Monday, September 18, 2006

Turning out the lights

This is my penultimate day in the Netherlands. In less than twenty-four hours, I will be back in Boston after a two-year absence. Naturally, I am full of mixed emotions at the prospect of being back in the United States. It seems news keeps going from bad to worse since I've been away. Still I doubt it will be so very different in Boston, of all places. We'll see. It will be very different from the Netherlands in so many seemingly minor ways.

One thing I wish I could have spent more time studying in-depth is the Dutch language. It struck me the other day that every language has a lexical class of untranslatable words, words which often encapsulate a complex set of cultural concepts. One such word in Dutch is gezelligheid, which means roughly 'comforts of home and hearth'. Today I found another uniquely cultural word: tlawmngaihna. This word comes from Mizo, who inhabit an isolated enclave on the edge of India, bordering on Burma. Tlawmngaihna is the code of ethics which forms a implicit but morally compelling force which expresses itself in kindness and generosity towards others. In this case, a single word can reflect what makes people within the culture, how they define themselves.

I can't think of a single word to capture all of the people of the USA. We are more like a union of several different countries held together by our own sense of exceptionalism. I'm proud to be from the US, but I have come to realize that we are not so far beyond other nations. Often I hear people who have never been outside the country tell me that we live in the 'greatest country on earth'. I always wondered, well how do they know? This whole experience has taught me that such statements should never be taken at face value.

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