Painfully Beyond East And West

Reflections on the transnational person and the future of culture

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 50
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Some changes we must seek out, and others are thrust upon us by the globalization of culture. Sohail Inayatullah, a futurist currently working with the Hawaii Judiciary, offers these thoughts on transnationalism.

Culture is not static: it is dialectically fluid. Cultures are constantly transforming – expanding and contracting. Each one of us contains the past as well as possibilities for many futures. One of these possible futures is emergence of a global culture beyond East and West, one that unites individuals but does not make commodities of them nor oppress them – and that includes, yet dialectically transcends, the ancient past.

The problems of cultural change, of understanding the particular and universal, of understanding the self are especially important to me as I, like many others, have spent my entire life traveling from city to city, nation to nation. Since leaving Peshawar when I was six, I, with my parents, have lived in Indiana, New York, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. Since the mid 1970’s I have lived in Hawaii and traveled yearly back and forth to visit my family in Malaysia and recently in Pakistan. To me, these travels cannot be understood simply in aeronautical miles. They are journeys across linear and cyclical time; through economic, political and psychological space. They are journeys to the self. With each trip an old self dies, a new self emerges. Each death is one of fear yet relief; each birth one of loneliness and discovery.

My sense is that others from Asia and the third world are undergoing similar experiences such that they too are caught between the past and the future, the nation and the globe, poor and rich, feudalism and modernity. They too are anticipating the renewal of ancient spiritual pasts and the unfolding of future cultures. They too are part of fundamental transformation of our myths, polities and economies.

These new cultures are being developed through the transmission of cultural codes from periphery to center and center to periphery, from Asian to American and American to Asian. These messages are of time and hierarchy; sexuality and power; daily life and etiquette; dreams and myths. They are also of conflicting visions of our purposes in life, and in the universe.

These messages are often painful. But the pain I am particularly concerned about is not so much the guilt that the American feels when he or she ponders the East, the poverty there, the hunger there; it is more the pain the Asian feels when he or she encounters the West.

He or she, for one, knows that those from the North, from the Modern world, think that he is from a lesser culture, an impoverished land: one where the weather is hot; where productivity is low; where the polity is authoritarian; where people beg.

The Asian’s reaction is simple. He feels inferior or superior. He begins to believe that yes he is from a deficient land. He forgets the intrinsic worth of humanhood, of life. He forgets the empires, the golden ages of the Asian, African or South American past. He forgets that a nation is not simply an isolated entity outside of space and time. He forgets history and the ravages of colonialism: the selling of land, raw materials, enterprises, and self to the foreigners by a few of his fellow men eager for profits, prestige and power.

While in the North, he looks at the impressive dust- free streets of Geneva, Bloomington, or Honolulu and smirks that if only his country could sell dust, could hire an American advertising agency to "market" dust, they, too, could join the wealthy.

And he examines technology: the clean, the quick, the efficient. While in the West, he critiques technology and the western cosmology behind the industrial revolution, behind the present science and technology revolution. But when he returns to his homeland, the list of things the nation should have begins: fridges, dishwashers, dryers, washers, blenders, cash registers, electric toothbrushes, color televisions, telephones, Cadillacs, personal computers, telecommunications systems, automatic cash machines, mass transit systems, and shopping centers.

And he wonders: why not at home? Are we indeed lazy, do we really have inappropriate institutional structures (as many free-market development theorists state); or has our surplus value, our wealth, been expropriated (as leftist dependency theorists argue)?

Recently, while in Manila, I met one Filipino who remained a Marcos supporter. He said the Cory Aquino people were simply loud: Marcos had done a great deal for the country. I asked him about the pervasive poverty. He responded that Filipinos were a lazy people. When I hinted that laziness was a response to the white man’s or any man’s colonialism, to a structure of dominance, he quickly responded that Filipinos had been lazy since pre-Hispanic times. Marcos, to him, was a big person among the little people. He had fought and defeated the West on its terms: on the level of power and wealth.

The reaction then is a feeling of lessness, and an attempt to deal with this lessness through power, through superiority. This superiority is sometimes personal, sometimes structural, sometimes political and religious.

The Asian in this perspective does not make less of himself but makes less of the foreign culture. He believes that the West is decadent – the women "loose," the men "weak," the dollar above Allah, the culture devoted to the great Satan of technology. The critique is assailed upon every foreign culture, not only the West. For example, the Pakistani or Indian trying to come to terms with the wealth and technology and Islamic religious history of the Middle-East believes that the Arabs have no culture, that they are simply a group of nomads with no real sense of cultural history – they are simply the newly rich.

