Das Gedankenexperiment

A brief neural link to memories of Carl Sagan a few weeks ago led to further forays and research into his work which has since cascaded into multiple streams of research, including viewing the (American) Discovery Channel’s recent series with Stephen Hawkings, all of which reminded me and further informed me that Albert Einstein, as a teenage German-speaking Jew, spent a hell of a lot of time wandering around Tuscany, engaged in heavy thought.

Whether it was being inspired by his genius predecessor Leonardo da Vinci, who did a lot of his work in those hills, or whether there’s something inspirational in what is admittedly one of the most pleasant slices of real estate on this planet, those teenage musings eventually culminated in seminal breakthroughs in physics.

The term both wandering teenagers and hardbitten locked-in-a-castle German philosophers use to describe these ultimately productive musings is Gedankenexperiment, which is just the German word for “thinking” added onto the more familiar Latin term that we all know. In other words, it just means “thought experiment” but it’s something I, as a far lesser genius, also like to indulge in, especially when my apartment is temporarily the home of a German friend and his German-speaking parents and so I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor of my office.

Imagine that you have a good friend, someone you’ve known from childhood, which we’ll call Richard, and you and he grow up and Richard attends university where he becomes a student of anthropology. And one day he calls you up and tells you he’s going on a six-month expedition to the remote highlands of somewhere very isolated and far away, perhaps like Papua New-Guinea, so he can study the native customs and habits of an indigenous tribe. Richard invites you to go along with him just to keep him company and you decide to throw caution to the wind and tag along since you’ve got nothing else better to do.

Of course life there is totally different than what either of you are used to, with a different climate and the natives are wearing grass skirts (remember, this is all imaginary) and have bones in their noses and speak in some completely different language that you can’t understand and eat strange and unusual plants and even stranger kinds of meat (like giant spiders) and in just in every way everything is totally different.

Richard, of course, being a student of anthropology and having chosen to study this particular tribe is well-briefed on their customs and knows a smattering of their language ahead of time. You on the other hand, know almost nothing before arriving but since the locals are friendly and you’re 10 hours by canoe from the nearest city, you have no choice but to stick around.

Eventually though you make a few friends and pick up a little of the local language and find a few dishes that are tasty to eat (although none involving giant spider meat) and find out that it’s not all unpleasant and in fact some of it is fun as you learn local dances and go fishing and play with the village’s tame monkey and other adventures like that.

But then comes the day – the 6 months are up. Richard has obligations back home and return air tickets and all the rest and so there’s no question at all but that he is going back home. But you decide you want to stay. You don’t have much going on back home, no job, no career or maybe you just really like hanging out with the natives. Either way you tell Richard you’re not going with him and so you settle in for a permanent or semi-permanent cohabitation with this tribe of natives in the remote jungles of Papua New-Guinea.

Now comes the thought experiment part. Exactly how much of the native culture do you adopt yourself? Do you dress in a grass skirt and put a bone in your nose or do you stick with pants and shirts and no bones in your face? Do you stick to eating dishes more similar to what you grew up with like rice and beans or do you eventually eat all the local cuisine, including the giant spiders and all the rest? And so on and so forth. And after 10 years of living there, let’s say, just how “native” are you?

Likewise, a branch of the clan you’re living with happens to be located further down the mountain and so find their territory being encroached on by Australians and other foreigners who set up a city. And pretty soon that city has electricity and televisions and stores and other modern things. How much of that modern culture do the indigenous people adopt for themselves? Do they set aside their grass skirts and start wearing pants and do they eat canned foods and bags of chips instead of yarrow and spider meat?

The first interesting thing for me is how much of the local culture each of these two (natives near town and you in the village) adopt of the majority culture around you. And then why you adopt it. Some of it, like learning the language and eating some local foods is obviously a matter of survival. But other parts seem to be a matter of choice, so why do you decide to wear a grass skirt instead of the pants you grew up with? Or why do you take on some of their spiritual beliefs versus whatever religion you grew up with? And so on and so forth.

Now obviously Richard and this thought experiment are just that, an experiment that I invented just to think about things. But let’s say an American moves to Romania. How much of the local culture will he adapt to and adopt for himself? Or let’s say a Romanian moves to America. How quote unquote American will she become, over time?

The reason I chose the indigenous people of a remote location versus the modern world is that it seems like a given, like something obvious, that adopting the indigenous culture and beliefs and foods and style of dress (etc, etc) is a step down from the modern world and that the natives living near town who start eating bags of chips and wearing pants are taking a step up when adopting these cultural things.

I don’t believe either one of these is a step up or a step down (or better/worse) than the others but it was a kind of trick on my part because I know that in our culture, these other cultures of spear-toting and grass-skirt-wearing natives is inherently considered to be of lesser value.

Likewise, Romanians consider much of their culture to be similar to that of the metaphorical grass skirt-wearing natives and thus far inferior to the metaphorical modern city culture, represented in reality by say England, Germany and the United States. In other words, they’re not considered to be equal at all and most of what’s Romanian is inferior to most of what’s in these few other countries.

Mind you, I’m talking about culture here, not necessarily material objects like computers or cars or metrics such as internet bandwidth speed or airline passenger volume. I am talking about culture, as in the mindset and attitude and beliefs of a society, and that Romanians have a cultural belief that (most of) their own culture is inferior to that of certain others.

In other words, if Richard and I came to visit Romania instead, the natives would all be busting their ass to simulate our pants and shirts so they could forswear grass skirts forever, and would be using local ingredients to simulate hamburgers and fries as best they could, and of course all working overtime to learn to speak English.

