It is the end of the rainy season and in the evenings there is usually a downpour for an hour or two. So I sauntered around the theatre district, keeping a vigilant eye open for a restaurant or café where I could hang out while the rains passed. I stopped at a place called Three Nations that serves Chinese, Indian and Indonesian food. I walked up to the hostess and told her that I was not going to eat but that I just wanted to sit and have a drink. She steered me to a table that was already occupied by three other Westerners. One of the three, dressed warmly in a waistcoat, pulled out the remaining empty chair and offered it to me. I nodded, smiled, and sat down.
In front of me was a tall bearded man wearing a plastic medieval breastplate and a blouson shirt. To his left was a sallow-faced individual in a crushed linen suit and a Panama hat. The guy with the Panama hat must have seen the curious look on my face because he responded:
Before you ask – we’re performing in a play at a local theatre. It’s about a Chinese guy who travels to Broadway and meets fictional characters from books he read and films he saw when he was a kid. – I’m supposed to be Humphrey Bogart, that’s Don Quixote, if you can believe it, and beside you is none other than Jimmy J’s Leopold Bloom. ‘Course see we really don’t exist, we’re just figments of this kid’s imagination. So that’s our story and we’re here grabbing a bite to eat before we head to work. What’s yours?
I pursed my lips and nodded my head to acknowledge both the unusual nature of the circumstances and the plausibility of his explanation. The waitress arrived. She didn’t seem at all phased by the three unlikely characters arranged around the table, but quickly, and sans various consonants, asked for their orders. Quixote leaned towards her,
What would you recommend that’s typical of the Indian food in Singapore?
The waitress leaned away from Quixote, pointed towards his menu and recommended either the mutton Hyderabad or the Apollo chicken masala. Quixote asked for both with a bowl of saffron rice and some garlic onion kulcha. As she quickly scribbled his order, he asked if she was sure that was authentic Singaporean Indian food. She rolled her head from side to side as she confirmed that his order was very spicy, very authentic. She then turned to Humphrey Bogart. Bogart without looking at the menu ordered five Indonesian dishes; Rendang Daging Sapi, Gulai Singkong, Sambal Teri Tempe, Kari Kamping and a Tiger beer. Quixote turned to me and began to ask me a question but stopped and apologized for interrupting Bloom. Bloom asked for the fried oyster omelet but the waitress said she had just sold the last one to someone else. She asked if he liked chicken; he said he did; she recommended the Hainanese Chicken Rice and Bloom agreed. Bloom asked for water, Quixote a Kingfisher beer. I got an avocado and chocolate drink – it was the weirdest thing I could find to drink and I could always grab a beer later. Ordering the food had apparently helped to break the ice and Quixote, folding his arms in front of his breastplate and leaning across the table, began to question me again;
What have you discovered in Singapore? How have you found the people? Have you tried each of the cuisines? Did you go into the neighborhoods to try the real deal? Runs through you like liquid fire but tastes great right? The problem with me you see is that my curiosity is bigger than my stomach. I want to try everything, to taste everything, but I have to eat fast, as you will see because of the anxiety you see, it kills my appetite after the first 5-10 minutes. I get bored – want to try other things but then I have this large amount of food in front of me – its very annoying, and expensive on an actor’s wage I can tell you. The funny thing is I begin to resent the food that just minutes before I was lusting. There’s something profound in that don’t you think? About man and desire and everything?
Bogart slowly raised his beer bottle with a languid air that seemed to mock Quixote’s introspection. He looked at me and asked
So when are you leaving?
Before I could answer, Bloom asked me if I liked fonts.
Before you leave you should go to the malls and check out the fonts. If you want to know a people, look at their ads – they are designed to appeal to what they value – its all in the fonts. You should check that out – if you’re interested that is.
The first of many small bowls began to arrive. Without waiting for the others, Bogart began tumbling his Indonesian curries onto his large rice plate. Don Quixote tossed back his Kingfisher as the waitress began pouring rice onto the banana leaf in front of him. She served Bloom last, placing a glass of water beside an austere looking plate of steamed chicken and rice. Bogart pointed towards Bloom’s glass;
You should have told them no ice.
Quixote pointed at me with his now masala-stained finger;
Never get ice. The drinks come straight from the bottlers, our friends in Atlanta and elsewhere, but God knows where the ice comes from – never order ice.
There was a large clash of metal cymbals at the entrance to the restaurant. Bloom dropped his chicken and Quixote stopped feeding mutton to his mouth. A group of young men, dressed as a Chinese dragon, were dancing at the front of the restaurant as part of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The dragon rocked from side to side, front to back and then knelt before a brass bowl of oranges on the floor. Everybody watched at the beginning and then slowly, as there seemed no end in sight, each turned back to his food as the clattering continued loudly in the background. Quixote pushed back from the table, each of his dishes half finished. He looked at me and smiled. I nodded in return acknowledging our shared understanding of his intestines.
We need to get out of here, said Bogart.
Bloom checked his watch and reached for the bill to work out everyone’s share. As I reached for my wallet he stretched out his arm and told me not to worry about it. I asked if he was sure and he said that I had had so little it would only complicate the calculation to consider it. All four of us walked out together into the wet street. The rains had passed and the sun was setting. I turned to them;
It was a pleasure to meet you guys – good luck with the play.
Quixote shook my hand. I patted Bloom on the shoulder and Bogart raised his eyebrows as if this was just the beginning. I turned to head in the opposite direction even though I didn’t know where I was going. People walked by talking on cell-phones. I found a sign for the subway and headed in that direction.
