I was in Bombay on January 17, 1991, sitting in the
Indian Airlines office in the financial district, when I heard the first rumors
of bombs falling on Baghdad. My mission was to make last-minute ticket changes
while my traveling companion, a fellow American, went to Bombay's Victoria
Terminus to book us on that evening's eastbound train to Aurangabad. We had
decided to change our itinerary, which was rather loose to begin with, in order
to do the "tourist thing" and see the famous Hindu caves at Ellora and Ajanta. We
were not quite at the midway point of our half-year trek across Asia.
Everyone in the ticket-office waiting area--mostly Brits, Americans, and
Australians--was trying to make sense of the spotty reports relayed by those
who'd caught snippets of CNN in a hotel lobby. Somebody said that a major ground
offensive was under way and that a column of U.S. armor was moving toward the
Iraqi capital, which was being heavily bombarded. (Only the bombardment, of
course, proved to be factual.) Looking around, reading the body language of my
fellow Westerners, I felt a visceral shock of recognition: I was 22 years old and
10,000 miles from home, and my country was at war.
When I arrived at Victoria Terminus, that relic of old British Bombay, to meet
my friend, it was like something out of David Lean. Only the costumes had
changed. I'd been on the subcontinent for two and a half months, yet it was as
though I'd just disembarked--everything was strange, alien, subtly threatening.
There was the sheer mass of humanity in the cavernous space of the station, the
anarchy of sound and movement, the faces of myriad complexions pressing in from
all sides, the eyes that fixed you in their sights, locked on, and then passed
by. How many of them, I wondered, were Muslim?
My friend and I made visual contact through the crowd. He was standing near
the entrance to the platforms, like a neon sign in the dusk. I walked up to him,
and there we stood, facing each other with our high-tech backpacks and our
state-of-the-art hiking shoes, our money belts around our waists, and our guilty,
pale, anxious faces.
"The war has started," I said.
"I know," he replied. And that was all that either of us could think to say
for what seemed a very long time.
What was I doing in Bombay in January 1991? I wasn't an expat; I
wasn't a student; I wasn't in uniform, corporate or military, or working for an
organization; I wasn't out to save the world or anyone's soul (except, perhaps,
my own). No, I was merely one of the many privileged young people born in the
sixties or early seventies (I was born in annus horribilis 1968) who,
after completing college--and finding little of interest in the financial centers
and suburban office parks of late-twentieth-century America--acquired the
necessary visas and shots, purchased round-the-world airfare and several
Lonely Planet guidebooks, donned backpacks and flannel shirts, and
ventured out into the world, preferably as far "off the beaten path" and as far
from Christendom as possible. A crusade in reverse, we marched forth to lose what
religion we had and be conquered.
Of course, we were hardly the first cohort of young Americans and
Europeans to travel in non-Western lands. As with sex, drugs, and rock and roll,
the baby boomers had beaten us to Shangri-la, and by 1990 the shops of Kathmandu,
Delhi, and Bangkok were full of the Beats, the Beatles, and such
spiritual-countercultural precursors as Huxley, Isherwood, and Watts.
And yet one thing, in hindsight, seems clear. We met these places and peoples
at a moment of profound global transition: just after the Berlin Wall fell and
the Tiananmen students were crushed, yet before Yeltsin climbed on his tank,
before Sarajevo exploded into war, before Clinton rode out of Arkansas, before
Rwanda descended into hell, before the Web was more than a twinkle in a hacker's
eye, before Nasdaq became a household word, before chaos erupted on the streets
of Seattle. And before bin Laden brought jihad to America.
