Why are we so happy?

A recent survey published by the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom named Denmark "the happiest place on earth."  I immediately wondered whether the survey was taken after violence against Danes flared up in the Muslim world following the publication of controversial cartoons in the Danish Jylland-Posten newspaper in September 2005.  If I were Danish, I still would not wear a Danish flag when traveling outside Europe for fear of possible reprise.
I noted that the United States is ranked higher than most European countries, with the exception of Scandinavian countries and other small states such as Switzerland and Austria.  European countries traditionally rank high in terms of quality of life, and many people assume that European life is more satisfying (happy) than American life.  That may not be the case.  At the same time, Americans often seem discontent and angst-ridden, particularly when it comes to dealing with world events, politics, and economics.  Perhaps life is not as bad as it seems to some Americans.
I also thought it interesting that residents of the New World (North and South) appear to be generally happier than those in the Old World (with the exception of Cubans), and although Asian and Oceania Pacific Rim nations ranked generally lower, as a group their happiness factors were higher than those in Central/South Asia and the Middle East.  One big surprise–Saudi Arabia.  Perhaps Saudis are among the happiest people because they are flush with petrodollars.  African nations, as expected, generally ranked at the bottom of the survey.
Here’s a condensed list of country listed in order of their happiness factor:

1.   Denmark

2.   Switzerland

3.   Austria

4.   Iceland

5.   The Bahamas

23. United States of America

41. United Kingdom

82. China

90. Japan

125. India

177. Zimbabwe

178. Burundi

Lost in translation

Today, while out and about with my son, I heard this comment in English for umpteenth time from a Korean:  "Your son is more handsome than you."
If you are a native English speaker, how do you interpret this comment?  It could mean any of the following:
  • "You are handsome, but your son is more handsome than you."
  • "You are ugly, but your son is handsome."
  • "Your son must have gone his good looks from his mom, because he surely could not have gotten them from you."
  • "You and your son are very handsome, and you imparted your best qualities to him."
  • A throw-away comment that means absolutely nothing.

So, which one is it? 


I asked a Korean what it means to a Korean.


Actually,  to Koreans, this utterance is a throw-away comment, something Koreans say to fathers with cute kids.  It’s intended to be small talk, not a referendum on the child’s looks or the father’s appearance.


Now how would a native English speaker interpret that comment?


I may be wrong, but I believe most English speakers would find the comment a bit negative.  Akin to the Chinese comment frequently uttered about people’s weight, "You look fat," (which in its purest sense means you look healthy, not fat), "Your son is more handsome than you" is the kind of comment that can be easily misinterpreted in English.  If you are a narcissist, you might assume that it means you are handsome and have great genes.  If you have self-esteem issues and/or are self-deprecating, you would probably take it to mean that you are ugly while your son is handsome.

I suspected that the comment is a rough interpretation of a common Korean phrase.  I assumed too that it is intended to be a complimentary comment.  It’s just too bad that Koreans have no idea how bad it can sound in English!

Featured Blog: Editfish

Editfish (http://editfish.blogspot.com/) is July’s Featured Blog of the Month.  A self-described "collection of thoughts, experiences, insights and epiphanies," Editfish’s blog, "Tumbleweeds," chronicles one man’s quest to join the State Department as a diplomat.  His site is an unofficial but comprehensive source of information on getting into the Foreign Service.  He also offers one of the longest list of Foreign Service bloggers available online.  I’ve never met him, although he frequently posts comments on my blog and has been corresponding with me for awhile.  Lately I’ve been remiss at responding to his e-mails and comments, so I thought I would offer a peace gesture by highlighting his excellent blog and repost an outstanding comment he made on World Adventurers about the cynical cycle expats go through when they live overseas.  Read on: 

This ‘cycle’ you mention is seldom discussed, unfortunately, but it is very real.  Each individual is different, and each phase of the cycle can vary based on location, support network, culture, individual adaptability, the climate, etc., etc., etc. 