I am generally in favor of political correctness. It has helped to create a new code of manners and etiquette that at the very least points the way to a more inclusive and respectful society for all. But it has also had a prophylactic effect, preventing an acknowledgment and discussion of the differences between social groups and cultures, a confession of our inner thoughts and ignorance and the consequent growth to a more thorough and educated view of the differences that make us unique and interesting.
With that by way of apology, let me proceed to confess my perspective. The biggest difference that I see between Western cultures and those that I have experienced to date in Asia relates to the role of the individual in society. It is not an extreme difference but one of degree. I was most recently reminded of this today when reading an article about Singaporean literature. The article made the general observation that Singaporean literature in Malay, Chinese and Tamil concerns itself with issues of daily life and interweaves these into the fabric of larger nationalistic, patriotic and social events. By contrast, Singaporean literature in the English language is described as concerned with the individual and extrapolating human experience. I have a feeling that this distinction is an urgent one, because given the economic rise of China, the West is going to have to work with China as a partner to develop a global consensus on complicated issues such as international human rights, bioethics and privacy rights. These discussions will take place in the space between these two different views of the role of the individual in society.
The Western viewpoint is that, as Lord Acton put it, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The West feels this has been the lesson of our history from the tyranny of Roman emperors and medieval kings to the great evils of Nazism and slavery. Individual rights, and the individualism that they reflect and encourage, are seen as a check on the dangerous accumulation of power by government and bureaucracy. This perspective of the central role of the individual owes something to the religious traditions of Western society. The Judeo-Christian tradition (greatly influenced by the Persian Zoroastrians), views the world from the perspective of the individual, his relationship with God, and his path through a life of choices between good and evil. The actor is the individual, choice is his script and society is the backdrop.
The Asian perspective to me seems different, at least at this point in my education; society is the actor, harmony is the script and the individual is the backdrop. While walking in a classical Chinese garden yesterday I came across a statue of Confucius, on the side of which was written an excerpt from his dialogues. It stated; “[w]hen the Great Way prevailed, every person was a part of public society and public society belonged to everyone. The virtuous and the able were chosen for public office. Fidelity and friendliness were valued by all. People not only loved their own parents and children, but loved the parents and children of others as well. The elderly lived their last years in happiness; able-bodied adults were usefully employed; children were reared properly. Widowers, widows, orphans, the childless aged, the crippled and the ailing were well cared for. All men shared their social responsibilities and all women have their respective roles. Natural resources were fully used for the benefit of all and not appropriated for selfish ends. People wanted to contribute their strength and ability to society for public good and not for private gain. Trickery and intrigue could not occur in such a society. Robbery, larceny and other crimes all disappeared. Gates and doors were not locked, no one ever thought of stealing. This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity.” What is clear from this description of the ideal society is that the perspective is not the individual first and then society but society first with consequent benefits for the individual.
Both the West and the East share the same goal of “the good society” but they differ in how they think it can be achieved. I think the difference in viewpoints is cultural and not the function of economic development because I have also noticed this difference in perspective in Japan, a country that has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world now for almost two centuries. As a Westerner, I am concerned that the unchecked accumulation of state power, gathered in the guise of perpetuating social harmony, will lead to a corruption with a terrible toll in human life. I can imagine that the Asian perspective is that the rampant individualism of the West has led to a disharmonious society, riven by unlimited greed that will end with a terrible toll in human life. I think that we can each learn from the other – it is true that individual rights without economic growth may be poor consolation, but it is also true that economic growth depends on individual rights. As technology and trade bring once seperate civilizations into common society, there is much to be gained from a dialogue between our different persepctives, for the sake of both harmony and freedom.
If you lean forward at Singapore’s Changi airport and close your eyes, you will eventually end up in your hotel room. The airport is efficiently designed so as to take you through the four steps that everybody arriving at an airport anywhere in the world must complete; go through immigration, collect your bags, go through customs and get a taxi. The road into town is smooth, with nice fresh black tarmac, clean lines, English road signs and plenty of space between the cars rolling past the newly planted flowerbeds. As your Mercedes taxicab pulls into the hotel, the meter displays the amount owed. You give the hotel desk clerk your credit card number, take your plastic key, ride the elevator to your room, lie down on the bed and try to sleep. After staring at the ceiling for five hours you sit up, turn on the television and watch CNN.
This facility is apparent throughout Singapore – the time it takes to have an operational local cell-phone is determined merely by how long it takes to charge the battery. To go to a location on the subway you simply press the station on the subway map and the machine issues you the appropriate ticket. As time goes by you begin to feel like someone has figured out everything you want to do and organized it ahead of time. Ordinarily, I am all in favor of that – who isn’t? It would have been wonderful if American Airlines had taken the fact that I booked my ticket to arrive on the 17th as a strong clue that I did not want to be rescheduled so as to arrive on the 18th. But convenience comes at a price – paid in coins of spontaneity, madness and elan. In Singapore there are no “angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” And frankly I am torn on the issue of whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Personally I like a little edge (as long as it doesn’t cost me too much) – it keeps things fresh and interesting. On the other hand – the world is full of poverty stricken, corrupt and hopeless societies with enough edge to send you running like a cheetah towards the crisp white linens of the Raffles Club.
So here is the question that Singapore seems to ask me – for the sake of a better life for the majority – isn’t it worth giving up the edge? I am not sure that sterility is the cost of wealth – I think it may be the price of developing so fast. Singapore has gone from the Third World to the First in a single generation and they should be congratulated for that because so many other nations have for centuries failed to deliver economic growth to their citizens. But the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation are still young in Singapore, Mohammedan angels patiently wait for elevators and people buy insurance for the only past they know.