By ANDREW LAM
New American Media
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 1, 2013) — A good friend, well traveled and educated, views the evils of globalization in very simple terms. It’s a world in which everyone drinks coffee at Starbucks and eats at McDonald’s and listens to Lady Gaga. That is to say, he sees globalization as synonymous to Americanization, and it depresses him.
But I tell him that he is mistaken. Though sometimes it’s hard for many of us Americans to make that distinction, Americanization is only a small part of globalization. And if America is changing the world, the reverse is true also.
For me the most crucial aspect of globalization is the psychological transformation that’s affecting people everywhere.
Let me offer my own biography as an example. I grew up a patriotic South Vietnamese living in Vietnam during the war. I remember singing the national anthem, swearing my allegiance to the flag. Wide-eyed child that I was, I believed every word.
But then the war ended and I, along with my family (and eventually a couple of million other Vietnamese), betrayed our agrarian ethos and land-bound sentiments by fleeing overseas to lead a very different life.
Almost four decades later, I make a living traveling between East Asia and the United States of America as an American journalist and writer. My relatives, once all concentrated in Saigon, are scattered across three continents, speaking three and four other languages, becoming citizens of several different countries.
Once sedentary and communal and bound by a singular sense of geography, we are now bona fide cosmopolitans who, when we get online or meet in person, still marvel at the difference between our past and our highly mobile if intricately complex present.
Yesterday my inheritance was simple — the sacred rice fields and rivers that defined who I was. Today, Paris and Hanoi and New York are no longer fantasies but my larger community, places to which I feel a strong sense of connection due to familial relationships and friendships and personal ambitions.
Once great, the distances are no longer daunting but simply a matter of rescheduling.
I am hardly alone. There’s a transnational revolution taking place, one right beneath our very noses. The Chinese businessman in Silicon Valley is constantly in touch with his Shanghai mother on a cell phone while his high-tech workers build microchips and pave the information superhighway for the rest of the world.
The Mexican migrant worker moves his family back and forth, one country to the other, treating the borders as if they were mere nuisances, and the blond teenager in Idaho is making friends with the Japanese girl in Osaka in a chatroom, their friendship easily forged as if time and space and cultural barriers have been breached by their lilting modems and the blinking satellites above.
The differences between my friend’s view and my propositions are essentially the differences between a Disney animation and a Michael Ondaatje novel, say, “The English Patient.”
Disney borrows world narratives (“Mulan” and “The Little Mermaid,” for instance) for backdrops, but it rewrites all complicated stories toward a singular outcome: happily ever after.
It disembowels complexity, dismisses tragedy, forces differences into a blender and regurgitates formulaic platitudes. Thus, somewhere along the way, globalization is somehow equated to how America changes the world.
Ondaatje’s novel, on the other hand, is a world rooted in numerous particularities. It’s a world where people from dissimilar backgrounds encounter one another and are trying, by various degrees of success and failure, to connect and influence each other. And it’s a world complicated by memories and ambitions and multiple connections and displacements. Its unique and rounded characters refute simplification.
America, besides, has changed radically in the last few decades. Demographic shifts are changing the racial make up of the country and by the year 2050 there will no longer a majority in the U.S., since whites will decline to below 50 percent of the population. And the fastest growing population? Asians. And American children are growing obsessed with Japanese anime, while the fastest growing religion in America is Islam.
So, while it’s undeniable that the Americanization effects are still taking place, the Easternization of the West is also going on.
Koreatown in Los Angeles and Chinatown in San Francisco and the Cuban community in Miami are, after all, not places created for nostalgic purposes but vibrant and thriving ethnic enclaves.
They are changing the American landscape itself — a direct challenge to the old ideas of melting pot and integration. Such is the complexity of the globalized world. Ours is a world in motion, in flux: the number of people who pass through those gates at San Francisco airport each year exceeds the entire population of California.
At last count, there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area, and 80 in the 30-square-mile city of Richmond, population 100,000.
On warm summer afternoon in San Francisco where I live, turns into the modern tower of Babel. The languages of the world — Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Vietnamese, and many more I do not recognize — waft in through my open windows, accompanied by the cable cars’ merry cling-clanging bells.
For the first time in human history, all of the world’s traditions and ideas are available at close proximity, and with the information of the world compressed and compiled and available at the click of a mouse, and people of the world assembled often in one metropolitan area.
East and West — the twain has met, with the blessing of shared fascination. Tu Wei Ming, the Confucian scholar at Harvard, calls our new millennium “a second axial age.” “It is a kind of era where various traditions exist side by side for the first time for the picking,” he says. Traditions not only exist in our global village, they coexist in such a way “that a Christian project would have to be understood and perceived in a comparative religious context,” he notes.
So Starbucks and McDonald’s golden arches may be proliferating in every major metropolis across the world, but so are Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.
Many other original cultures and languages and traditions continue to thrive despite the powers of Hollywood. Think Korean movies, Balinese dancers, kung fu, acupuncture, and a myriad of cultural practices — these will not simply wash away because CNN and MTV are accessible now to the peasant in his mud hut.
Andrew Lam is editor at New America Media and the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees on America’s West Coast, which won the Pen/Josephine Miles Literary award.