What's more, although we knew we weren't the first generation of expensively
educated Westerners to follow an urge and a vogue eastward, we sensed that we
were the first to do so in such numbers--and the first to take global travel for
granted. This may help to explain why some of us (myself included) were so
painfully self-conscious, aware of our status as uninvited guests, acutely
sensitive under the gaze of the anonymous non-Western other. Wherever we went, by
the early 1990s the West and its popular culture--our popular culture--were fast
encroaching upon traditional local cultures. Granted, in the antiglobalization
era, this is hardly news. But it was news to us then. We were among the first
young Westerners to witness this phenomenon, on the ground, as it accelerated
around the world, sweeping into places like Nepal and India and Southeast
Asia--even the remotest corners of China. One of the things we invariably heard
from the older travelers or expats we met in Asia was that we should have seen
Kathmandu, or Varanasi, or the beaches of southern Thailand, before "the
Everywhere we went, in other words, we saw ourselves reflected back at
us--which, of course, destroyed the "purity" and "authenticity" of whatever it
was we had sought in the first place. (As if these places were ever pure to begin
with--or as if we knew what they were supposed to be pure of.) This gave rise to
a particular form of self-loathing--and a particular feeling toward the society
and culture from which we came--that I suspect is related to the current
antiglobalization movement and, indeed, to the ambivalence of some on the left
toward the latest East-West war.
Just before I left for Asia in the fall of 1990, I came upon a
book by Paul Fussell titled Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars,
which had been published a decade earlier. Fussell can be an incisive cultural
critic, and what he had to say about the postmodern condition of travel--or, more
properly, tourism--as contrasted with travel in earlier eras, was devastating to
the pretensions of a twenty-something globetrotting imperialist.
"Before tourism there was travel," Fussell wrote, "and before travel there
was exploration... . I am assuming that travel is now impossible and that tourism
is all we have left." This sad state of affairs, in Fussell's formulation, gives
rise to a peculiar modern type--the "anti-tourist"--who suffers from a "uniquely
modern form of self-contempt." As Fussell explained,
It is hard to be a snob and a tourist at the same time. A way
to combine both roles is to become an anti-tourist. Despite the suffering he
undergoes, the anti-tourist is not to be confused with the traveler: his motive
is not inquiry but self-protection and vanity. . . . The anti-tourist's persuasion
that he is really a traveler instead of a tourist is both a symptom and a cause
of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst,
defined as "a gnawing suspicion that after all . . . you are still a tourist like
every other tourist." . . . But the anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all
tourists now, and there is no escape.
Unlike Fussell's literary travelers of the 1920s and 1930s--Graham Greene,
D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden, to name a few--who didn't
have a global tourist industry, much less a global culture industry, to define
themselves against, the Gen X backpackers of the nineties were a generation of
anti-tourists. Our motive, the serious among us told ourselves, was inquiry--into
cultures, religions, and philosophies we'd read about in college courses. Our
method was the open-ended, low-budget itinerary. Our modus operandi was the
studied indifference to Western, neocolonial expectations of comfort, cuisine,
sanitation, and the conventional acquisition of cultural artifacts (otherwise
known as souvenirs), even photographs. We were the touristic equivalent of the
"independent" and "alternative" in nineties pop culture, clinging to a
collective, commercially packaged, angst-ridden cliché.
And if our mode of inquiry made us connoisseurs of Thai stick smoked in
$1-a-day bamboo bungalows ($2 a day for beachfront), or of strippers dancing to
Western pop in Hong Kong yuppie nightclubs, it came with the territory. One was
drawn to the East not just by some intellectual curiosity or wanderlust but by
the promise of pleasure and intoxication, both sensual and spiritual.
"Neither puritanism nor sensuality was ever unique to East or West," Ian
Buruma points out in his essay collection The Missionary and the Libertine, "yet,
on the whole, it is for the latter that Westerners have looked East." Yet the
relationship between East and West, Buruma reminds us, is never one-dimensional;
it has always been characterized by a mutual attraction and repulsion, seduction
and destruction. For Buruma's generation, the Vietnam War was the complicating
prism through which their visions of the East had to pass. He writes:
"Saigon . . . shit," the first two words of Francis Ford
Coppola's Apocalypse Now, summed up the ancient view of the East as a
wicked swamp of iniquity, waiting to suck Westerners into its rotting depths.
Saigon was glamorous and corrupt, destroyed by the white man, and destroyer of
white men. It might have been shit, but it was seductive shit.
