Sunday, April 4, 2010

Worldwide, ‘white culture’ seems to have strong hold

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (April 4, 2010)

TERRE HAUTE — I grew up in a tourist town. Like all tourist towns, the locals had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. My parents didn’t care for the tourists (even though they had once been tourists themselves, Midwesterners, they honeymooned on a Florida beach and ended up staying forever). I, however, found tourists to be fascinating. As a child, I recall meeting people with strange accents in our library. As I grew older and was able to get to the beach resorts, I’d try to meet visitors from faraway places.

When I am the tourist, I care less about that which draws tourists (theme park, beautiful beaches, mountain vistas, ancient temples) than the possibility of meeting interesting people. Unlike most people at a theme park who hate standing in long lines, I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to talk to others who I otherwise would never have a chance to meet. Of course, this is hard because most people are not like me, they are more interested in the upcoming four minutes of thrill ride, than in meeting new people.

After my weeklong academic conference in Bangkok in February, I extended my trip with three days of touring Ankgor Wat, the ancient temple complex outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is the largest temple complex in the world (so the local tourism ministry tells us). In three days of touring ancient temples, I took about 1,000 pictures of fascinating testaments to humanity’s ability to construct monuments to its deities and earthbound rulers.

While I appreciate the experience of the ruins, the head-scratching moments (“and they didn’t have cranes”) pales in comparison to the chance to meet interesting people. And in Siem Reap, most of the people didn’t speak English (at least not as their first language) and that means I’m in a target-rich environment to meet people with different experiences and different perspectives than me.

Anyone who has traveled with me knows that I quiz taxi drivers, waiters, first mates on snorkel boats, and just about anyone who I can, about their “story.” How did “you” come to be here now? We hired a guide in Siem Reap and I asked him how he learned English, how he came to be a tour guide, what his future plans were. He graciously answered my questions. I met many people at the conference, several with whom I am having e-mail conversations. They know about my gentle prodding curiosity into their lives. It is an occupational hazard, sociologists are unapologetic about their burning curiosity into the “ways” of people.

I met a “farang” (Western foreigner) couple at one of the temples we were “exploring.” He stood out. Over 6 feet tall, with gleaming white hair, he was speaking Khmer to the children selling postcards and drinks to we hot and flagging temple tourists. He made the children laugh and he was having a good time doing it. His wife, too, spoke a little Khmer. He spoke to our guide and switched to French. I said something and he looked at me, switched to English and said “American?”

His English was tinged with a German accent. I asked him how he came to know Khmer. He told me he knew many languages, that he was conversant in 11 different languages. I guessed right, he was in the foreign service. He told me that he had a facility with language, that he found it easy to pick up new languages. He was retired now, living in France. Both he and his wife were very pleasant. As we talked, I thought, perhaps we could meet them later in Siem Reap for a drink.

And then “it” happened. This remarkably gifted person, who, despite his modesty at learning language, clearly put the effort out to learn 11 different languages and understood the importance of language and of making the effort to respect and engage people of other cultures by learning their language and culture, looked right at our guide, and said to us: “You know, white people and white culture will soon be gone. Your people, the Asians are taking over the world. There will be no more white skin, there will be no more white culture.”

I’m surprised he didn’t Sieg Heil at the end of that. He said this with a most genuine and warm smile on his face. I think he then repeated it in Khmer, just in case the children and our guide didn’t understand.

Born 10 to 15 years earlier, he might have been a Hitler Youth Camp Counselor, but given his aristocratic bearing more likely a high ranking SS officer.

I don’t know if he registered our shock. I wondered something a bit different about him. I told him that I was of German heritage and told him my last name. I know what it means in German and his reaction was what I expected. He mumbled something to the effect that “language changes over time,” broke off our conversation and walked off, with a gracious goodbye.

Three minutes before I thought here is a terrific example of the future in a globalized society. People will have to become culturally competent across many language and cultural boundaries. I was even thinking, could I learn Thai beyond the ability to order food in a restaurant or tell a taxi driver where to take me? Could I learn enough to ask one of my new Thai colleagues their story and understand it in Thai?

This German world citizen is wrong. Neither “white culture” or white people are going to disappear. “It” and “we” might, however, share some shelf space. The economic and military superiority of “white culture” is a recent historical event. The impact of freer trade is evident in the countries we visited. Indeed, the hunger for “white culture” as Herr Rassistische (translate in Google Translator if you wish) would call it, is evident everywhere we went in Thailand and Cambodia. Right down to the desire for Frau Rassistische’s alabaster white skin.

I suspect that the Amer-Asian children and grandchildren left behind by American soldiers fighting in Vietnam have now found new status as the preferred image for Thai and other Asian societies. The cosmetics industry is clearly geared that way. Last week the Thai government appointed someone to examine the claims made by various cosmetics products to lighten skin as fraud and into possible negative health effects of these treatments. Entertainment is heavily influenced by American and European trends.

I went to a Thai nightclub called the German Brewery. It was a Haufbrauhaus Thai style. This wasn’t a place for Germans weary of Tom Yum soup. This was a nightclub catering to Thai tourists, best as I could tell. While the music was not German, the entertainment was definitely more American with Thais adding their lemongrass and chiles. We even sang and danced to “YMCA.”

“White culture” disappearing? To me it looks like, through the airwaves, global travel and the Internet, that far from disappearing, “white culture” (and even the crude notion of white skin) is far from disappearing, it is proliferating. And along with it is that concept of white superiority. Too bad we can’t get beyond such crude rankings.
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