by Danton Remoto
Views and analysis
June 16, 2009
God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey
By Ian Buruma
Phoenix Books, London
2008 reprint, originally published in 1988
The last 20 years has seen an enormous rise in interest in Asia among travel writers from the West. Verily, it is a tradition that goes many centuries back, when the first Westerners set foot on Asia and returned home with fabulous tales about our “exotic” continent of legend and wealth. This kind of travel writing reached its peak in the 19th century, which was also the century when colonialism was most widespread. Western chroniclers sent home “travelers’ tales” that reported the strange customs, the different rites and rituals of the East. The general idea, of course, was that the people of the East should be saved from their backward and primitive lives, with salvation coming from the West. In short, these travel narratives provided a convenient weapon of words for the imperial conquests.
But such thinking was debunked by Edward Said in his highly influential book, Orientalism (1978). Professor Said pointed out that these Western books turned the East into an “Other” that is exotic, feminine, strange and different. Therefore, it is a land to be conquered, to be colonized, to be contained. It is a land to be turned into facsimiles of the West.
In general, Ian Buruma’s book tries to veer away from this “Orientalist” direction. Although born in The Netherlands, Mr. Buruma is the son of parents from different countries. He was educated in The Netherlands but writes in English, which is his mother’s tongue. He has lived one-third of his life in Asia, where he wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. This hyphenated writer spent one year traveling from Rangoon to Hiroshima to write this book. He focuses on “what happens to people when the loyalties and traditions of the village break down and are replaced by the complexities of the modern world.”
It seems like a burdensome thesis, but Mr. Buruma’s book is most illuminating when he writes about people – leaders and beggars, poets and peasants, prostitutes and monks – and spares no incident, whether big or small, as long as it throws light on his theme. He has the journalist’s nose for news and the fiction writer’s gift for the anecdote.
Mr. Buruma laments the Western cliché that one has to go outside the seemingly “Westernized” Asian cities to discover the “reality” about the country one is visiting. He is right when he said that one only has to scratch the surface of lives in Asian cities to find a “cultural sense of self.” Kampung Baru lies near the shadow of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, but when one has al fresco dinner in one of the mamak stalls selling nasi bubur, a Filipino visitor could feel in his bones that the Philippines must have been like this before the Spaniards came – a Malay society where neighbors were linked to each other by blood and social ties, where the way of life was slow and gracious, where nature shaped the gestures and seasons of rite and ritual, custom and ceremony.
Mr. Buruma also notes that although many Asian societies are torn by economic crisis and the crisis of identity, these twin horns of difficulty can also be sources of creativity. Verily, he alludes to the Chinese saying that a crisis creates its own opportunity. “The necessity to experiment, to redefine themselves, to find meaning in a world of conflicting values has made the capitalist countries of Southeast Asia extraordinarily dynamic. They are alive in a way that old Europe, complacently bearing the burden of its long, miraculously continuous history, is not.”
”The Village and the City” contrasts the neighbors Burma (renamed Myanmar by its military rulers in 1988) and Thailand. Because he had difficulty staying long in Myanmar, Mr. Buruma’s essay on the country is naturally thin, relying mostly on historical vignettes. I also have a problem with his dichotomy between the village and the city. I think it is too simplistic. Surely, in Asia today, the pace of development is uneven, such that some parts of the city still remind you of the village, while a few parts of the village seem so urban. Thus, the labels of “village” and “city” become slippery constructs when seen in this light. His essay on Singapore also suffers from the changes wrought by history, for what he calls the “nanny state” has changed in the last 10 years. It also focused too much on the “nanny state” image of the island-country, and he did not interview any artists who could have provided a cross-section of views about Singapore, the way he did with most of the other countries in the book.
His essay on Thailand offers more insights. “Patpong kitsch and Thai traditions coexist – they are images from different worlds, forms manipulated according to opportunity. The same girl who dances to rock ’n’ roll on a bar top, wearing nothing but cowboy boots, seemingly a vision of corrupted innocence, will donate part of her earnings to a Buddhist monk the next morning, to earn religious merit. The essence of her culture, her moral universe outside the bar, is symbolized not by her cowboy boots, but by the amulets she wears around her neck, with images of Thai kings, revered monks, or the Lord Buddha.”