Yet the critique of the West is particularly brutal. At times it is framed in development theory language – that is, the West suffers from overdevelopment, or socio-cultural maldevelopment; that its future is not rooted in cultural history; and that it has no vision beyond that of technocracy. The critique, although couched in analytic language, is fundamentally emotional. They, the Westerners, are barbarians. True they have weapons. True they have fortunes. But they have no family. They have no unity. They have no God.

And we do!

Iran is the clearest example among many of this inferiority-turned-superiority.

The contradictions are clear enough. On one side is the Asian trying to be American: speaking white, looking white, while knowing he can never be anything more than a subhuman being in the West. On the other hand is the Asian, who in toto rejects Western culture as the work of the dark side and glorifies his own culture as that of the pure, chosen few. For this Asian, the West’s material accomplishments are denigrated, its technological superiority ridiculed, its imperialism forcefully attacked.

But in this battle of cultural and political power, no one, no civilization(East or West) is immune. The problems of modernity and religion; cosmology and sexuality; technology and wealth; ethnicity and unity will not go away, although they are in rapid and dialectical flux.

The Asian family, now too, as industrialism expands, as export-led economies grow, must face the contradictions of modernity. The Chinese in Singapore must now legislate care for the elderly. Pakistani village families no longer find their closeness through the wisdom of evening story-tellers: rather video cassette recorders bought while returning from Saudi Arabia and inexpensive cassettes from Bombay or Hong Kong provide family unity. I, a few years back, saw one Pakistani television show where the addition of a VCR wreaked havoc on the peace of the father’s life. He saw how their previous closeness, their intimacies were being destroyed. Village husbands complained that the wives no longer cooked: every night it was the VCR. While asleep, the man saw thieves take his nemesis and the villager’s prized possession. The police quickly captured the thieves. But the man would not admit that the VCR was his. He was happy without it. His meals were prepared, his house was quieter, and neighbors visited for reasons besides Urdu-language films. But finally the Chief Police Officer begged the man to take it back – the Officer’s wife had decided to make life hell for him until she could watch the VCR.

Thus the contradictions of video technology: it opens yet closes options. It destroys, yet creates culture. From the sublime to the ridiculous, from Woody Allen to Rambo, all are available in most Asian countries. Jet travel and personal computers, like other technologies, also drastically exhibit this dual nature. They bring us together and apart. They strengthen the world of materialism, and they create the possibilities of a new global culture.

While VCRs come to the East, Yogis, Sufis and Buddhist Monks travel to the West to bring the messages of meditation and self-reliance and inspire Westerners to become monks. The new Western monks, as I’ve often seen, then travel in Asia bringing this message back to the East. Asians are often surprised to see a Westerner in saffron talking about their guru: they do not know what to make of it, for they are many times more interested not in meditation and self-reliance, but in pleasure and capital accumulation. In addition, those in the East believe they have a monopoly on wisdom. Yet often it is the Western monks who have the strongest spiritual presence, for they, like the ancient Buddha, have tired of accumulation, of individuality, of colonialism; they are ready to serve the planet. They, and other like-minded Westerners, may be an integral and driving part of an emerging future culture.

And in the West, there are many Asians who are part of a newly emerging culture – who have traversed the realms of technology and nature, sexuality and spirituality, inferiority and superiority, family and self, identity and transcendence.

They have found, within the diversity of the particular, a universal humanity and evil within each culture and individual. But this process of transcendence and understanding is not a fast-food one; it traditionally has taken centuries. Ancient spiritual pasts are not renewed overnight; new cultures do not unfold in a day. Still, travel, electronics, and the inner exploration of the collective unconscious may reduce this process to a lifetime.

But there are numerous contradictions and difficulties to be faced while new futures emerge. In the U.S., for example, many of my Pakistani friends find themselves passionately hating the U.S. and secretly loving it. Others have no illusions and do their best to become immigrants. In Pakistan, my friend Zaheer was a student leader; now in the U.S. he is just another graduate student trying to make sense of a world of power, money, and sex. This is especially difficult as for his research he was allowed into Khomeni Iran and he believes America is the great Satan. In the meantime, he has become a sort of travel agent, buying and selling tickets so he can survive while eagerly awaiting the fall of Western civilization. My friend Malik, however, remains in Islamabad and dreams of the U.S. where he hopes to find his sexual desire fulfilled among the Western "whores." I have told him that American females also have feelings, but he, influenced by Clint Eastwood movies, does not really believe me yet.

But there are examples of individuals who have risen above their cultural and historical contradictions. I met one such woman in a Honolulu-bound flight over Malaysian air. Her mother was Chinese from Penang, Malaysia and her father was Saudi Arabian. She was raised as a devout Muslim and she spoke Cantonese, Arabic, English, Malay and French and divided her time between Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indiana. In Indiana, she was studying theoretical mathematics but her main project was to develop a new feminism that was grounded in the larger political-economic questions of the world, that intended to find a new discourse for women beyond the slavery of the West and the repressions of East.

