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Globalization vs. Americanization

While McDonald's golden arches may be proliferating in every major metropolis across the world, so, for that matter, are Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.
 
 
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A friend, well traveled and educated, recently predicted the evils of globalization in very simple terms. "Everyone will be eating at McDonald's, listening to Madonna and shopping at mega-malls,'' he prophesied. "It'll be absolutely awful.''

What I told him then is that globalization is not the same as Americanization, though sometimes it's hard for Americans to make that distinction. 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, and promising my soul and body to protect the land and its sacred rice fields and rivers. 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 three 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 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.

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.

So McDonald's golden arches and mega-malls may be proliferating in every major metropolis across the world, but so are Thai and Vietnamese restaurants! Many other original cultures and languages and traditions continue to thrive. Think Bombay movies, Buddhist monks in Bangkok, Balinese dancers in Bali -- these will not simply wash away because CNN and MTV are accessible now to the peasant in his mud hut.

While there's no denying that America is the sole supreme power in this post-Cold War era, America and all things American are not the end point. As we look at the world through our own prism, we tend to forget that we ourselves have dramatically changed in an age of open systems.

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. And Islam and Buddhism are the two fastest growing religions in America.

To want to be rooted is a deep human desire, of course, but to be displaced and uprooted, alas, is a human condition -- Man's fate. All over the world, people are moving from language to language, from culture to culture, sensibility to sensibility, negotiating across time zones and continents. It's a world that resists simplification. Man's identity is in conflict, has become both the cause of pain and fear for some and the source of enormous inspiration for others. I am inclined, of course, to be on the side of the latter.

The new man's talent is the ability to overcome paralysis of the many conflicting selves by finding and inventing new connections between them. He holds opposed ideas in his head without going crazy. He resists the temptation to withdraw into a small shell of separatism and fundamentalism and xenophobia. He learns instead to hear others and respect differences and, in the process, transcends paradox. He sees the world with its many dimensions simultaneously. Geography for him may be memory and logistics, but it's no longer destiny.

Andrew Lam ( lam@pacificnews.org), an editor at Pacific News Service, is a journalist and short story writer.