor, but simply with what tribe you descend from, plus the nationalism between the newly created European-style nation-states which divided people into strange new colonial nationalities. People were now Nigerians, Kenyans and Cameroonians with no one really understanding what it meant to be one. The natives there simply thought of themselves as Kikuyus and Yorubas or Muslims and Christians. Often, new countries which were simply European creations to suit their own conveniences would have a territory of one tribe divided between two sovereign states, and members of the tribe that spoke the same language would now have two different nationalities. Instead of having a true European model where nations are delineated by language, culture and ethnicity, they now had totally unnatural entities which the traditionally tribalistic Africans have never been able to fit into.

In the Gulf Nations of the Middle East, nationalism is usually based on something called “Jinsiya”- roughly translated as “nationality/citizenship”, but normally tied in to one’s belonging to the indigenous tribes of that particular state. Therefore, being a Saudi or a Kuwaiti or a Qatari means having native roots in the Aboriginal ethnic groups that have "always" been there. Being born in those countries does not automatically entitle one to becoming a national of those nations. In some countries, notably Saudi Arabia, many children of pilgrims to Mecca were able to become Saudi citizens when citizenship was still easy to obtain some thirty years ago, but their children are still not considered to be “true Saudis” because they are not blood-related members of the some thirty or so original native clans of the desert. These are still in the luckier situation then so many people who had neen born and raised in those countries but do not qualify for the “ Jinsiya” and ,therefore, are stateless and destined to live a rough life in the land of their birth.

As an expat in all these countries, one will on many occasions come against such forces of provincialism and nationalism. The best weapon in one’s arsenal would be citizenship from some highly respected country such as Canada, Great Britain or even Singapore or Japan, as well as some highly sought after skill, and/or plenty of money. With very few exceptions, money seems to be the best weapon of them all against the forces of international cliquishness.

Philosophically speaking, one should not take the concept of nation-state as something totally eternal and holy. It is just a group of people temporarily occupying a certain territory and calling itself by a certain name. These are things created by man and they are not lasting. Try and do a web search on “the map of Europe” over the past two thousand years to see how many countries have shifted borders and how many have simply disappeared. There were undoubtedly many gallant knights who had fought for the prosperity of the kingdoms of Aragon and Pomerania, and hundreds of thousands may have died so that the glory of Prussia would live on. These nation-states are gone now and new ones with new names have sprung up. But what did those heroes die for? And does anybody still remember their names and their feats of arms against the hated Andaluz or Courlandia? Most probably not.

A wise expat, armed with a marketable skill and/or money and aware of how ephemeral all these things are, should forever try and maintain his peaceful independence as he moves between countries. Forever on guard, cautious and healthily skeptical, answerable only to himself and his own view of personal freedom, he is able to maintain his unique way of living a varied and multi-faceted life in this mythology- and provincialism- ridden world.

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