Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Imports and Exports

I have embarked upon A Passage to India. (I never get tired of saying that.) This is exciting for so many reasons. One, I was on my E is for Eco book for nearly two months, and now it's like TGIF - thank god I'm (on) Forster! Two, it was made into an Academy Award-winning film, you know. Three, let's talk about traveling to Asia, shall we?

Sometimes I think my life is a gigantic circle. Other times I know it is. Here I am all contemplating the year since I returned from living abroad, so what better time to read a novel about Westerners in India? A couple of the Englishwomen are discussing whether India really feels like "the other side of the world" or not. I have an amused(television) and an inquisitive(real life) response to this.

First, amusement: I love Designing Women! In this book Miss Quested says she wants to see the real India. "Ronny was in high spirits. The request struck him as comic, and he called out to another passer-by: 'Fielding! how's one to see the real India?' 'Try seeing Indians,' the man answered, and vanished..." - p. 25

Well, how can one not think of Suzanne Sugarbaker? On vacation, prissy Suzanne is the lone voice who does not want to soak up the local culture: "I can assure you that there is nothing around here I want to 'soak up.'" Perhaps you have to know and appreciate the show and the fabulously fun, satirical-yet-hitting-home ways of Suzanne's character (and if you don't appreciate these things, I highly suggest you get thee to your Lifetime and watch some Desigining Women episodes) but it's so fantastic. On another trip, Suzanne elaborates, "I've noticed that whenever people start talking about seeing 'the real' anything, what they really mean is 'hanging out with poor people.' I say, I don't hang out with poor people at home, so why should I do it on vacation?" You see? It's absurd, and shocking, and not politically correct, and doesn't it also ring unfortunately true for so many of us? That, my friends, is the brilliance of Designing Women.

Second, my Korea-induced question to ponder. I never really felt like I wasn't seeing "the real Korea." I mean, it's such a silly way to phrase it, anyway. (I'm with Ronny, in that sense.) We all live in our little subcultures, whether at home or abroad. And we frankly tend to shun The Others no matter where we are as well. So I took refuge in the Commune, my very favorite bar on the planet, where the expats would gather in the low-lit basement pub, play music, meet and greet, launch a renaissance...so what? I also hopped a three-dollar bus to a random town every other weekend, made political connections, and got to know hundreds of children whom I taught. Which parts of that are "real" and "unreal"? What nonsense.

One of my best teacher friends over there hated Korea for this reason: she didn't feel it was different enough from the United States. She might agree with Mrs. Moore: "she too was disappointed at the dullness of their new life. They had made such a romantic voyage across the Mediterranean and through the sands of Egypt to the harbour of Bombay, to find only a gridiron of bungalows at the end of it." - p. 23

Not only did I generally disagree with this friend (then again, I mostly see "similarity to home" as a matter of quantifying the availability of Mexican food, and I used to describe myself as a foreign exchange student in Boston -- from California) but I also wonder if it isn't rather condescending of us to say places are "Americanized." Or even "Westernized." What, like so-called Western Civilization has some sort of monopoly on crappy television, neon, techonology, McDonalds, and the like? Who are we to say that? Now that everyone and their trendy brother eats sushi and does yoga, why don't we say that we are Asia-ized? And don't even get me started on anime and manga.

No, really though? Who the hell are we to say? My experience is that Korea and Japan are so technologically superior to the U.S. it's not even funny. In Seoul I could be three levels underground on the subway and have a cell phone signal, but on Long Island I can't keep one on the Hofstra campus. When I first got there I asked my smug little spoiled adolescent class if they had iPods and they were like, "i-what?" Then they whipped out their phone/camera/mp3 player combos that put us to shame, that every freakin' ten-year-old has. And no offense meant to my Michigan peeps (and besides, my adoring fans all know I love Michael Moore than the lot of you put together) but everyone knows their Toyota runs better than their Ford. I'm not the only one who has come to that conclusion. So why do we think we're so superior?

And why are we perpetually in search of this exotic other, anyway? Would it be so bad if we found more common ground among humanity than differences?

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