In The Suburbs

Jai told me that everyone in Siliguri was crazy about the new mall that opened there. He hastened to assure me that he personally wasn’t all that impressed, being from more developed Punjab state, but he took me there anyway. It was big and white and air conditioned and full of the usual global chain stores (Adidas, Sony, Starbucks.) Compared to the dirt markets of traditional India, it struck me as surprisingly bland and expensive– but also clean and comfortable. So badly did the locals want to see it on opening day that the security guards had to physically keep the crowds out, letting in only those who actually had money to buy.

America was once this way. Witness the 1957 promotional film In The Suburbs, courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Yes, this is real. Was real, an icon and instigator of the shining consumer culture that Kerouac critiqued even in its nascent state. Today, the notion of the white plastic suburban wasteland is so mainstream in the West that we can easily forget its intrinsic appeal; modern marketing is all about being unique and different, but it was once enough just to be new and middle class.

But the other billions still want this! They want to drive their new cars (thank you Tata) to the new mall. In the developing world, Middle Class is the holy grail. It’s a deep, almost universal aspiration that seems shallow to us only because we already have it. While I drink imported wine with my friends and ponder global economics, neuroscience, and avant-garde electronic music, most of the world just wants to be rich enough to shop somewhere air-conditioned — and in quantity.

The shopping centers see these young adults as people whose homes are always in need of expansion. People who buy in large quantities, and truck it away in their cars… It’s a happy-go-spending world!

Americans Have Only Their Own Culture

The whole world watches Hollywood movies. I once found X-Men 2 on cable in Oman, the sex and violence airing between the preaching Imams. The whole world reads Western books, either in English or translation. The Da Vinci Code graces the dirty blankets of sidewalk booksellers in Mumbai, and Harry Potter is truly global.

Those who don’t live in America are lucky. They have at least two cultures: their own, and the American imports. Those who live within America are impoverished by comparison. Americans have to go well out of their way to consume media made by people who aren’t like them. We have to go to the “Foreign” section of the video store. We have to suffer through languages we don’t understand, because we are taught only English in schools.

This same effect is repeated on a smaller scale with regional cultural capitals. In Southeast Asia, all the good movies come from Thailand. In Nepal, everything is from India. South Africa produces most of the African media, while Qatar and Egypt supply the Arab world. In every case, media in the minority countries is often much more diverse, drawing from many sources.

Maybe this is imperialism. Maybe this is a bad thing. Maybe every peoples should be producing their own entertainments just as furiously as Hollywood. Maybe. My point is only this: if you live outside of the Empire, the Empire comes to you. But if you live inside, you have to look to find the rest of the world.