Allochthonia

Being an expat (as I have been for most of my adult life) is a profound and repeated experience of otherness. It’s a constant rediscovery that people can do things, and structure their societies, in entirely unexpected ways. And they make it work.

Writers and designers who set stories in alien societies are trying to give readers and viewers that expat experience. To be successful, they have to include enough details about the aliens and the way that they live that the reader/viewer gets the feeling of completeness: the sense that the society is as big and as complex as human society. It’s a difficult balance to get right, since they also have to find time to tell a story.

Not everyone succeeds. There are plenty of cardboard societies in genre fiction, as well as a fair few that are simply extant Earth ones with the serial numbers rubbed off. But although cultural C&P is a useful shortcut, it limits the stories that can be told. I much prefer societies created from scratch.

As an expat, particularly one still learning the local language, I’ve taken to noticing what makes the societies I’ve moved into feel distinct and complete. It seems like a interesting thing to blog about: the things that remind me that these new places were not set up jsut before the viewpoint character (me) made her appearance.

The title of this series of articles, Allochthonia, comes from the geological term for rocks that come to a landscape from somewhere else. And in the Netherlands, an allochtoon is also a person whose parents were born outside of the country. Informally, it’s used for people of color; I’m technically an allochtone, but no one would really use the term to me. Using it myself is a form of solidarity.

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25 Responses to Allochthonia

  1. Fade Manley says:

    Oh, I am deeply interested in this series! I was writing just yesterday about nostalgia, and the uneasy constant Otherness that comes of not being a native of anywhere. (I grew up an expat, and am not anymore, which I suppose is pretty much the reverse of your situation.) I look forward to seeing your take on things.

  2. Fade @1:

    The first one isn’t really reflective of my life as an expat — I wanted to tackle the topic we were gnawing on in the Bab 5 threads over on Making Light. And some of the others are going to be more visual and structural than cultural.

    We’ll see how the series grows. I can rarely talk about such things without injecting myself into them.

  3. Fade Manley says:

    abi @2:

    So I see. But it’s still darn fascinating stuff. Issues of worldbuilding and alienness are near and dear to my heart. I’ve fallen into the traps of both “this is clearly Culture X with serial numbers poorly filed” and “this is so unlike any human culture I know that I can’t identify” in writing before, and the metaphor of being a visitor in another culture–needing to live in it while also acknowledging its differences–seems particularly apt as one for how to negotiate between the extremes.

  4. Fade Manley says:

    Abi Sutherland @2:

    …And, dammit, I automatically formatted your name as per what I’m used to, as opposed to how it’s formatted here. Sorry! I try to be more careful than that, usually.

  5. Fade @4:

    I answer to both, or indeed anything remotely similar to my name (and not insulting). The lack of capitalization at Making Light is a typo carried forward all these years rather than a strong preference.

  6. Sylvia says:

    You know, I wish I’d thought of you when I was at Viable Paradise. I was struck by a sense of not belonging, of reverse culture shock, that it was crippling. It started when I arrived jetlagged in Boston and was unable to order competently at the Burger King. How unamerican can you get! Part of the struggle was that I couldn’t actually think of someone I could explain it to. Since then, I’ve realised that of course I’ve lived outside of the US longer than I lived in it and it was my first time ever to New England, so why should I feel I belonged? But still, there was this constant tremor of rejection.

    Funnily enough, the novel (almost done, so close I can taste it!) that I’m working on, the one which was my qualifying submission for VP, is all about otherness. That’s the point of it. It wasn’t until this moment, writing this comment, that I realised how personal it was. Yes, I am terribly unenlightened but I never thought about the novel was about me.

    I am really looking forward to this series.

  7. Sylvia @6:

    I was struck by a sense of not belonging, of reverse culture shock, that it was crippling.

    Horrible feeling, isn’t it? I think this is why they say that true journey is return. That’s when you find out how very far you’ve gone.

    I have some friends who lived here in the Netherlands for a couple of years, but never really settled in comfortably. Now they’re back in the US, and wrestling with that sense of differentness. It’s really difficult, because they thought they could just go “home” and escape the pervasive strangeness.

    I hope that this realization makes it easier, rather than more difficult, to finish your novel.

