What do we know about the world?

…[A] representative member of a small group of upper- and middle-class British men from which the imperial masters of Asia and Africa were recruited. Abysmally equipped for their immense responsibilities, they were nevertheless allowed by Britain’s brute imperial power to blunder through the world — a “world of whose richness and subtlety,” as E.M. Forster wrote in “Notes on the English Character,” they could “have no conception.”

-Pankaj Mishra

I have lived overseas for at least 12 years. But am I any better than the oft-mocked member of the British imperial forces? No. I don’t think I understand the richness and subtlety of the countries I have inhabited. Far from it. 

Some countries I have been more interested than others. So I have naturally tried to make those cultural inroads. I don’t think we can put too much faith in understanding a good deal of a second culture. For those not born here, or with some family links, a majority of many cultures will remain opaque and undecipherable to you. So you have to learn like you would learn anything else: be honest about your limitations. 

There are cultures where I’ve lived where I haven’t been able to understand very much at all. Reasons for this are still in dispute. I would say I tried to bridge the gaps and was rebuffed. Others may say I didn’t try very hard. Whatever the real reason, a lack of understanding or interest in a culture does make life difficult. 

Not to give myself a free pass, but I think the difference between me and members of the British Raj have to do with perceived power. I literally had no power in these countries; I didn’t even hold much of a job, let alone have anyone report to me. Members of the British Raj, on the other hand, ruled, or at least administered, a huge country. They had, for the most part, enormous amounts of power. My ignorance was mostly a personal problem. Their ignorance had greater implications. 

This doesn’t let me off the hook. I’ve learned from those overseas experiences at least enough to recognize them and see where they become problems. My main issue is at the completion of the ex-pat learning stage, generally a year and half after I’ve moved to a country. This is the time where you know a lot about how to live in a country and you’ve experienced a great deal. 

At this point the question that overcomes me is: what now? Or, what next? I’ve seen what I’ve seen and done a lot. This is when I start looking over my shoulder for new experiences, different cities and countries. This is wrong, of course. There is a lot more to learn, my rational side says to me, you've only just arrived, and life isn’t about checking boxes. 

Tell that to the side of my brain that likes to make plans.