Sunday, June 1, 2008

Globalization and Thailand

(Yes, this is a real picture I took in the mall at Chang Mai.)
Here are my reflections on globilization written on September 30, 2002.
When I reflect on our trip to Thailand and the issue of globalization, I come back again and again to something Pong said on our last morning in Thailand. He said, “You can’t save the world. So do the best you can do . . .We are only one village now . . . Globalization and Westernization began with Marco Polo . . .it can’t be stopped—the question is how do we live with it?”
From the beginning of our trip, it was clear how much our Western culture was influencing the people of Thailand. Seven-Elevens, Kentucky Fried Chickens, and Dairy Queens were almost as ubiquitous as the Spirit houses. I saw billboards for Coke, Pepsi, and Harry Potter. I turned on the television and saw commercials with young girls dressed in Western clothing that looked much like the commercials on American television except that the girls were Oriental and spoke Thai. When I went to the grocery store, I recognized the brands of shampoos and personal hair products by their labels despite their Thai translations. And more often than not, I found that everything was written in both Thai and English, whether it was a shampoo label, an advertisement, or directions. One night while sitting in the mall eating dinner, Kyung turned to me and asked if all this evidence of my culture gave me a feeling of power. And, truthfully, I had never though of myself as having power—even cultural power because I never really thought of myself as having a distinct culture.
Yet sitting in the mall in Chiang Mai it was impossible not to see the impact of my culture was having on the next generation of Thai men and women. Next to stores full of white long-sleeved blouses and long navy skirts were cardboard cutouts of Brittany Spears with her belly button showing while she happily held up her can of Pepsi. Central Department store sold more tight jeans and Lacome makeup. Judging by the shelves of the bookstores, Thai children are reading the same books as my children—Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events. And on the top floor of the mall, in the midst of the area that seemed most “Thai,” I saw a rebel battle flag hung in a window.
But what was perhaps the most surprising thing to me is that none of the Thais we met seemed upset that our culture might be co-opting their tradition culture. In the same manner, that we Americans have not been too concerned about the fact that our pop culture has co-opted our traditional cultures.
Not only was there ample evidence of the influence of our pop culture in that mall, but everywhere you looked there was evidence of the global economy. Almost every restaurant and store accepted my Visa Debit Card. ATM machines were easily located everywhere we traveled. And while I found lots of American products in the mall in Thailand, I was even more amazed by the number of Thai products I found in the mall in Huntsville.
As Pong stated we truly are becoming one very large diverse village in many ways. I have eaten Thai food in England, Italian food in Germany, American food in Thailand, Australian food in Huntsville, and Mediterranean food in Nashville. And the interesting thing is that in almost all of these cases the restaurants were operated by natives of those countries. One of my children’s favorite shows is about a Hispanic family that speaks Spanish as well as English in their homes and watch Hispanic soap operas together. They also have an increasing number of friends who are multi-racial. I have served a multi-racial bilingual church. And we live in a world were it is naïve to assume that we can “buy American” because virtually nothing is made in America with materials grown or produced in America.
When we began exploring the theme of globalization, I thought of it as a bad thing to happen. I envisioned Brittany Spears taking the place of Hill Tribe music and the Gap taking the place of home woven clothes. I envisioned sweatshops producing cheap electronics and clothing. And I envisioned Wal-Mart and McDonald’s forcing small local retailers and restaurant owners out of business in Bangkok as well as Hazel Green, Alabama. And globalization, as we know it now, does encompass all of these things.
But globalization also means a free exchange of information and communication. I now have the ability to know more about other cultures in this world as well as learning more about my own heritage. We can talk and learn from one another and we can achieve synergy by tapping the strengths of many cultures and religions to come up with possible solutions for the world’s problems. And as Gibbon’s points out in his book, globalization has actually resulted in the revival of traditional arts and crafts as people have sought to remember who they are in the midst of the homogenizing force of globalization.
Yet I still can’t escape the feeling that globalization is running amuck in this world limiting the power of individuals and even nations to make meaningful changes in the world. Suddenly, instead of the world being controlled by governments fighting for power and at least giving lip service to caring for their own people, the world is being controlled by businesses who are solely out to make a profit. Now everything and everybody is a commodity. And as Thomas Friedman reminds us in The Lexus and the Olive Tree we no longer have some friends and some enemies rather everyone is our competitor.
Yet it helps to remember that globalization is not a new phenomenon. Yes, it did begin at least as far back as Marco Polo. In fact, according to one article I read, the first stage of globalization may have begun when humans began to settle into fixed communities. Reading Parker’s argument, I was reminded of the story of the tower of Babel and the stories of Solomon and his many foreign wives as examples of Scriptural references to problem of early globalization. We have survived the struggle with globalization before and we will survive it again. But it has always been a struggle. Looking at history, it appears that every time we run up against a new phase of globalization, we humans tend to become even more tribal and territorial. Fundamentalism flares up. And, all too often, war ensues. Just look at the first great wave of modern globalization which ended with two World Wars and the cold war.
Still I don’t believe that we can stop globalization nor do I necessarily think that we should. The issue is as Pong stated it, “What will we do with it?” And given that we as Americans have cultural power in this globalized world, the next question for us is “How will we use this power?” Will we use it to replace the indigenous cultures of the world? Or will we use our power to learn from those other cultures and make changes to our own culture to the betterment of the whole world? Will we, as people of faith, use our cultural power responsibly or will we continue to ignore the impact that we are having on the world because, goodness knows. the corporations aren’t ignoring their power.
I think I used to have the very naïve idea that a globalized world would be something like the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disney World. A world full of lots of different kinds of people with very different cultures all singing the same song in their particular languages. But the truth is that in order to sing the same song, we have to be able to communicate in order to find our common song and the process of communicating requires that we be able to name our particularities in order find the commonalties. And as we seek to learn our common song, we are in fact changed by the experience of the other.
Now that sounds nice, but we are still left with the large economic and political problems of globalization. Coca Cola, McDonalds and Microsoft don’t want to stem to the tide of globalization. Small farmers and retailers want it stopped. MTV and the Gap want to spread our Brittany Spears and ‘N Sync culture worldwide so they can sell more CDs and more tight jeans. The Taliban, James Dobson and even me want us to quit inundating the world with a culture that promotes irresponsible use of sex and makes everyone and everything a commodity. So what do we, as people of faith, do about it?
I think this process of learning about globalization and its effect on the world is an important first step, but just saying this is a problem is not enough. How do we as people of faith and as future religious leaders educate and mobilize our communities of faith to do something about the problem? How do we teach them that markets and mega-corporations may well be part of the spiritual forces of wickedness that we promised to renounce in our baptism when the free market has become a false god for many? Can we be a prophetic voice that is heard? Or must we simply be a prophetic voice? And to what extent can we truly make any difference at all?
These are the questions that I am left with after our trip to Thailand and our exploration of the topic of globalization. And I don’t know that I will ever find the answers to these questions, but I do believe the struggle is important.

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