  8. OtterB says:

    I’d jumped into the thread on religious worldbuilding without reading this setup post. Interesting concept, and I look forward to them all. The notion of belonging is so fundamental to us as human beings; I think we all have a deep need to belong, to be comfortable, to find our niche and our tribe. The Flying Dutchman, the Man Without a Country, Frodo on his return to the Shire after it all … there is a tragedy inherent in the idea of never being able to go home. On the other hand, there’s a risk in narrowing one’s horizons to “the way we do things here.”

    I’ve been trying to make it into a continuum, of acceptance of difference vs. closed-in-ness. And that is part of it. There’s a five-factor theory of personality that includes “openness to experience” as one of the factors of individual differences. (The others are introversion-extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.) But I think that’s only part of it. The other part is a certain reflectiveness about our core values. Because we it’s one thing to be accepting and interested in a culture that eats, dresses, or worships differently than ours, and another thing to be accepting of a culture that believes in, for example, brutal subjugation of some subgroup.

    As I grow older (mid-fifties now) I think I am as accepting as I always was of differences in theory. In practice, I find travel and the experience of not knowing what I am supposed to do to be more difficult than it was when I was younger. There’s a little less flexibility. And that saddens me.

  9. OtterB @8:

    But we never can really go home again, because no matter how close to our origins we stay physically, time moves on. Places change, people grow up, values change.

    In some ways, travel makes it easier; there’s a ready-made explanation for why everything is so strange and so different. Just as it’s easier to accept one’s own awkwardnesses and oddities in a foreign context (my touchstone for this is Philip Larkin’s poem The Importance of Elsewhere, which pretty well sums it up for me), so one can deal more easily with change when the causes are visible.

    I often wonder if this is why people grow more liberal with travel; there’s a deep strain of regret for a lost past in conservative culture. The successful expats are the ones who find something good in the new, even when we regret the loss of the old; that’s a liberal/progressive trait, too. (I think there are also other reasons, particularly for American conservatives: many of the cultural absolutes and tribal beliefs of the American right turn out to be relative, or simply factually wrong, when you get outside the borders of the US.)

    …it’s one thing to be accepting and interested in a culture that eats, dresses, or worships differently than ours, and another thing to be accepting of a culture that believes in, for example, brutal subjugation of some subgroup.

    Well, but as I grow older and range farther, I see how much we overlook in our own culture. Trying to explain the rather casual attitude of the American people as a whole to the suffering of our own poor to Dutch people has been…educational. Painful, but educational.

    Mind you, swinging briefly back to the original post, some of what I want to talk about here is how to make a realistic alien culture, even if it’s a cruel, brutal and repressive one. And not everything is going to be heavy-weight religion stuff. Sometimes it’s little touches that make a culture feel complete.

  10. albatross says:

    I ran into an interesting, almost invisible bit of something like Abi has described w.r.t. The Netherlands and controlling the water level, a few months ago. It was on a podcast I like called TWIV (This Week in Virology), discussion the local government agency that does mosquito control in the Florida Keys. From what they said, the Keys would be almost uninhabitable by people, without constant mosquito control efforts–certainly, once Dengue and Yellow Fever took hold, they would stop being tourist destinations.

    What struck me about this is that it’s an example of more-or-less invisible infrastructure–I imagine you could vacation in Key West every summer, or even live there, and never really notice that those occasional annoying helicopters dropping dust everywhere, or trucks driving around spraying something into the gutters, were critical for your being able to live there.

    I suspect that there is a shocking amount of this in most of our worlds. If we were living in a frontier village on the plains, that wouldn’t be true, but now, we have all sorts of different “pumps” going all the time, keeping various kinds of “water” from rising too high near our homes. And we’re mostly ignorant of them, unless we happen to stumble upon them. (In an earlier episode of the same podcast, they talked about the constant use of vaccine-seeded baits to vaccinate wild populations of all sorts of mammals against rabies, which is another example of this kind of thing.) We, or at least I, have always tended to see the world around me as more-or-less static–it’s here like this and it will remain like this by default; any change must be the result of some external force or internal effort. Instead, we pretty much all live below sea level, and often don’t even recognize that there are pumps that, if they stopped, would leave us standing on top of our roof, wondering what the heck went wrong.

  11. albatross @10:

    Your comment reminds me of Charlie Stross’s blog entry about how many people we need to maintain our current level of technical civilization. It’s another tack at the same topic.