Many Asians I have met are not so clear about their purpose. Some love the West and dread the thought of going back home. Others who have had their "white experience" rejoice of returning to their home country. Others, like my friend Kamala, feel trapped in a brown body. Although she is a mixture of Sri Lankan and Japanese parents, she has spent her life in Chicago, and thinks and acts as do other Americans from that region.

The Easterner then has many responses to the West: usually mimicry, sometimes revulsion, often confusion. Occasionally there is a resolution. There is an attempt to blend both cultures, too, in more than a simple trite mixing – to resolve the various conflicts of each culture and to dialectically synthesize a newer culture. But this jump, this cultural transcendence cannot be done without conflict, without trauma, without a recognition that to live in both worlds requires that ultimately one must be part of neither, one must be alone, a foreigner on the planet, waiting for others like oneself to be born, to emerge.

This aloneness, abstract perhaps at first, finds concrete expression in a variety of seemingly banal instances. How does one who is no longer of any culture respond to the question, "Where are you from?" Can he say from Malaysia, although he has lived in ten different countries from the age of five? Can he say the U.S.A. if the questioner is American? The questioner, usually white, will know that he is not really "American," that he is a foreigner. And on returning to his foreign home, again he will not be comfortable with attempts to define his personality by his race. How does one respond?

How does one deal with the emptiness of aloneness? Of missing "home" wherever one is? In Pakistan, I often miss my home in Hawaii, and in Hawaii I am nostalgic for Pakistan. Although we may attempt to transcend the emotional need for a physical home, by reconceptualizing "home" as the entire planet or the mystical self, still the realization of this expanded definition is a life’s effort.

Or how does one celebrate holidays? The easy answer from one trying to blend into cultures, to mix them hoping for a new culture, is to simply celebrate all holidays. But to truly celebrate a holiday, one must be grounded in the history and mythos of the holiday, one must be archetypically entwined into the past. A Japanese from Tokyo having lived half of his life in the USA may celebrate Christmas and may appreciate it because he or she is part of the global culture of consumerism; but the deeper mystical roots of Christmas, those of family sharing and the birth of a great mystic in the Middle-East, are not so easily transferable.

I do not pretend to understand the conflicts of different cultures such as South American or African who are also caught between past and future, nor do I pretend to understand the pain of the American overseas. But I know that Americans and Europeans too suffer a cultural confusion – not the confusion of coming from a land of poverty, but the confusion of coming from a land of economic plenty that is intellectually and emotionally segmented and isolated.

My friend Jan recently became a Muslim after having truly fallen in love with Malaysia. She freely converted to Islam, a religion that is known in America as a man’s religion. She lives in Malaysia and is as much as possible Malaysian; but just like the Asian in America, she will never be totally accepted. She will always be a stranger in a strange albeit once in a while friendly land.

Thus, although we can write of a newly emerging global culture, watch the development of new telecommunications technologies, and see the present world of jet travel, tourism, television, video cassette recorders, and international conferences, the actual processes are not that simple. Instead of moving to an electronic village that celebrates unity and diversity, we may be moving instead to an electronic city that spreads homogeneity. Although there are individuals who are struggling within themselves and searching for the security of the extended rural village family and freedom of individuality, most of the world is, by and large, being culturally and epistemologically assimilated into the vision of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Global cultural fusion at present is simply different cultures attempting to deal with the problem of the West.

We can hope for a newly emerging transcendental global spiritual culture. Yet, if this culture is born, if this culture does in fact create the best of East and West, North and South, it will be a culture born out of individual and collective suffering and turmoil, not of a sudden burst of good feelings. Understanding the universal in humanity, the transcendent nature of the inner self in each person, is a life task for the individual and a civilizational task for a culture.

Yet the possibility of the emergence of the Asian-American, the American-Asian, or the African-European for that matter, exists. The European and American empire of the Atlantic and of the nation-state is losing its power to define the world for all. This decline may lead to a denationalization, allowing old cultures to rejuvenate themselves and new cultures to emerge and experiment in alternative futures. It may give the necessary psychological and political space for individuals to break free from the power of history and the confines of the present. This change in the world cultural and economic system may allow individuals to create a new culture that is neither here nor there, East nor West, religious nor secular – but simply humanity experimenting and possibly evolving towards the Good, the Whole.

Finally, we are witnessing the emergence of space, a frontier which is changing not only our individual and collective cultures but also our relationship to our planet, to our species. As we enter space, the culture we create there will truly be beyond East and West, beyond me and you. Certainly neither East nor West will easily accept this new culture.

In the meantime, I wait and watch both myself and those whom I’ve met respond and react to the destruction and renewal of cultures. I watch often in peace, sometimes in empty aloneness, but always in anticipation of the creation of new, authentic cultural futures.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!