The International Man

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, December 6, 2004

Several years ago I noticed that my scientific colleagues routinely preferred traveling outside their own countries to have professional exchanges, even though it was often unnecessary. At first I mistakenly ascribed this to economics, for I knew that governments everywhere were increasingly pressuring us to appear "international." Eventually I realized it was more than that. They liked getting on airplanes and going somewhere exotic to market their work. The more I thought about this the stranger it got, for at home we scientists are depressingly normal and, frankly, uninteresting people.

But one day it came to me: my friends were actually two individuals in the same body, a domestic man and international man. The domestic man paid the bills, commuted long hours to work, complained about his government (in whichever country), took out the garbage, and so forth, while the international man did intellectual things his neighbors could never understand, exchanged email with other people like himself across eight time zones, and flew off to distant lands on a regular basis to meet his friends. The domestic man did not go on these trips. The doorway to the plane was a barrier through which only the international man could pass.

In retrospect it is clear that having two selves of this nature is a common modern experience. It had been difficult for me to see initially because the international man distinguishes himself from the domestic man mainly by being an English speaker. Those of us who grew up in English-speaking countries have an international self too, and its psychological aspects are fundamentally the same, but the distinction between the two people in our heads is subtler and easier to dismiss as a personality quirk.

This effect is not unique to scientists, of course. One of the central goals of contemporary education is to create in young people a functioning international self. This is especially true in smaller countries like Korea, where the domestic market is small and the main avenue for economic growth is sales abroad---although it is true for big countries like the U.S. as well. Being prepared to transform into an international man the moment the need arises is what "globalization" really means. It is also why parents everywhere are so obsessed with instilling English skills. It isn't really about language at all but about sending the kids through the door of that plane.

There is, unfortunately, a danger built into early, aggressive internationalization of a young person: the victim tries to reconcile his two selves, rather than being at peace with them, and winds up becoming a man without a country. I have seen many examples of this effect in Korean young people abroad, particularly in technical disciplines. The person does extremely well professionally but is nonetheless hopelessly confused about his identity. I have chalked it up in my mind less to culture than to a side effect of high-pressure education, something for which Korea is notorious. The effect is not unique to Koreans, of course. It goes away with time.

What the person grows to discover is that the international man is a fair weather friend, a fictional character who shrinks to insignificance the moment there is real trouble. Coming to grips with this is no different than discovering that the small town you came from, and which you immensely enjoyed ridiculing when you were younger, is actually rather wonderful.

The citizen from a small country and a large one alike must regularly cross the threshold into the international world to make a living. But a healthy, balanced life requires all of us to return back now and then to the things that count: hearth, home, family, and the smell of the good earth.

[Copyright 2004 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]