Pop goes culture as East meets West

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Video Night in Kathmandu And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, by Pico Iyer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 376 pp. $19.95. When Pico Iyer traveled through Asia in 1985, he found Madonna was a familiar name in Bali, baseball was an obsession in Japan, and Rambo had conquered the continent from China to Indonesia, where street vendors sold posters of ``no one but the nation's three leading deities: President Suharto, Siva and Stallone.''

However America's balance of trade may have slipped in recent years, its exports in pop culture - especially to third-world countries - do not seem to have diminished. If anything, Iyer suggests, America's cultural takeover has been intensified by an increase in tourism and by the speed and portability of the ``latest weapons of cultural warfare - videos, cassettes and computer disks.''

In ``Video Night in Kathmandu,'' Iyer explores the Western cultural presence in the East and the ways in which Asian countries have responded. This collection of essays, each about a single country, is based on the young journalist's four journeys and seven months in Asia. Some explore a country in terms of tourism; some look at the vestiges of empire; some examine an Asian culture through ``one specific aspect of the way they adopt, and adapt to, Western influences, and make them distinctively their own.'' All reflect Iyer's efforts to make sense of what he saw.

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His theme is provocative and timely. On the tourist trail, he is a sharp observer, writes a snappy prose, and can be suitably sardonic or reflective:

``Within minutes of landing in Kathmandu, I found myself in Eden. The Hotel Eden, that is not to be confused with the Paradise Restaurant around the corner or the Hotel Shangri-La.'' In Nepal, he finds Indian, Chinese, Continental, German, American, and Mexican food. But nothing Nepalese.

Yet even in Bali, ``a Paradise traduced by many tourists'' for decades, he perceives a mysterious native undercurrent that survives. Tibet, he finds - that ``most esoteric of hideaways ... fast being turned into the latest way station of the Denim Route'' - still casts its inspirational spell, even over the hipsters and ``professional drifters'' now arriving.

Leaving the tourist trail, Iyer explores ``cross-cultural crossroads'' in three formerly colonial areas: fast-paced Hong Kong, the ``ex-pat'' city, which appears to be New York ``unadulterated'' by culture; isolated Burma, ``the dotty eccentric of Asia,'' which he compares to a ``sepia-colored daguerreotype of the Raj''; and the Philippines, a bizarre and poignant mix of song and squalor.

His piece on the Philippines explores the US legacy in terms of the island nation's highly professional music. The Philippines, he finds, is a land of troubadours, but all devote their talent to impersonations, mainly of American singers - ``an eerie kind of ventriloquism.'' Iyer feels pop song values permeate the country, shaping Filipinos' attitudes toward life.

As cultural impressions, these essays are vivid. But as interpretations, they are neither penetrating nor persuasive. Iyer's essay on tourism and the skin trade in Thailand seems opaque divorced from an understanding of traditional Thai concepts of morality and love. The description of baseball in Japan - fascinating as description - seems unenlightened without an understanding of traditional Japanese concepts of work and play, perfectionism and the expression of emotion. The Filipinos may be devoted to music, but to conclude that they have ``the openness and hopefulness - the happy innocence - to believe that rock 'n' roll'' is all they need ``to change the world'' seems simplistic.

Iyer is an intelligent observer. But there is only so far that observation can go. His essays raise pertinent questions about the way cultures ``adopt - and adapt to'' the customs of other cultures. But to expect to find the answers without fully understanding both cultures is to fall into one of the pitfalls of the video age: mistaking the image for the real thing.

Gail Pool teaches English at Emmanuel College.

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