It's Thursday: We must be in the mall


The peripatetic journalist and author Pico Iyer describes himself as "a person with an American alien card and an Indian face and a British accent." When not traveling to places like Cuba or Katmandu (subjects of two of his previous books), he divides his time between "homes" in Santa Barbara and Kyoto.

If one were looking for a candidate to write about the dizzying flux of our ever-shrinking, ever-more interdependent world, Iyer's credentials are impeccable.

But one need not have racked up as many frequent-flier miles as Iyer to have noticed a kind of creeping homogeneity of the man-made landscape. Swamped by the same fast-food joints, video stores, T-shirts, athletic shoes, and designer logos, the most distant places on earth look more and more alike.

"I began to wonder," writes Iyer, "whether a new kind of being might not be coming to light ... a 'Global Soul.' This creature could be a person who had grown up in many cultures all at once - and so lived in the cracks between them.... His memories might be set in airports that looked more and more like transnational cities, in cities that looked like transnational airports."

Iyer's "The Global Soul" comprises seven chapters, each focusing on a different locale. "The Burning House" ponders the instability of life in California. "The Airport" describes the confusing welter of comings and goings that is Los Angeles International Airport. "The Global Marketplace" is epitomized in Hong Kong. Iyer considers Toronto the best example of "The Multiculture." He attends the Olympic "Games" in Atlanta, reflects on "The Empire" in a no-longer-imperial Britain, and concludes with a tribute to "The Alien Home" he has found in Kyoto.

Much of what he says has been said before, not only by other writers, but by Iyer himself. Indeed, after the first couple of chapters, one begins to feel a fatigue not unlike jet lag. A typical sentence runs something like this: "Everywhere is so made up of everywhere else - a polycentric anagram - that I hardly notice I'm sitting in a Parisian caf just outside Chinatown (in San Francisco), talking to a Mexican-American friend about biculturalism while a Haitian woman stops off to congratulate him on a piece he's just delivered on TV on St. Patrick's Day." One's eyes begin to glaze over, and it's a pity, since there are also some interesting points Iyer makes in the course of his ruminations.

Visiting Atlanta for the Olympic games, he discovers a city that has made itself a global center for communications, conventions, aviation, but which is not truly cosmopolitan. "Miami," he quotes a friend as saying, "has great vitality, but no PR; Atlanta has great PR but no vitality."

Certainly, Atlanta has nothing like the diversity Iyer finds in Toronto, a city "that had become more and more a magnet for refugees who knew nothing more of it than that it was a magnet for refugees." As late as 1971, Iyer notes, only 3 percent of Canadians had been of non-European descent; within a generation, Toronto boasted a "visible minority" population of more than 30 percent: Indians, Sri Lankans, Haitians, Rwandans, Somalis, Chinese, and many more.

On the plus side, this makes the city more interesting and colorful and the immigrants' initial adjustment easier. On the minus side, some fear it may actually impede integration and lead to "clannishness."

Iyer himself does not seem to share this fear. Nor is he very sympathetic to an Indian-born gentleman who misses the idyllic England of his youth: "The English," this man tells Iyer, "hate me for being more English than they are; they want you all to conform to some image they can patronize.... The right wing want you to be nice smiling colonials, and the left wing want you to assert your solidarity and oppressedness by being 'ethnic.' "

Ironically, one of the things that Iyer likes most about living in Kyoto is that there is no possibility of his becoming part of Japanese society: He claims to feel most "at home" in the one place where he knows he will always be considered a "foreigner." Yet he also worries that "a lack of affiliation may mean a lack of accountability."

How serious a problem is it that so many of us are losing a sense of rootedness and attachment to a particular place? Iyer seems uncertain. But he does point out another feature of the new global order that is undoubtedly disturbing: the growing gap between rich and poor, not only in third-world nations, but now playing in a city near all of us.

* Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to It's Thursday: We must be in the mall
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today