And then Mr. Buruma goes for the jugular, showing the West for what it really is: “The apparent ease with which Thais appear able to adopt different forms, to swim in and out of seemingly contradictory worlds, is not proof of a lack of national identity, nor is the kitsch of Patpong proof of Thai corruption – on the contrary, it reflects the corrupted taste of Westerners, for whom it is specifically designed. Under the evanescent surface, Thais remain in control of themselves.”
”The Old Japanese Empire” deals with Taiwan and South Korea. The author twinned the essays in one chapter because Taiwan looks up to Japan as a model, while South Korea reviles Japan for its harsh colonial conquest.
Mr. Buruma’s essay on Taiwan is also rather thin. The essay on South Korea is more instructive. He points out “the complex and sometimes explosive mixture of shame and chauvinism in South Korea. The one, of course, stokes the flames of the other. There is a Korean term for pandering to foreign powers: Sadae chuui. And Koreans are forever accusing one another of it. These accusations are not without reason, for Koreans have a long history of using outside powers to fight opponents at home….”
This peninsula divided into two countries, this country located between China and Japan, is beset by an identity crisis. It seems to have an inferiority complex masquerading as superiority. There is a constant desire among the South Koreans to prove they are better than their neighbors – whether it is in the economy, in having “the most scientific and best writing system in the world,” and, yes, in the race for the slimmest cell phones and the most durable SUV. It seems, Mr. Buruma suggests, that “Koreans often can only define themselves in terms of a foreign civilization.” More so if they can prove themselves better than that civilization.
Mr. Buruma’s essay on Japan, where he lived the longest, is the best in the collection. “Arriving in Japan always fills me with feelings of ambivalence. It is like coming home to a country which, to me, can never be home. I spent my twenties in Tokyo. Everything is familiar: The language, the manners, the advertisements, the TV programs. Japan is part of me, yet I can never feel part of it. This may have something to do with me. But it is also in the nature of the most insular of nations. It fills me with love and horror, which alternate and sometimes even coincide, the one sometimes, in a perverse way, feeding on the other. Japan looks the most modern society in Asia, politically, culturally, aesthetically. It is also among the most archaic. It is one of the most open societies – foreigners can go there, live there, marry, and prosper. But it remains in many ways as exclusive as Burma. Japan is ‘Westernized,’ yet somehow, the country in East Asia least touched by the West. I am never sorry to leave, yet I always yearn to go back.”
Shrewdly Mr. Buruma points out what ails modern Japanese – the feeling that something has been irrevocably lost in Japan’s dizzying rise to progress and modernity. What has been lost is replaced by an uncritical acceptance of many things from the West. Urban Japan has become like a pastiche of many influences – a modern yet tacky Disneyland, if you will.
”But it is not so much the modern vulgarization of traditional forms that is disturbing, but the idea of tradition as just another transient fashion, another form without substance. One sometimes wonders whether anything in modern Japan has lasting value, whether anything substantial can visibly last. There is a rootlessness, a constant evanescence about Japanese sophistication which explains, perhaps, both the melancholy Japanese love for fleeting beauty, for visible decay, and the anxiety about cultural and spiritual loss.”
What has been lost is the Japanese spirit, the national soul – however you define it. Nihonjinron, or defining Japanese-ness, is a constant topic of best-selling books and top-rated TV shows. Sometimes, the form it takes veers dangerously close to ultra-nationalism. And here, Mr. Buruma engages in the history of Western ideas in a learned and admirable manner, comparing prewar emperor worship in Japan to “a kind of Bonapartism grafted onto Japanese traditions.”