Conversely, any attempt by Richard and I to start wearing grass skirts and eating spider pie would all be considered foolish and stupid behavior, a complete waste of our time. Learning the language beyond saying “more beer now” and “where is toilet” would be another foolishness and any other attempts to adapt or simulate an inferior culture would be frowned upon and nearly considered proof positive that somehow we were escaped lunatics. Because why else would a member of a superior culture want to downgrade (in their eyes) to an inferior one? It makes no sense at all.

Obviously reality is a little less black and white. Over the years I’ve identified a few aspects of Romanian culture that Romanians themselves allow are superior. One is the “fabulous beauty” of their women. Two is the superiority and freshness of their food. And a third is the raw beauty of the natural areas in the country such as mountains, forests and lakes.

So any time a “superior culture” member wants to learn a little Romanian to pick up girls and then marry one, so she can cook up fabulous meals of fresh, local dishes and then go hike around in the mountains then all is good. A Romanian can understand that because those are the parts of their culture he/she has allowed to be considered superior and worth emulating.

Meanwhile learning Romanian to the point where you can speak to Gypsies or homeless vagrants is a foolish stupidity and practically infallible proof of a mental defect. This would be like Richard coming back on the plane to America still dressed in a grass skirt and wearing a bone in his nose, all the while telling his seatmates how well the garment “breathes” and how comfortable it is to wear. Even if he could prove that is was “objectively” true, the very fact that he’s adopted an aspect of an inferior culture trumps everything and the other people on the plane would think he was a nut.

So if you’re an “ex-pat” from a country with a culture that Romanians consider superior, you are expected to and in fact encouraged to maintain all of your cultural behaviors and Romanians will be exceedingly delighted to come speak English with you at your compound while eating a breakfast of Wheeatbix or other foreign foods. And if you never learn to speak Romanian and never slip on a Romanian folk costume and sing muzica popular in your life, nobody will be surprised or disappointed.

And I can honestly say that I know many such foreigners, who have lived here for years and yet are still culturally 99% the same with their friends and family back in their country of origin. And the Romanian girls (and occasionally boys) who date and marry them are not just willing but actually eager to learn their foreign language and foreign customs and adopt their foreign culture in just about every way possible.

If the events of 2010 had never happened then I’d just be an unknown freak, bucking the tide of the normal course of events, unconnected to both this non-adapted foreigner ex-pat community as well as to the wider Romanian society. But I chose a different route and it’s very interesting to see how it has played out, especially since every single week of my life it seems I meet someone new from one of these two groups and they always have an identical reaction.

Meeting me and hearing my story and evidence of my cultural adaptations, there are two possible reactions:

1) A member of a superior culture adapting and adopting significant aspects of an inferior culture is surprising and incredibly confusing and upon further reflection, is actually stupid and crazy so stop doing it at once. And if I can’t get you to stop then I’ll just pretend like it isn’t happening and so I will treat you as a normal foreigner, i.e. one who hasn’t downgraded to being Romanian, and we’ll just speak English and forget this foolishness until you regain your senses.

2) Or maybe, just maybe, and I do mean just barely maybe, perhaps a member of a superior culture, by adopting this inferior culture (i.e. most parts of Romanian culture) is onto something. And maybe, just maybe, there are other valuable and worthy aspects of our culture besides just hot chicks and wholesome soups and maybe instead of considering it a shitty, two-bit inferior culture maybe we ought to re-examine it in a new light and maybe we can find other salvageable parts of it. And maybe when we do this, we won’t feel so shitty about our native culture and/or our inability to adopt a superior (but foreign) one.

Which of course leads to some rather hilarious moments (at least from my perspective) when I then insult or denigrate certain parts of Romanian culture, after having staked my entire public persona on extolling the wonders of Romanian culture. So I really try not to do that too often and only when I’m speaking to someone face-to-face and not when there’s a large group or video cameras around.

Number two above is hard enough for people to get their mind around without doing (from their perspective) a complete reversal and becoming a very harsh critic, made all the more salient and nerve-hitting because of my understanding and knowledge of the very culture I am now attacking.

So, if you’re a foreign (i.e. non-Romanian) person reading this and have been to Romania or really like it here, now you know what you’re up against and just how much you’re going to struggle for your Romanian friends and neighbors to move from attitude #1 to attitude #2.

If you’re a Romanian however, living here or abroad, try to keep an open mind and see if you can embrace a little of #2, eh? I promise it won’t kill you. And although I may be a little crazy (my team of psychologists hasn’t decided that yet :P) I am at least competent enough to have survived all these years, which is saying something.

5 thoughts on “Das Gedankenexperiment

    1. Ha ha, thank you Andrea for clarifying my erroneous perception of Romanians. The ones I encountered on my recent visit there, were very nice and helpful, loved to laugh, loved their families, and were a heck of lot smarter than me and spoke several languages, including English (of course with a funny accent) but better than my few words of Romanian. Like Sam, I love your country for what it is and the potential of what it can be with proper leadership and vision.


      1. I guess it all boils down to just that, leadership. That might be the only thing Romanians actually hate about their country.


  1. Wow I didn’t know Romanians wore grass skirts and ate giant spiders but I think I saw that in an American TV murder mystery show or if not I soon will! Ha ha

    Sam you have a unique communication style that provides us with a better perspective of how much to assimilate into another culture. Like the words from the Bob Seger song “Against the wind”
    “what to leave in, what to leave out!”

    thanks for another thought provoking post!


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