I agree with your friend’s initial observation of a euphoric ‘honeymoon period’ followed by cynicism.  The cynicism is also replaced by a ‘silent reconciliation’ interspersed with short bouts of irritation/cynicism.  As much as I love this country, I have never felt euphoric upon returning Stateside–rather, a sense of depressive sadness that most of my friends and relatives here will never share or understand my experiences abroad.  The cycle begins anew with the next country, although once or twice I’ve skipped the honeymoon period and gone straight to the cynical.  😉

As far as getting past the cynical, I’ve one friend who was stuck in that loop for over seven years, and never reconciled.  For myself, the last time took only a few months.  If you are just moving into it, I would guess you’ll be coming back out of it about time for you to go wheels up.  Hopefully, it won’t take quite that long.

The upside?  Once you’re on to the next place, you definitely recall all the positive aspects of the culture, and you will miss it terribly.


One word of caution, however.  If you enter the next ‘cycle’ (moving to another country) and try to base that experience on your current (previous) one, you may find yourself becoming cynical much more quickly–it’s an unpleasant experience.  Try (as if it were possible) to enter with as few expectations as possible.

He’s absolutely right.


Editfish has been offline for awhile because he’s been traveling, but I hope he will start posting more frequently now that he’s home.  Editfish’s latest post announced that he passed the Foreign Service Written Exam (congratulations!) and will move on to the Oral Assessment, the next step in the arduous trek to Foreign Servicedom.  Surf on over and read more of his thoughts, experiences, insights and epiphanies.  Ask him what Editfish and Tumbleweeds means.  I really don’t know, but I’ve been meaning to ask him!


Blog Notes:  m.c., thanks for stopping by to say hello.  What am I doing here in Seoul?  I arrived about 1.5 years ago and will be here until early next year, when I head to Paraguay for my next assignment.  I was helping Americans living here, but now I meet hundreds of Koreans everyday doing a job related to what Editfish is pursuing.  Thanks for reminding that life is exciting.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, but I still pinch myself when I think about how fortunate I am to be doing what I am doing.  I was very happy to read that CNN Correspondent Anderson Cooper, writing in his 360 Blog from Israel during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, praised the efforts of State Department officials who are working side by side with the Marines to evacuate Americans from Lebanon.  That’s our job.

Way to go, Landis!

Congratulations, Floyd Landis!  You won the 2006 Tour de France!  After years of French press heckling your fellow American and rival, Lance Armstrong, over doping allegations, you did it clean, fair and square.  And with a trick hip to boot.  Congratulations.  I hope you get a chance to defend your title next year after hip surgery.  It’s a bummer that you have to have surgery and may never race again, but you have a lot to celebrate.  You made the Tour an exciting affair, especially after your amazing recovery after the Alps a few days ago.  Not only that, but you continue America’s domination of cycling’s premier sport in France, no less.  Americans have now won 11 of the 20 past tours.  Vive la America! Vive La Ndis!
Floyd, it’s a shame you didn’t get a chance to race against and beat contenders like Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, who are actually being investigated for doping charges.  And no one will ever know whether Lance Armstrong would have won the Tour again this year if he had raced.  Still, none of these realities change the fact that you won the race, fair and square.  Congratulations.  It’s yours.  Come back next year and do it again.  Best wishes for a successful recovery in the off-season.

39 is a lot

This morning I fed my son breakfast.  I asked him if he wanted some cereal.  He said yes, and I asked him how much he wanted to eat.  "39 pieces," he replied.  I laughed.  Not 38, not 40?  39 pieces?  "Yes," he replied.  This evening after we returned home, he said, "Dad, I want to play with you for 39 minutes."  39 minutes?  Not 38, not 40?  39 minutes?  "Yes," he replied.  39 is apparently a lot of something.  How he came up with 39, I’ll never know.  Kids say the darndest things!

The beauty of small groupthink

It’s been said that groupthink is bad, that the group influences individual opinions and leads to conformity and discourages the free flow of good ideas.  I was recently involved in two group meetings dealing with sticky issues, one last Monday and one tonight.  Group one included eight people trying to put together a schedule and arrange logistics for an important meeting.  Group two included three people tackling several critical issues.  The first group spent about five hours locked in a room, trying to build concensus from a spectrum of opinions.  I left, somewhat disillusioned, long before it ended.  The second group spent 50 minutes tackling equally weighty issues, and with razor-like precision, the three of us resolved all outstanding issues–and more. 
There’s a lot to be said about small groups working through tough issues.  Having large groups with many stakeholders who need to have their say and forging concensus is a bit overrated.