For those of us who met the East in the early nineties, Vietnam had long since
gone Hollywood. I'll never forget watching Oliver Stone's Platoon during my
freshman year with a troop of my dorm mates. We stumbled out of the theater,
speechless, unable to assimilate the idea that 18- and 19-year-olds just two
decades removed from us could have been subjected to that kind of shit--nothing
seductive about it. Yet for us, it was only a movie. The experience of Vietnam
was utterly alien to us, inassimilable--the past as past, and as spectacle. When
we approached Asia, it was another East, a less dangerous East, a less conflicted
East. Politically, morally, far less was at stake--for us, at least. Or so it
seemed until that day in January 1991.
Even then, for some I encountered along the way, there appeared
to be little at stake at all. In late March 1991, I spent several days in the
ancient Bai village of Dali, at the foot of the Cang Shan Mountains in Yunnan,
China's far southwestern province. With its picturesque location, its bus
station, and its prominent write-up in the latest edition of the Lonely
Planet guide to China, Dali was another remote Asian town turned backpackers'
haven. The central hangout in Dali was Jim's Peace Café, where enlightened
Westerners could eat muesli with yogurt and fruit for breakfast and linger for
hours inhaling precious American tobacco smoke (Marlboro being a valuable
currency and an ostentatious status symbol among the Chinese). The small, dimly
lit "café" offered six tables and walls covered with maps, postcards, and
stickers from all over Europe, America, and Australia. Jim was a young guy,
Chinese, doing his best to cater to Western tastes. In addition to the muesli and
yogurt, there were several types of pizza on the menu, along with the requisite
Jim's was (and may still be, for all I know) a crossroads of what I came to
think of as the Muesli Trail--and the epitome of the Lonely Planet generation's
contradictions. It wasn't McDonald's; it was the anti-McDonald's, the flip side,
and every bit as much the symbol of Western encroachment, ignorance, and
arrogance. And yet, there was the English-speaking Jim (whose urban educated
parents were exiled to Dali for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution),
who wouldn't have traded his commerce with the outside world, economic and
cultural, for anything. Meanwhile, the people of Dali graciously accepted our
presence, going about their lives with only the occasional furtive glance over
their shoulders at the approaching juggernaut of history. What choice did they
January 17, 1991, had all the trappings of a defining moment. There in
that Bombay train station, I assumed that Americans my age were going to learn
something of war (whether or not we served in uniform--and I was acutely aware
that I did not), and that this knowledge would shape us as it had shaped all
wartime generations. But then, almost as quickly as it had materialized, this
feeling vanished. The Gulf War, and the recession that followed, now seemed an
aberration in an otherwise happy progress toward a borderless, frictionless
world. For many of us, the defining moment would come four years later, when
Netscape went public.
But for me, at least, the Gulf War was also the beginning of the end of my
budding romance with the East. My hopes of bridging cultures and collapsing
distances, my easy, unearned faith in the ability of experience and knowledge
alone--my experience and knowledge, freshly acquired--to transcend difference,
were dashed against the grim reality of "us" and "them." It was no longer
possible to pretend that such categories were meaningless. "We" were America and
the West, with all the benefits and baggage that that entailed. "They," for
better and worse, were not.
On September 11, 2001, as I witnessed the events on CNN, I felt a sickening
sense, a dawning realization, of some deeply rooted connection between my memory
of that day in Bombay when the bombs started falling and the scenes in Manhattan
and at the Pentagon. What started in January 1991 had never ended. My
generation's war, if that's what this was, had merely been on a 10-year hiatus.
September 11 has already come to mean many things to many people. One thing it
confirmed for me is that the gaze we felt upon us once, in those Eastern
longitudes, has only intensified--has, in many places, turned from curiosity to
fear and from fear to menace. To face this honestly means confronting the part we
played in the unfolding drama and abandoning whatever comforts and conceits we
may have assumed from our cosmopolitan vantage point between worlds. Far from
innocent, no matter how sincerely curious we may have been, the fact is that we
were globalization's vanguard, its shock troops, its goateed expeditionary force.
Fussell was right. We are all tourists. No amount of curiosity or
self-consciousness, no postured self-doubt, can mitigate our complicity in the
tragedy of our time: the failure of communication and understanding across the
East-West divide. "Only connect," said another, earlier tourist, E.M. Forster.
If only it were so easy.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)