If there is one flaw here, it is the hasty generalization that “Japanese intellectuals often seem marginal figures, writing for one another, respected as men of learning, but not taken seriously by the world at large." Of course, in any society – I am sure even in London, where Mr. Buruma now resides – intellectuals are marginal figures. The same intellectuals write for The London Review of Books that the same coterie of intellectuals reads. He also failed to note that there are now public intellectuals – people in academe who write for newspapers and magazines and who appear even on TV talk shows, giving depth and illumination even if they are only allowed so many column inches or so many milli-seconds for their sound-bites. And I am sure Mr. Buruma has read the novels of Harumi Murakami, one of Japan’s best writers – and intellectuals – who dissects Japanese society with a pen as sharp as a scalpel, and as focused as a laser beam.
The essays on Malaysia and the Philippines are the weakest. Mr. Buruma scores some points with his brief discussion on the racial issue, but undercuts it with his shallow take on Malay architecture. Being an archipelago in Southeast Asia, Malay architecture is based on wood and other natural elements. But since Malaysia is also an Islamic country, the motifs of Islamic art – the onion-shaped domes, the curvilinear shapes, the ornate arabesques – have seeped into the country and have been grafted into the look and shape of the buildings. Therefore, I do not understand Mr. Buruma’s statement that the Islamic Center and other additions to the skyline of Kuala Lumpur are “alien forms [because they were] borrowed from the Middle East.”
Then he notes that “Food is one of the few instances of integrated culture: The delicious Nonya cuisine mixes Chinese and Malay dishes in ways that add an extra dash to both.)” But this assertion is only partially correct, because he does not say how. Baba Nonya-Peranakan cuisine has made Chinese food more spicy; it has also enlarged the repertoire of the traditional Malay cuisine.
However, aside from being a great leveler in Malaysian society, food can also be seen as a great divider. The Muslim notions of halal (food should be prepared according to Islamic adat – custom and tradition) and haram (the notion of evil or “sin”) – has served as an effective buffer for integration at the dining table. Only the people of immigrant stock – the Chinese and the Indians – happily eat in each other’s restaurants and stalls.
Mr. Buruma also flounders when he talks about the so-called Third World. He said “The Third World persona… is an image borrowed from the West, from social activists in Berkeley and concerned poetry magazines in London. The Third World concept is a product of post-colonial guilt….”
Again, this is only very partially correct. The concept of the Third World came not from Berkeley or London but from France. It is a literal translation of tiers monde, and was first used by the French economist Alfred Sauvy in an article published in the Observateur magazine on Aug. 14, 1952. Three years later, the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa held a landmark conference in the Indonesian city of Bandung, giving credibility to the idea of a cohesive Third World that was at once opposed to colonialism and aligned with neither the East nor the West. This group has grown into the Non-Aligned Movement, which held its 14th conference recently.
Indeed, the Berkeley intellectuals flirted briefly with the notion of the Third World in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as part of American protest against the Vietnam War. The London journals also dwelt on the concept of the Third World in the mid-1970s, when they were publishing protest poetry and trying to free writers hauled into jail by some of the despotic regimes in the Third World, including that of Ferdinand Marcos’s.
However, it is this, in the end, that mars the book of Mr. Buruma. If only he spent more time sitting down and reading more books on Asian history – especially books that give credit to what the East has done in the history of ideas or the turn of events – he would have avoided the historical gaps in his book.
The essay on Thailand also suffers from this gap. Mr. Buruma says that “The Thais have been both clever and lucky in their relations with foreigners. The Thais were lucky that the British and the French, the two major colonial powers, neutralized each other, so that Siam became a kind of buffer zone between Burma, Malaya, and Indochina….”
This is a flippant assertion; the events of history do not bear this out. A country is not simply “lucky” that the two colonizers around it “neutralized” each other. Saying so is to diminish the pivotal role played by King Chulalongkorn (known to the Thais as Chula Chom Klao or Rama V), who reigned from 1868-1910. Educated by European tutors and drawing inspiration from his father, the great libertarian King Mongkut (known to the Thais as Phra Chom Klao or Rama IV), King Chulalongkorn opened the doors of his country wider to the West. He also built railroads, established a civil service, and restructured the legal code. Verily, he brought his country to the 20th century.
