Posted by: nickgerlich | June 10, 2008

Monoculture

I was sitting in the airport in Narita Japan one very long December day in 1995. En route to a one-month teaching gig in Taiwan, and counting the minutes of a 4-hour layover on a 24-hour journey, I no longer had any idea what the date actually was. I only knew that I was very tired and couldn’t leave the immediate area without having to go through Customs.

So I sat on the floor and tried to read a book.

But that was impossible to do, given my heavy-laden eyelids and the fact that people-watching was far more entertaining. I was the only Anglo in that wing for a while, watching people come and go from Singapore, the Phillipines, Thailand, and more. Narita is an enormous Asian hub of air traffic, so there was never a lull in the parade.

hooray for cultureI laughed out loud, though, when I saw a Filipino man in line to return to Manila. He was proudly wearing a denim jacket, which was a very big fashion statement back in the mid-90s. And embroidered in big letters across the back was a company logo and this lettering: “GEUSS JEANS.”

That’s right. With a typo.

Little did this man know (or care) that his jacket was faux and that it committed a faux pas. He was only concerned about the fact that he was wearing a very western-looking garment with what he thought was a very western designer label on it. Yeah, right there in 4-inch letters. Misspelled for all the world’s travelers to see.

If they knew English, that is.

But that fascination with western culture I saw while killing time in Narita was just the tip of the iceberg. In Taiwan, Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan jerseys were popular, and if I had had a little foresight, I could have paid for much of my trip by bringing along a suitcase full of them. And in Hong Kong, I laughed at the fake Ralph Lauren Polo clothing sold by a street vendor every morning at 10:30 right there at the Star Ferry terminal.

It mattered not if something was fake or not, hot or not. It was west meets east, and the more western an easterner could look, the cooler he or she was.

Evidence of the exportation of western culture was everywhere I turned. I frequently tuned in to a Hong Kong-based MTV clone owned by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire (think Fox News), and I watched CNN International. I frequently dined at the Hard Rock Cafe, Wendy’s, and TGI Fridays (if only because I knew exactly what I was eating). And I will never forget watching a Taiwanese couple trying to figure out what to do with fajita fixins (they ate it all with a fork).

I suppose maybe all this is very sincere flattery by culture-starved people. But I am also a little sad to see people so willing to give up their local flavor in favor of something else…something that I happen to know is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Six years, when we toured China on an adoption trip, we witnessed Chinese people standing in line for hours just to be seated in a new Pizza Hut. We saw hungry people plopping down a month’s wages to get a Big Mac combo meal. And to pass the jet-lagged time-zoned sleepless nights in Shanghai, I watched Frasier at 4:30am.

Maybe a monoculture has its advantages somewhere. The internet and satellite mass communications certainly make the distribution of “culture” quick and easy. But a big part of me wants to be able to go somewhere and experience them, not their rendition of me.

I’ve got plenty of that at home.

Dr “Geuss I’ll Call It A Day” Gerlich

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