Sunday, March 27, 2011

It’s A Small World After All

Good Morning.

“And the beat goes on………………………………….”


I’ve just returned from a two month stay in Asia – travelling to Thailand, Malaysia and southern China this year. I have been exploring Asia for over a dozen years now, and have a fair understanding of the varied and disparate cultures of the vast array of nations that comprise the continent.

Each nation and the people that make up those countries are unique and different from the others. Each has its own culture (and I mean both their arts and cultural heritages and the wider meaning of culture). Each has its own way of looking at everything from education and work, to sex, family and marriage; from politics and economics to religion and the sense of community. Each has its own history, language, and life philosophy. And while each is so different that it is often times hard to compare one to the other despite the similarities, the one thing that stands out to be is how alike we all are.

Cities in Asia are so like cities in America that they are almost interchangeable – and but for the hue of the skin color of those cities’ inhabitants and sometimes the weather, one would be hard pressed to think one was not in the U.S. The cities from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, from Hong Kong to Bangkok, from Hanoi to Singapore look like New York, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle. Prior to my first visit to China, I had a definite impression in my mind as to the architecture I would find, and what the average Chinese might be like, and that impression was all wrong. The car models may be different, but traffic is a problem everywhere; the buildings and the architecture is nearly identical (from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong). The shops selling the global brand names are exactly the same, the restaurants and the bars and cafes (while featuring local cuisine) are otherwise alike, the transportation systems identical (though as at home some are clearly better than others), the museums, galleries, movie houses all interchangeable across the planet. And everywhere smart phones, wifi, ipads and technology are ubiquitous. The average American has no idea how much China and Asia is like the U.S.

And most importantly so too are the people. I have found that the people everywhere are basically the same – no matter the color of their skin, their history, the nuances of where they grew up, their language, age, or politics. The vast majority of everyone I have ever met, or just observed, shares much more in common with each of us than the differences that separate us. On any given day in any of these places are proud and doting parents – moms dealing with unruly kids or fussy newborns; middle age couples having a spat or walking hand in hand; aging seniors coping with the limitations of bodies grown tired; businessmen scurrying around in a hurry at lunch time; Millennials on the smart phones texting while the ipod ear phones play their favorite music.

What all of these people really want is to just live their lives. Their major issues are personal, not global. Ironically it seems it is only their leadership (whether democratically elected or dictators who came to power by force) is bent on confrontation and interested in war. For most of them anyway.

America’s biggest and most profound export seems to be our version of capitalism and the unholy preoccupation with style, fashion, and acquisition – with shopping as the most important non work activity. From fast food to movies and music, our chief export has been “lifestyle” more than ideas. Everywhere you go the most popular and dominant leisure time activity seems to be shopping, and in every city (not unlike in America), there is an explosion in malls and shopping meccas, all featuring exactly the same brand names of the west. Among the young in Asia, there seems an understandable (they come to this point relatively recently) obsession with the latest fashion trends. It reminds me of the Beatles song lyric: “Got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see”. I fear that this phenomenon threatens our ability to deal seriously with issues – for the only thing that seems to matter is distinguishing oneself by one’s appearance. Perhaps this is too harsh – for young people may have always turned to style as a way to begin the process of establishing their own identity and growing up.

I first began to travel to SE Asia because I tired of my beloved SF Bay Area drab, cold, rainy and gray winters. I am one of those people who much prefer it to be hot than cold. And that, plus the fact that my dollar goes father over there than it does here, remains a major motivation. But I soon grew fond not only of the people and other cultures, but the very fact of being out of my own culture at least for awhile as a way to make me think differently. It is good, I think, for one to be the outsider every once in awhile.

The problem for us all is that we know so little about each other and we cling to erroneous stereotypical portraits which the lack of familiarity reinforce. We have these preconceived notions of who everyone else is – how they live, what they think, what they value and what they abhor, and so we can objectify them as a whole people, and in the process diminish their humanity and justify reactions and opinions that clearly would not stand up to personal interaction. People in Asia like those in the west laugh, cry, ponder, and bleed.

Somehow the planet must figure out how to get beyond this myopic lack of real understanding. While the world is shrinking on so many levels, we still revel in an almost incomprehensible false sense of who everyone other than ourselves is. And we cling to these misperceptions despite evidence to the contrary. And so in many ways the gulf between us all widens not narrows.

It seems to me that art and artists can play an invaluable role in what must be an urgent attempt to break down this ignorance. Art and artists can help the world to understand that in the last analysis we are simply much more alike than different, and that all the preconceived ideas, stereotypes and bugaboo fears instilled in us for so long are beyond inaccurate, they are a lie. Artists can tell stories – personal, profound, meaningful stories of real lives. Arts and artists can be the bridge we lack.  We need to make that happen, because it isn't, and won't happen of its own accord.

I think we need to ratchet up our international exchange efforts. We need to be more participatory in global efforts for the arts and artists so we can engage in more intersections and interactions. We need to be in more countries, and more often – whether to perform, exchange best practices, or just to observe. We need more connections to the art and artists in these other countries. Thus, as but one example, the recent tragedies in  Japan present opportunities - for us.  We ought to identify what small role we might play to support (and intersect with) the arts in Japan as they rebuild their country.  There will be enormous profits and other less tangible gains to be made for a variety of industries in that rebuilding (the arts may or may not be involved), and for us some opportunities to identify and catalog the arts role in their infrastructure rebuilding and whether or not (and how) they use the power of the arts to re-start what is now - and likely to be more of - an anemic tourism industry, as well as other areas.   Much of Asia is way ahead of us in these efforts. In severely austere times like the present it is difficult to justify expenditures outside our home needs, but it is an investment in the future we call ill afford not to make. We have a role to play and an obligation to meet that cannot wisely be ignored or abrogated.

Check this out: Brain Pickings Seven Must Read Books on Music, Emotion and the Brain.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit