Is the World Flat or Is the World Getting Flattened?

By Kollengode S Venkataraman              e-mail:

When traveling outside Europe and North America, we see the Euro­pean and American influence everywhere — in technologies, fashion, pop culture, and food. And if it is junk food, it is invariably American — Pepsi, Coke, potato chips, burgers, French fries, pizza… …  People lament this and worry about losing their heritage, culture — even identity. American­ized English phrases and idioms have permeated the globe, much to the chagrin of both the British and the French.

However, historians recognize that when cultures interact (or clash), host cultures also influence the invading/incoming cultures. This happens during slow osmosis (as in East and Southeast Asia); or in the course of violent invasions (as in India in the wake of the Turkic, Mongolian, and Afghani invasions), or where the predatory cultures overwhelm the native culture (as happened in the Americas).

In the US, the much-celebrated federalism among the states, and among the counties and cities within states, is the result of European colonizers first internalizing, and then formalizing the loose federal structure pre-existing among the different Native American groups.

Also, Islam, on entering India violently, adapted itself to India’s social, cul­tural and spiritual ethos to such an extent that Islam in the Indian subcon­tinent it is nothing like the Salafi and Wahabi versions of the Arabs.

Thanks to the Internet, the mutual influence among societies today is not due to the invasion of armies, but due to the invasion of ideas from other societies. So, even as Asians lament the American domination in food, fashion, pop culture, and technology (with Americans reveling in it), aspects of Asian lifestyles are innocuously and subliminally —Tea Partiers may say, insidiously — seeping into America.

•  During my early days of employment here, colleagues used to disparage the Asian lifestyle — evolved out of economic necessities and cultural traditions — of adult children living with their parents well into their late twenties and even early thirties. “After high school, you’re outta here,” was the mantra youngsters heard from parents. Those days the cost of living was manageable, jobs were plenty, and even with low wages, one could afford independent living. Those days are long gone. Now, young college graduates working in poorly paid jobs often live with their parents out of necessity. Recognizing this, the much-vilified ObamaCare provides health insurance to youngsters under their parents’ insurance until they are 26. Another incipient trend in the US is “Multigenerational Living” with older parents in their 80s living with their sons and daughters in their 50s and 60s, something that was perfected in Asia and Central America.  Read here on the struggles of what Pew Research Center calls the Sandwich Generation caught between aged parents and dependent adult children. This is the ultimate Asianization of America.

•  Young people with college degrees working in low-paying, but high-visibility, glamorous jobs (in media, fashion, or as staffers to politicians) live off subsidies from affluent parents or from trust funds established by grandparents, much like youngsters from rich and powerful families in Asia. In the US, affluent Indian, Chinese, and Korean immigrant parents often subsidize their adult children well into their late 20s.

•  Yet another trend in the U.S., identical to the trend in Asia, is ad­ditional “Coaching Classes” outside the classroom for regular subjects like mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Unlike 3-month cramming classes teenagers take before their SAT and PSAT tests, these long-term classes are designed around regular high school subjects taught year-long.

•   In urban centers around the US, professional families are walking away from public school, sending their children to private elementary and high schools costing up to $40,000 a year. This trend too is identical to what has been the norm in Asia for over the last sixty years.

•   Many high schools have eliminated courses on music, literature, less-known European languages, even sociology.

•   And this: Recently, Tina Rosenberg wrote (The Family Doctor, Minus the M.D, in The New York Times, October 2012) on a trend in rural America where nurse practitioners fill in the void left by qualified doctors unwilling to work there. These nurse practitioners even prescribe medicines. In many small towns in Asia the situation is identical with no doctors wanting/willing to serve the rural community. There the poor rural folks have been going to nurses for decades for treatment.

So, the economic compulsions in the globalized market place today are changing the social structure of industrialized nations as well. In the US the ever-widening gap in access to resources between the rich and the working poor — a topic that is dissected in countless ways — has far reaching deleterious social consequences, if only we are willing to see what such gaps have done in other parts of the world.

In the wake of globalization, years ago, Thomas Friedman wrote the best seller The World is Flat.  He should have titled it The World is Getting Flattened.

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