Friday, July 21, 2006

Jaded Wanderlust

In their book Two For The Road Jane and Michael Stern write:

A quarter-century ago, the American landscape was very different from what it is today. We feel 150 years old to admit that when we started hunting for roadfood, there were no Wal-Marts, no Kmarts, no Home Depots, no Targets, no Outbacks, no Olive Gardens, no Red Lobsters, and no Starbucks. There was fast food, but it wasn't everywhere. This was a good thing.

Every place we went looked different. Today a lot of Connecticut looks like Arizona, which looks like North Carolina, which looks like Illinois. It is possible to crisscross the country and never eat, shop or stay in a strange place. This is not a good thing.

When I first came to America, I rejoiced at every opportunity I had to travel. Unless it was an unreasonable distance to drive, we drove and the standards for reasonable were quite unreasonable. Today I would fly instead. As much as I longed to see and discover new places, the utter uniformity of America soon dampened my wanderlust.

In time, I was no longer interested in visiting "just another city". In the absence of history of any significant antiquity, unless the natural geography made the place unusual there was not much else that attracted me. Growing up in India, where traveling a hundred miles in any direction led to discovering new cultures, languages, history and geography I expected to be transported more than the mere distance when I traveled and was much disappointed by my American travel experience.

My first trip back home after coming here was when outsourcing was gathering a huge momentum. The smallest city was getting to enjoy a bit of the action. Cyber cafes dotted roadsides around the country. I had opportunity to revisit some cities I had grown up in the 80s but had not visited since. I could not tell one apart from the other. The stark distinctions had grown blurred. We seemed to be headed the American way.

It was only the multitude of languages, cultures and traditions that kept our vibrant diversity alive even if precariously. In time call centers will move to the hinterlands bringing English in its wake.

Speaking and understanding the same language, will have a leveling influence on all factors that differentiate our people. To quote the Sterns "This is a good thing". However, the richly fulfilling experience that travel in India used to be will become a thing of the past and "This is not a good thing"


Ardra said...

How is J doing? Hope she is fine now...

ggop said...

You may enjoy Jim Kunstler's thoughts on suburbia and urban life in America on


FGary said...

While Walmartization is not desirable, some homogeniety is a good thing, in my opinion, and India could benefit from it. Without a common language other than English, if I am unable to communicate and have an exchange of ideas with my countrymen from different parts of the country, I am not sure what ties us together.

Heartcrossings said...

ggop - Thanks for the link !

sfg- I've lived in different parts of India growing up. Places where my native language was not spoken and the national language definitely not. There are ties that bind, even if tenuous and not obvious. It takes a while to discover them. As an outsider, I was the one trying to reach out, learning their language and customs and for my efforts, I was made part of the fold.

To me, India never represented a cohesive whole - that was the stuff of political rhetoric. Culturally and emotionally it was at best a loosely bound federation. That used to be the interesting part of travel. Sameness was never a problem, now it is.

Heartcrossings said...

Ardra - Thanks for checking on J. She is doing well now.

SFGary said...

Well yes and no :)That holds true for anywhere in the world. Lets say I move to a different country, for example the Bordeaux region, as my brother and I have been threatening to do for years, improve my French and lived like a local then I suppose over a period of several years I might identify as a Frenchman and the locals might "adopt" me. Alternately, I move to Himachal Pradesh as an example and refused to learn Hindi, the locals would consider me an oddity at best and outcast at the worst. I have the same skin color but there is nothing else to identify with; am I reaching here?

If as we agree India is a loosely bound federation then what is the national identity? IMO, if as in the U.S. we spoke the same language, and there is a reasonable amount of "sameness" to identify with in culture, religion etc there is a better chance for country to be unified.

Lets hope a coherent thought came through...

Heartcrossings said...

SFG - I agree about being an anomaly in Himachal when you look like the natives but don't talk or act like one of them. Assimilation was always a pain and I've lived a number of different Indian states - it was like being in a new country.

In the US, I like it that everything remains the same when I move from WV to TX - its very convenient for mundane everyday things but not when I seek the thrill of seeing something different. Even the aisles in Target are laid out exactly the same.