Being foreign

We have been traveling over the holiday period – to London briefly, and then on to various Irish destinations.
One of the consequences of Twitter is that there are fewer incentives for the ‘pointer’ blog entry, a collection of links to interesting items. However, this is a pointer entry. It is pointing to an article in The Economist.
The Economist is an interesting publishing phenomenon, successful when news media in general are suffering. There was an article in The Atlantic Magazine a while ago proposing to account for this success. It pokes a little – “The science-and-technology pages tend toward Gladwell-lite popularizations of academic papers from British universities.” – but suggests why The Economist retains its popularity in a news-saturated world …

The Economist prides itself on cleverly distilling the world into a reasonably compact survey. Another word for this is blogging, or at least what blogging might be after it matures–meaning, after it transcends its current status as a free-fire zone and settles into a more comprehensive system of gathering and presenting information. As a result, although its self-marketing subtly sells a kind of sleek, mid-last-century Concorde-flying sangfroid, The Economist has reached its current level of influence and importance because it is, in every sense of the word, a true global digest for an age when the amount of undigested, undigestible information online continues to metastasize. And that’s a very good place to be in 2009. [Why The Economist is thriving while Time and Newsweek fade by Michael Hirschorn]

The article characterises the stance of The Economist as follows: “free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism”.
One of the interesting things about it is an occasional quirkiness alongside the steady fare of financial and political commentary and reporting (see for example its obituaries). I picked up the Special Christmas Double Issue in an airport the other day and was struck by the variety, with articles on ‘The perfect violin: older and richer’ (the making of violins), ‘The Harry Potter economy: making money out of the boy wizard’, ‘Difficult languages’ (comparing languages in terms of how difficult they are to learn), ‘Filth: the joy of dirt’ (looking at changing notions of cleanliness), ‘Newspapers and technology: network effects’.
However, given the travels we are on, what really jumped out at me was the article called ‘Being foreign’. Having been sort of foreign in England, and being foreign in the US, it made interesting reading. Here are its portentous concluding paragraphs; I am not sure whether they lean more to clever distillation or to ‘Gladwell-lite popularization’ of academic articles.

The funny thing is, with the passage of time, something does happen to long-term foreigners which makes them more like real exiles, and they do not like it at all. The homeland which they left behind changes. The culture, the politics and their old friends all change, die, forget them. They come to feel that they are foreigners even when visiting “home”. Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born writer of Indian descent living in America, catches something of this in her novel, “The Namesake”. Ashima, who is an Indian émigré, compares the experience of foreignness to that of “a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding”.

Beware, then: however well you carry it off, however much you enjoy it, there is a dangerous undertow to being a foreigner, even a genteel foreigner. Somewhere at the back of it all lurks homesickness, which metastasises over time into its incurable variant, nostalgia. And nostalgia has much in common with the Freudian idea of melancholia–a continuing, debilitating sense of loss, somewhere within which lies anger at the thing lost. It is not the possibility of returning home which feeds nostalgia, but the impossibility of it. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born intellectual resettled in France, has caught this sense of deprivation by comparing the experience of foreignness with the loss of a mother.

But we cannot expect to have it all ways. Life is full of choices, and to choose one thing is to forgo another. The dilemma of foreignness comes down to one of liberty versus fraternity–the pleasures of freedom versus the pleasures of belonging. The homebody chooses the pleasures of belonging. The foreigner chooses the pleasures of freedom, and the pains that go with them. [Being foreign: the others]

2 thoughts on “Being foreign”

  1. Oddly, being foreign can apply in both directions. One might be a citizen of two countries, but end up feeling like a citizen of none. Whichever way you go there is a perceptible loss, and the absent homeland erodes whichever it is and wherever you are…

  2. Interesting extract – As I get older I think it is also possible to be ‘foreign’ in time as well as in place, especially during periods of rapid change. Travelling to countries which have not yet experienced such rapid change can trigger the release of the type of nostalgia mentioned. The past is indeed another country.

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