    Which is me flailing to find a response worthy of the line:

    Instead, we pretty much all live below sea level, and often don’t even recognize that there are pumps that, if they stopped, would leave us standing on top of our roof, wondering what the heck went wrong.

    Because that’s absolutely, fantastically correct.

  12. OtterB says:

    albatross said: Instead, we pretty much all live below sea level, and often don’t even recognize that there are pumps that, if they stopped, would leave us standing on top of our roof, wondering what the heck went wrong.

    Abi, I don’t think you can find a response worthy of this line. I think I’ll sit here and admire it for a little while, too.

    I think Charlie Stross’s post points out, correctly, that this ties to the differences in worldview between conservatives and progressives. I think it ties to the people who resist immunizing their children. I would also say that it points out the flaw in full-bore libertarianism and no-holds-barred capitalism: the infrastructure is a public good, and a highly complex one. It does not maintain itself. I admire individual achievements, but they don’t arise in a vacuum.

    And the word vacuum sent me, obSF, to wondering if those who live on space stations or orbital habitats know this more viscerally than those of us who have a planet under our feet. Thinking of Bujold’s Quaddies here. Though I suppose Heinlein’s Loonies in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress argue somewhat the other way.

    I wonder if this is part of the appeal of steampunk, the idea of taking things back to the day when technology could be more readily understood and tinkered with.

    Abi @9 as I grow older and range farther, I see how much we overlook in our own culture. Oh, good point. Also a good point that you can’t step in the same river twice. I’m continuing to think about these.

  13. OtterB @12:

    And the word vacuum sent me, obSF, to wondering if those who live on space stations or orbital habitats know this more viscerally than those of us who have a planet under our feet.

    You’re anticipating the other “Worldbuilding” series I’m working on, which will be called De Nieuwe Batavia. It’s going to be about how life in the Netherlands can be used to anticipate life in space. Maintenance of shared infrastructure is certainly part of it.

  14. OtterB says:

    Abi @13, I look forward to it.

  15. praisegod barebones says:

    Otter B. @ 8

    The notion of belonging is so fundamental to us as human beings; I think we all have a deep need to belong, to be comfortable, to find our niche and our tribe.

    Well, perhaps. But there are some of us (I’m one, my wife is another) who find that the tribe we most naturally take to be ours is the tribe of non-belongers, expatriates, and temporally and topographically displaced persons. It was a very strange feeling when I realised a few years back that this was something I felt I belonged to – and always felt I had belonged to – years before I moved abroad.

    (It’s not as though I had some particularly alienated upbringing – I grew up somewhere about as close to the heart of the English establishment as its possible to be – and was incredibly happy in that environment. But even though I love some very English things about England, one of the things I remember was a constant feeling of ‘outsiderness’ as I was growing up in it).

    There’s a movement in the Brahms Requiem which I think of as the ‘national anthem’ of this tribe – the words begin ‘For we have here no abiding city’. (Of course, being the atheist I am, I take that a completely different way from the one in which it was intended. But I see no reason why God should have all the best tunes,)

    Abi – when I think of the Netherlands, I think of it as a place where – in the period of history I’m most interested in – all sorts of exiles and misfits ended up and created a culture very different from anything that was around it. I’m curious does it still show any traces of still seeing itself that way. Turkey has its own long traditions of allochthony, – not all of which it feels entirely at ease with – and I sometimes feel that the fact that ikt does so makes living here as an expatriate much easier than it would otherwise be.

  16. praisegod barebones says:

    I’m not the wold’s best proofreader, but I do miss being automatically shunted into preview.

    Anyway:

    ‘I’m curious does it still show any traces of still seeing itself that way.’ might read better as ‘I’m curious. Does it…itself that way?’

  17. praisegod barebones @15:

    I, too, feel as much at home among the homeless as anywhere else. If you haven’t read The Importance of Elsewhere (linked back up there at 9), you really should. I don’t know if it’s part of the architecture of your mindset, but it certainly is of mine.

    This is different than being a “third culture” kid. I’m not, and I’m not raising my kids to be either. I don’t know what to call us all. I’m not sure there really is a word. “Expats” doesn’t cover it for me, because it’s not about being ex my patria, about where I’m from, as it is about where I’m at. Allochthoon, I guess, though (as I mentioned) that has a different meaning here.

    when I think of the Netherlands, I think of it as a place where – in the period of history I’m most interested in – all sorts of exiles and misfits ended up and created a culture very different from anything that was around it. I’m curious. Does it still show any traces of still seeing itself that way?

