Sunday, June 22, 2008

Blog reactivated - reason: stay in India during summer 08

After months without news from my side another trip is coming up - and I took that as a good reason to reactivate this website to let you, my dear reader, take part in my adventures in India during summer 2008. I will teach at the Institute for Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB) in Bangalore, and also travel the country a bit to get to know a new side of the world. Usually those trips are work-related as well, I will e.g. visit the NCL Pune, NIPER and IISc as well as other high-class institutes, but travel always has a personal side to it as well and I am in fact quite enjoying the combination of doing something 'reasonable' as well as experiencing a whole new country at the same time.

This is country number 6 I will live in and by now I think I can describe why both traveling, and to a even more significant way living in different countries for a longer period of time, is worth a lot for myself personally.

While growing up most people live in a single country (as I did as well), everyone is taught certain 'values' which, since everyone agrees on them, are taken for granted. This is not only true for living in the same country, but also living in the same social class etc. On the positive side, those values bring a feeling of 'home' and of belonging to a certain group of people. In my opinion these are mostly archaic reasons though, such as that survival in the group as opposed to individuals is easier to achieve since people can specialize to be hunters, rear offspring etc. This is not the problem I have with accepting implicit norms though, it is more the fact that by belonging to one group, to some extent this defines that you can not belong to another group as well. (E.g. if you are Christian you are unlikely to treat other religions with the same respect as your own religion - which I somehow don't see as the attitude of someone I would describe as educated and tolerant. Other religions such as the Bahai seem to be an exception here, but since my religion is mostly 'science' I cannot comment in detail on those questions. Note that I do not condemn any religion or belief system - not at all. I am just stating that, for myself, I see tolerance and universal human values as the best religion-like belief system.)

However, what moving countries taught me, and which is a very valuable experience to have while being (ok, relatively :-) ) young, is that different countries make different implicit assumptions - and that those often unwritten rules can even be equally valid. Now, this might seem like an obvious remark to the reader - but being confronted with your own implicit assumptions about what is right and wrong, and thereby being confronted with the exclusion of the group in society whose values you share, is a deep experience since it fundamentally questions your identity, the identity you are likely to take for granted if extreme experiences like moving countries never applied to you.

Since we are 90%+ animals in our ways of thinking and living, it is easy to see why moving from one country to another is an extreme experience for one's psyche. This is true in particular if your plan is not to simply return to your home country after one or few years but if there is an 'open end' to it, so if a return to your group with shared values is nowhere close. Moving to foreign countries confronts you with (a) yourself, in the form of (at least initially) complete loneliness and (b) it removes the shield of shared implicit societal values which would give you the feeling of 'home' and being protected otherwise. This influence should not be underestimated - but it is only the combination of those two points that enables you to make a conscious choice which kind of person you want to be, how to structure your very personal belief system.

I didn't realize it the first time I moved abroad, to Ireland, that living abroad is something I would call crucial for developing a sense of your (and not simply your societies') true self. If you never did it before, go ahead, pick a country you like (or maybe one you don't understand at all, then the effect will be even more profound). Pack your stuff and move. It's worth it. I am looking forward to going to India!