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The Paradox of Globalization

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April 2008
The Paradox of Globalization

By Murali Kamma

A U.K.-based Indian writer once described ‘globalization heaven’ as follows: An Indian spouse, a British home, an American job, and Chinese cuisine. What, then, is ‘globalization hell’? It would be insensitive, if not foolish, to repeat what she wrote; let’s just say that those national labels were rearranged.

Whatever one may think of the writer’s definition (or daffy-nition)—made, admittedly, in jest—her point is not hard to understand. In our interlinked and more fluid world, it’s easier than ever to decide what we want to be, whom we want to be with, and just as important, where we want to be. These possibilities may be open only to a privileged minority, but the fact that a rising number of people can carve out the life they crave is an exciting consequence of globalization. One could now, for instance, live as an Indian in America to an extent that would have been inconceivable less than a generation ago; conversely, the distance from America has shrunk dramatically for those who live in India.

But the paradox is that all this interconnectedness, though praiseworthy, has caused a lot of unease.

Globalization’s economic fallout, both real and imagined, has already been much discussed, and this is not an attempt to enter that debate; it’s best left to the experts. However, there is also the cultural fallout, which could simply be defined as the anxiety many people feel that their ‘culture’ is being diluted, even degraded, by the cross-currents of influence so prevalent today. This applies not just to the immigrant who retreats to his protective shell of Indianness, but also to the native son who finds himself swamped by foreign cultures he didn’t seek and doesn’t understand.

Migrants are, rightly, expected to adapt and integrate wherever they go; but curiously, given the globalized environment we live in, the native-born feel no such pressure. Is it because national identity, which remains so overpowering in parts of the world, can instill a need to stay in our comfort zone? Nationalism is an ‘ism’ that—unlike Fascism, Communism, Socialism—has successfully resisted change. Anything that disturbs this cocoon of self-regard and self-aborption is seen as a threat, resulting in nationalistic narcissism.

In other words, it’s all about America all the time. We ‘love’ our country, unabashedly, just as we would love a person. “God Bless America,” reads that popular bumper sticker, not “God Bless the World.” It’s the same in India, for that matter. As Rafiq Dossani points out in his India Arriving (2008), “the recent history of developing countries suggests that globalization, far from removing nationalistic feelings, strengthens them.”

Some would argue that the glue of national identity prevents chaos and helps resolve conflicts. Nationalism does address certain issues effectively, but it also creates problems around the world. Besides, can we really afford to continue as before in our global century? One thinks not. And the migrant experience may point a way out of this troubling preoccupation with national identity. There are approximately 200 million migrants in the world, according to Migration Information Source, and it’s the United States that has the largest chunk of this population, with the rest of the world accounting for over 80 percent. That’s a massive number—in fact, the migrant population in America alone would make up a sizeable ‘country’ within the nation.

Actually, it’s more accurate to say that the migrant population in America would make up a separate ‘world’ within the nation, simply because of its sheer diversity. And the individual migrant, too, exemplifies this diversity to a certain extent. He or she doesn’t belong to just one place. Which doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Not at all. Often it can be a bittersweet feeling for many people.

Yet despite everything, we can embrace this state of mind in the 21st century, because the experience of being a migrant, even in one’s native country, is becoming so common. The scholar Wendy Doniger conveyed that sensation well when she was talking about A. K. Ramanujan, her late colleague at the University of Chicago. “His sadness was that while he was in India, he missed America, and in America, he missed India,” she noted. “He was never really complete in any place, but that also is why he was so wonderful.”


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