    It really doesn’t. The Dutch have retreated from their old position as the refuge of the misfits (which misfits, of course, included the people who later sailed on to America). They still have a distinct culture, particularly around the tolerance of (internal) diversity, but they’re struggling mightily with welcoming (external) diversity.

    European and Asian (either as the US or the UK uses the term) expats who don’t speak Dutch are tolerated in the major cities (I work in an Amsterdam-based office with something like forty nationalities represented. Many of them don’t speak Dutch, but live in an Anglophone bubble.) You can buy property, marry, make your will, divorce, raise your kids, do your shopping, and even get your driver’s license in English in Amsterdam. But darker-skinned people have a more hostile reception in the major cities.

    And it’s impossible to live in villages like mine without being at least functional in Dutch.

    I trust that the Netherlands will get itself out of this cultural cul-de-sac. There are certainly many people here who want it to, and are working toward that goal. And if the birthrate doesn’t improve, they’ll need to tolerate immigration just to have enough people to run the country, anyway.

    (Sorry about the lack of preview. I miss it, too, but WordPress.com doesn’t have an option for it. I suspect it’ll be the thing that drives me to changing the whole back end one day.)

  18. albatross says:

    Otter B:

    One nitpick: The examples I gave are government-run pumps, but the principle extends far beyond that. (Though governments or something like them are the usual way for us to provide public goods and manage commons.) Some of the pumps keeping you off your roof are embedded in markets and private businesses, and come to the attention of politicians or regulators only when they fail. A recent painful example is the mechanisms by which mortgage lenders make sure their borrowers can pay the money back, and so won’t end up in foreclosure. For years and years, it worked really well, and people hardly noticed other than to complain when not everyone qualified for a mortgage. Then some things changed in the market, an invisible pump turned off, and one day, nice neighborhoods have a bunch of vacant houses, whose previous owners were foreclosed upon when they couldn’t make their payments and could no longer refinance.

    Some of the pumps are mostly or entirely volunteer efforts. Or social mores that most people couldn’t even tell you why they follow, but they do. Here’s an example that came up in conversation today: Parks in Maryland generally don’t have trash cans in the park–they tell you to carry your trash out. I took my two boys on a Cub Scout hike today, with several other families. Parents and kids were careful to bag up trash and put it in cars to take out of the park. The park doesn’t fill with trash, not because of anti-littering laws (nobody was watching), but because the set of people using the parks is mostly willing to pick up their own trash. I’m sure the parks have to do some pickup as well, but most of the time when I go to them, they’re quite clean.

    This is another invisible pump. If most users of that park weren’t willing to pick up their trash, the park would fill up with trash. The park would have to spend a lot of money either cleaning up, or hiring policemen to go around ticketing people for littering. And it might be that you simply couldn’t have nice natural areas open to the public, in practice, without them getting trashed. Something that worked for years and years could conceivably just stop working at some point in the future, due to an all-but-invisible change in how parents and kids are brought up.

    This makes me wonder how many times some inexplicable falling apart of some previously functional bit of society is the result of something like this–some social change, or change in incentives in a market, or seemingly unimportant change in the wording of some law or contract, that turns off some invisible pump, one that maybe takes many years to show the effects of its loss.

  19. Sylvia says:

    praisegod @ 15 wrote:
    But there are some of us (I’m one, my wife is another) who find that the tribe we most naturally take to be ours is the tribe of non-belongers, expatriates, and temporally and topographically displaced persons

    You know, I only recently realised that I lived in Spain among British and German expats for exactly that reason – everyone here is displaced and so miraculously, I fit in. Having been treated as a German in the US and as an American in Germany, I never had a sensation of belonging. This made it very easy to relocate, of course.

    I think I first heard of tribe within a Making Light context and it made immediate sense to me. I do think just hearing the concept made me work harder to find people online to talk to about writing and reading. I now have a fantastic network of online friends which is overwhelmingly happy-making.

    I worry about my son: born in England, raised in Brussels and Costa del Sol, fluent in British English and Spanish, but holds a US and German passport. He is a citizen of countries he’s never experienced, so if I feel displaced, I can only imagine how he does. In some way it’s a common ground: we laugh together when someone asks “Where are you from” because neither of us have a simple answer. But I worry about him and how he will learn to belong.

