Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu is a collection of essays on the evolving landscape of Asia. Veering away from the all-too-common colonial perspective, Iyer’s work dissects the cross-cultural relationship between the East and the West. His forays into Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, The Philippines, Burma (now Myanmar), Hong Kong, India, Thailand and Japan bring about an array of humorous yet poignant stories.
The anthology, first released in 1988, remains as one of the author’s most popular works. It garnered rave reviews bringing Iyer, who also writes for Time Magazine, into the international spotlight.
With Indian roots but brought up in England, Pico Iyer’s own sense of hybridity allows him to meander through both worlds as an inconspicuous observer to capture the subtle (and some, not-so-subtle) exchanges between these two seemingly opposing regions. By Iyer’s own admission, he lives in the netherworld—neither fully Asian, nor fully Western. Thus, his search for identity leads him all over the globe not only to find out what makes each place distinct but also how and what happens when different cultures cross paths.
He notes that globalization, whose influence reaches the least likely places, such as in the mountains of Nepal, has become the new form of domination of the first world over the third world. With tourists as the new foot soldiers and media as its weapon, colonization continues but instead of a mission for “Gold, Gold and Glory” it is now one where even in the most remote corners of the world, people know Rambo, Coca-Cola and dream the “American Dream.” However, Iyer asserts that Asia is not only able to make the consumer invasion uniquely their own, but to the author’s surprise, maintain a sense of identity:
“And as I got ready to leave the East, I began to suspect that none of the countries I had seen, except perhaps the long-colonized Philippines, would ever, or could ever, be fully transformed by the West. Madonna and Rambo might rule the streets, and hearts might be occupied by second-hand dreams of Cadillac’s and Californians; but every Asian culture I had visited seemed, in its way, too deep, too canny or too self-possessed to be turned by passing trade winds from the west.” (357)
However, despite the onslaught of Western trends, Iyer discovered that there was a reversal of fortune, where the “East was increasingly moving in on the West.”
Image by Kalleboo
Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu is a call for global citizenship. Though the process of globalization is not new (beginning during the trades and fostered the development of civilizations all over the world), the last century’s technological advancements have practically erased all boundaries. Through the internet: A teenager from Berlin, Germany could become friends with someone from Kerala, India, a Filipino student can exchange language tips with people from Prague, Thai singers can share their favorite music with friends in Mexico.
Budget airlines have allowed people to cross the globe without sacrificing their entire savings. Social networking sites have allowed people to create all forms of communities, bonding people, who may have never even met, on their favorite topics. The differences are no longer the strange, dark “Otherness” but as one that could be shared and integrated. Thus, Filipino kids cam show off their slickest moves dancing to the latest European bands, while Slovenian film buffs can watch the latest Filipino independent flicks over the internet.
Though published in 1988, Iyer’s work is a prophetic view of a new kind of citizenship–a global citizenship. Members of this internationalized community have not only been able to utilize technology for leisure, but also to mobilize support for various causes, such as the monk’s protest in Burma, as well as send out reports (via blogs, twitter) in areas where news media would not have access to.
However, globalization is not without its detractors. Many scholars view it as a demolition of culture—even Iyer admits that he was a skeptic at first. Academic theorist Polly Toynbee, in his article Who’s afraid of Global Culture?, labels this fear as “culture panic.” This issue stems from peoples desire to preserve a “belief in our elemental selves…living as close to their natural ways as possible” because “it reassures us that there is a natural state of mankind for us to reconnect with when we feel lost” (Hutton 195). However, once visitors are able to achieve that peek into their lost selves, they are just as eager to return to their comfort zone, hoarding the advances of the modern age (ibid). Like Iyer, he asserts that “cultural cross-fertilization is the essence of art:static art is dead art” (ibid).
Thus, as the “golden age of technology” reaches a climax, the future of cultural exchange is promising. Many would ask, “But at what price?” However, due to the intercultural connections that have become everyday occurrences, a better question would be: What’s next?
In love with Iyer’s words? If you haven’t read any of his works, start with his seminal essay on “Why We Travel
If you’re seeking more books to squeeze into your knapsack (or get you revved up to travel), check out my article in Brave New Traveler, “The 50 Greatest Travel Books of All Time.”
Feel lost in this globalized world? Check out Pico Iyer’s talk on “Searching for Home/Self in a Fast-Moving World”:
Fascinated by the web’s ability to forgean internet community of like-minded souls? Then you may be interested in Seth Godin’s talk on “The Tribes We Lead” over at TED.com.
Some thoughts to ponder upon….
- What is your view on globalization? Do you believe that cultures are always changing or that there should be a strict adherence to tradition?
- Are tourist who come to Asia in search of the “true” Bali (or Philippines, Tibet, etc) reminiscent of colonizers seeking the “exotic”? Do you think that they are guilty of subjecting the locals to their “expectations”?
- Do you think that the process is also the same for a traveler from a third world visiting a first world country?
- Iyer notes that the Philippines has the strongest influence of Western, primarily American culture. Do you think that the “American-ness” denotes the loss of a Filipino culture or that it is already an aspect of our identity?
- People often regard the Filipino identity as a mash-up of our past – Spanish heart, Chinese stomach, American mind. Do you think that still holds true today?
- Growing up as an Indian in London, Iyer states that he is someone “in-between” cultures, a hybrid. Do you think that it is a common sentiment for people in the Philippines? In Asia?
- Do you think that locating a McDonald’s, a Starbucks or any other large consumer-driven company in a remote place spells the end of their culture? Do you think that it is possible to infuse a myriad of cultures whilst maintaining a national identity?
- What changes do you see in the next ten years?
Voice your thoughts on the comment board…