But this was also the time when Siam was being threatened by two greedy colonial powers. How to ward off the might of these two empires—the British and the French? It is not a matter of luck, then, but shrewdness that saved the day for Siam. King Chulalongkorn and his emissaries negotiated with the French and British colonial powers. True, the King was compelled to concede some territory to French Indochina (Laos in 1893 and Cambodia in 1907) and to the British Burma (three Malayan states in 1909). But the fruit of these concessions was that Siam was never colonized, and a large part of its territory remained under Siamese hands. And to this day, the Thais are one of the proudest peoples in Asia, with dignity and a sense of national self intact.
Perhaps I am just a Filipino who is a student of his country’s history, but I found Mr. Buruma’s essay on the Philippines similar to a golf course – full of holes. In the first sentence alone, he calls Olongapo City a “typical Filipino town.” How could a town of 250,000, which hosted an American base, be called typical? Then and now, the typical Filipino town is a small, agricultural place where life revolves around the town square bordered by the church, the marketplace, the municipal hall, and the houses of the few elite.
Then Mr. Buruma also calls Ferdinand Blumentritt, the Filipino national hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s friend, “an obscure Austrian schoolmaster.” Blumentritt was a professor, yes, but he was also a doctor and a scientist renowned in Europe during his time. Then Mr. Buruma adds that Rizal had Japanese blood (not true; he had Chinese blood), had lived much of his life abroad (not true), and called the Propaganda movement Rizal’s movement (not true, it was started by the lawyer and journalist Marcelo H. del Pilar).
Moreover, Mr. Buruma adds that many Filipinos like to claim that Rizal and his fellow ilustrados (the Enlightened ones, the leaders) in the Propaganda movement “were the first modern nationalists in Asia. . . “ Filipinos never claimed that; perhaps Mr. Buruma’s informants did. But what many Filipinos claim is that the Philippines became the first independent republic in Asia in 1898 – a claim that is based on historical fact. Mr. Buruma also says that the Rizal millenarian cult is based in Mount Makiling when, in fact, it is based in the bigger Mount Banahaw. Mount Makiling is the small mountain that can be seen from the azotea (porch) of Rizal’s ancestral house in Calamba, Laguna, south of Metro Manila.
There are more. Mr. Buruma claims that “the typical hero [in Filipino movies] is a simple man who gets abused and humiliated, often sexually, all through the film.” I have been watching Filipino films for the past decades and I have yet to come across a Filipino film with this plotline. Then he said that “one Canadian Zen master set up a successful business in Manila by convincing Filipinos that they, as a people, are especially gifted for spiritual quests….” Filipinos need no reminders about these. The country is full of faith healers and espiritistas (spiritual mediums), from Luzon to Mindanao, who are more imaginative than a Canadian Zen master.
Moreover, Mr. Buruma claims that “Filipinos have no collective memory, no recorded history that precedes Spanish conquest….” The point is that history – or literature or other forms of culture – is not always recorded in print. Philippine literature, like the pre-colonial literature of its Southeast Asian neighbors, was mostly oral and handed down the generations by the centuries-old tradition of oral storytelling. The Philippines has a wealth of epics that are as larger-than-life as any Western one, and a trove of poems, riddles, and proverbs that have the lyricism and pith of the haiku, or of any poem written by Wang Wei, Li Po, or Tu Fu.
Then, Mr. Buruma notes that the education minister from Cebu (he was referring to Mrs. Lourdes Quesumbing) was not understood by the Tagalogs of Luzon when she spoke in Cebuano at the Rizal Park. But Cebuano and Tagalog are cousin languages, the way Tagalog and Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia are cousin languages. This cluster of cousin-languages came from the Austro-Polynesian line of languages, such that when I speak in Tagalog now, my Malay friend in Kuala Lumpur can understand some of the words I use because they have the same meanings. Therefore, when a Cebuano speaks, a Tagalog could understand the gist of what he or she is saying because of more similarities between these two major Philippine languages.
Although Mr. Buruma is a fine and accessible guide to modern Asia, what we need at this point in our cultural history are writers who come from the continent itself. Steeped in the history of Asia and nurtured by its cultures, I hope that they will write the books that will finally give authentic voices to the complex and colorful continent we live in. A few of them have already done that. The real journey, then, has just begun.
God's Dust can be ordered from Power Books.