  20. OtterB says:

    albatross @18, I agree completely that the infrastructure is social as well as physical, and that it’s maintained by private as well as public actions. It’s not easy to figure out, for example, the right balance between “mind your own business” and “look out for your neighbors.” Which may be part of the reason people are so much more cooperative and helpful in disaster situations than in day-to-day life; the rules about “mind your own business” have been suspended for the duration.

  21. praisegod barebones says:

    Abi @ 18 If you haven’t read The Importance of Elsewhere (linked back up there at 9), you really should.

    Well, I have now :-), (No. seriously, went straight to the link first time. Don’t think I knew it before, but yes: definitely part of the mindset. But one of the things I was trying to say to Otter B. and which Sylvia picked up on was something I don’t find in the Larkin – (and which I think is a very un-Larkin like thought) – namely that such people do – or can – form a community of their own. That was, for me, a much later revelation.)

    I agree with you about the word ‘expatriate’ by the way – I think you’ve found a very good way of explaining why I tend not to use it as a self-description – it suggests, somehow, that one’s centre is somewhere than one currently is. I may follow your example, and adopt allochthone, (though I’m not sure it doesn’t also carry a slightly similar suggestion at least to my ear.)

  22. OtterB says:

    praisegod barebones and Sylvia: I’ve been thinking about the “belonging to the group of people who are out of place” thing. I think it’s a subtle version of what I originally meant. In my mind, the thing we-as-humans need is the feeling that we belong. Hmph. I seem to be thinking deeply to reinvent Maslow. Sigh. It’s true nonetheless.

    For some people, belonging may mean anchoring in a place. (That has its risks, as Abi’s point about change highlights. Think of the senior citizens living in the same place they’ve lived for 40 years, while the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changes radically around them. Some thrive on it; some don’t.) For some it might mean an occupation or an avocation, e.g. I belong with the engineers or the musicians or the fen. For you, it sounds like it’s belonging with the group of people who understand what it’s like to be an outsider.

    Those who are interested in speculative fiction about this kind of outsiderness might enjoy Martha Wells’s new book, The Cloud Roads. Identity and belonging are major themes to the book, and the outsider character is deeply enjoyable.

  23. David Harmon says:

    But there are some of us (I’m one, my wife is another) who find that the tribe we most naturally take to be ours is the tribe of non-belongers, expatriates, and temporally and topographically displaced persons.

    ObSF: The title story of Greg Egan’s “Axiomatic”. Especially as combined with my, last post on the “Voice in the Wilderness” thread. ;-~

    What you’re calling the “pumps” are invisible to most people, precisely because for any one culture, they’re a constant feature of the background. This is why it might be worth it to require “a year abroad” as a condition to vote in one’s native country! 🙂

    I’d say that there are actually different classes of these, mostly by robustness. Something that has an organization specifically devoted to defending it is more robust than a mere social custom! It seems to me that what we think of is “civilization” is a disturbingly fragile veneer over humanity at large. And yet, even when the tangled currents forming “society”త are disrupted, they do tend to reform, and in characteristic forms.

    త Yes, I’m mixing two different aquatic metaphors. Deal with it. 😉

  24. Sylvia says:

    David @ 23
    This is why it might be worth it to require “a year abroad” as a condition to vote in one’s native country!

    That’s a wonderful idea. I would absolutely vote in favour.

    Yes, I’m mixing two different aquatic metaphors. Deal with it.

    *blub*

  25. OtterB says:

    David Harmon @23 and Sylvia @24 This is why it might be worth it to require “a year abroad” as a condition to vote in one’s native country.

    I like the idea, but I don’t think it would work. Let’s set aside all the practical issues – how would you manage this for people who can’t afford it, yadda, yadda – they matter, but even if they were all solved I still see something else. I envision this spinning off a network of sites, year abroad coordinators, etc., who would, intentionally or not, create a host of little enclaves where you could technically be abroad without actually having to come into contact with any foreigners or – gasp – challenging ideas. Sigh. Though I suppose if these networks hosted traveling young adults from multiple countries, they would at least come into contact with each other, even if less so with the country they currently reside in.

    Thinking of the SF stories that have something similar about proving you can function out of your usual environment, the ones that come to mind involve survival in a more primitive society or without the support of society (Tunnel in the Sky, Rite of Passage).

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