The Captain Planet Generation

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Maybe it’s the people I hang out with, but my generation tends to see itself in the stories of other countries. In our global society, countries sometimes appear less as real, physical places where living human beings dwell as they appear as larger ideas you can read yourself into.

Americans know the power of a good idea. After all, ideas animate our constitution, democracy, and the foundation of our American dream—ideas of freedom, liberty, the good life. These are ideas that, for the past two hundred years, have attracted immigrants from all over the world to start anew–ideas they could buy into. These days, however, it is not only America’s story that is being texted, tweeted, emailed, read and screened across the world, but thanks to social media and increased economic integration, other countries’ stories as well. My generation, probably more so than any other, has had the opportunity to fall in love with these ideas.

No, we don’t move with our families and all of our worldly possessions to new shores  in search of jobs (unless you’re outsourced to, well, India). We pick up the newest book by Haruki Murakami at Barnes and Noble. We watch Bollywood films on Netflix or catch up on the latest episode of British science-fiction television, like Doctor Who. We flip through manga or follow our favorite anime series on Hulu. We tune in to K-Pop on on youtube, or sing “forever young,” with the Lebanese artist, Nancy Ajram, while K’Naan waves his flag at The World Cup.

The planet streams into our living rooms. Has any other generation boasted of so many portals into the hearts, minds, and aspirations of other cultures?

The flow of global media, of course, is not always fair and balanced. Walk into any European club or bar. Chances are they will be dancing to American rap and pop music. Spanish girls applying makeup in the bathroom will slip out of their native language to belt out Beyonce:

“Who runs the world?”

Chorus, “Girls!”

And once again slip into Spanish.

(Yes, I witnessed this in a unisex hostel bathroom.)

The popular reception of American media abroad could be because we’re kings of entertainment (our obesity rates attest to it.) It could also be because of our political and economic edge over other countries—America’s ability to thrust our songs, movies, and news channels into foreign markets while closing off inroads into our own country (see the 1997 UN New World Information and Communication debate.)

The number of books in translation in our bookstores is embarrassingly low–3%, and a measly 1% for fiction (http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2012/07/books-translation) When our mainstream radio stations decide to play foreign pop music, it’s not necessarily out of respect, but rather because of a major viral breakthrough online. After all, why would major music stations have started playing PSY if his song, Gangnam Style, had not already received tens of millions of hits on youtube?

My generation circumnavigates such corporate barriers when we get to know other countries. We are the technologically suave generation—the generation of AOL dial up and Google Chrome; the generation of Facebook and Twitter; the Macbook and Iphone. We grew up in the nineties, when every single kid’s TV program featured a spectrum of ethnicities—the decade of Power Rangers and Captain Planet. On our news stations, backlash against McDonalization and hopes for a utopian, global village were in full swing. This is the world we twenty-year olds grew up in. Every kid deserves a country and every culture should be celebrated. We were brought up to love difference.

Now difference is only a click away.

When we fall in love with another place for the first time, however, chances are we aren’t actually falling in love with the place as it actually exists in the world. We’re falling in love with the image of that country. And even after some medium drags us across the vast oceans—whether it be song, book, film, or dance—or, physically in the country, we fight our way past the shops, knick-knacks, tours, authentic cuisine, and hotels of tourism, we’re still caught in the world presented by someone else, or the fantasy we ourselves want to see.

At an orientation for my Critical Language Urdu program in New Delhi last year, my group was greeted by a distinguished Indian scholar, Professor Nandi. He explained to us that when people visit the subcontinent and say, oh I like India, oh I don’t like India, they are commenting less on the actual people and culture they see before their own eyes so much as they are commenting on some hidden aspect of themselves. India is so contradictory, complex, diverse, and sprawling that it would be disingenuous of him to posit any single idea of India.

India is the ultimate mirror: you see in it is the reflection of some hidden aspect of yourself.

Nandi’s seeming evasion of the question, What is India?, however, actually hit upon a deeper psychological process that unfolds whenever one engages with another culture, whether it be as a tourist or, perhaps more commonly, from a book or laptop in an armchair.

It is trite to say that people are attracted to what they like, and more likely reflect the interests of the person than the object in question. For an autobiographical example: I attended Catholic middle school and high school. I was frequently frustrated with Catholic dogma, and found any dissenting approach to the question of God welcome. When I studied World Religions, my frustration with Catholicism chased me into an Indian Wonderland where, through the perspective of Eastern philosophy, the entire universe flipped on its head.

I was attracted to that which was different from my own upbringing precisely because it was different. I escaped into a fantasy where I believed things to be more accurately understood than they were here at home. And it is precisely this type of escapist fantasy—not necessarily always religious—that breeds fancy academic terms like Orientalism and positive discrimination. The culture under question becomes an Other which you fail to see in it’s own right, but rather, through the prism of your own preoccupations. Or, in a country like India–with all of its social, political, and economic issues, and the sweating, breathing, toiling humanity who live under, grapple with, and fight against these issues–is not understood in its due complexity, and is instead transformed into your ultimate gilded mirror.

I too succumbed to such exoticism, just as my American predecessors did before me (the beatniks, the hippies, and further back, the transcendentalists). But after the exotic attracts you into its luminous light, you arrive at a stage when you realize there is no Wonderland—you have merely wandered to another area of the globe illuminated by the same sun. It is only after swinging from the ecstatically exotic to the disappointingly simplistic epiphany that people are, after all, just people, that you can swing back to the median and evaluate a culture as one evaluates one’s own home—with all the pride, shame, and frustration that comes with community and belonging.

I pontificate on the uniqueness of my generation, the affects of media, and the psychological processes that occur when one engages with another culture to contextualize for you the evolution of my own ideas about India over time. If engaging with another culture is like a relationship, then the essays that follow were written during my honeymoon period. This does not necessarily mean that the information my twenty-year old self provides is wrong. What it does mean, however, is that my younger self had a habit of glorifying India.

Given what I have seen, the people I have spoken with, and the spouse whose obnoxious habits I’ve gotten to know, many reading this blog from an Indian perspective might find fault with my earlier, boomerang praises and commendations. But this doe-eyed stage is necessary, I think—for it initially requires some sort of attraction to get to know a person. And if I’m going to take you along with me to India, then it’s best if you travel with me not only across several oceans and continents in space, but also with me two years back in time, so that when I start sending letters to you from Jaipur, we’ll all be caught up together in the present.

Citations:

Image taken from http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2011/07/cartoon-network-captain-planet-movie.html)

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