Authors: Pico Iyer
Made quiet by this labor of love, I looked up. “This must have taken you a long time to write.”
“Yes,” he replied with a bashful smile. “I have to look many times at dictionary. But it is my pleasure to help tourists.”
I went back to flipping through the book. At the very end of the volume, carefully copied out, was a final four-page essay, entitled “My Life.”
He had grown up, Maung-Maung wrote, in a small village, the eldest of ten children. His mother had never learned to read, and feeling that her disability made her “blind,” she was determined that her children go to school. It was not easy, because his father was a farmer and earned only 300 kyats a month. Still, Maung-Maung, as the eldest, was able to complete his education at the local school.
When he finished, he told his parents that he wanted to go to university. Sorrowfully, they told him that they could not afford it—they had given him all they had for his schooling. He knew that was true, but still he was set on continuing his studies. “I have hand. I have head. I have legs,” he told them. “I wish to stand on my own legs.” With that, he left his village and went to Mandalay. Deeply wounded by his desertion, his parents did not speak to him for a year.
In Mandalay, Maung-Maung’s narrative continued, he had begun to finance his studies by digging holes—he got 4 kyats for every hole. Then he got a job cleaning clothes. Then he went to a monastery and washed dishes and clothes in exchange for board and lodging. Finally, he took a night job as a trishaw driver.
When they heard of that, his parents were shocked. “They think I go with prostitutes. Everyone looks down on trishaw driver. Also other trishaw drivers hate me because I am a student. I do not want to quarrel with them. But I do not like it when they say dirty things or go with prostitutes.” Nevertheless, after graduation Maung-Maung decided to pay 7 kyats a day to
rent a trishaw full-time. Sometimes, he wrote, he made less than I kyat a day, and many nights he slept in his vehicle in the hope of catching the first tourists of the day. He was a poor man, he went on, but he made more money than his father. Most important, he made many friends. And through riding his trishaw he had begun to learn English.
His dream, Maung-Maung’s essay concluded, was to buy his own trishaw. But that cost four hundred dollars. And his greatest dream was, one day, to get a “Further Certificate” in mathematics. He had already planned the details of that far-off moment when he could invite his parents to his graduation. “I must hire taxi. I must buy English suit. I must pay for my parents to come to Mandalay. I know that it is expensive, but I want to express my gratitude to my parents. They are my lovers.”
When I finished the essay, Maung-Maung smiled back his gratitude, and gave me a tour of the city as he had promised.
THE AMERICAN EMPIRE
in the East: that was my grand theme as I set forth. But as soon as I left the realm of abstract labels and generalized forces, and came down to individuals—to myself, Maung-Maung and many others like him—the easy contrasts began to grow confused. If cultures are only individuals writ large, as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez have suggested, individuals are small cultures in themselves. Everyone is familiar with the slogan of Kipling’s “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” But few recall that the lines that conclude the refrain, just a few syllables later, exclaim, “But there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth, / When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”
On a grand collective level, the encounters between East and West might well be interpreted as a battle; but on the human level, the meeting more closely resembled a mating dance (even Rambo, while waging war against the Vietnamese, had fallen in love with a Vietnamese girl). Whenever a Westerner meets an Easterner, each is to some extent confronted with the unknown. And the unknown is at once an enticement and a challenge; it awakens in us both the lover and the would-be conqueror. When Westerner meets Easterner, therefore, each finds himself often drawn to the other, yet mystified; each projects his romantic
hopes on the stranger, as well as his designs; and each pursues both his illusions and his vested interests with a curious mix of innocence and calculation that shifts with every step.
Everywhere I went in Asia, I came upon variations on this same uncertain pattern: in the streets of China, where locals half woo, half recoil from Westerners whose ways remain alien but whose goods are now irresistible; in the country-and-western bars of Manila, where former conqueror and former conquest slow-dance cheek to cheek with an affection, and a guilt, born of longtime familiarity; in the high places of the Himalayas, where affluent Westerners eager to slough off their riches in order to find religion meet local wise men so poor that they have made of riches a religion; and, most vividly of all, in the darkened bars of Bangkok, where a Western man and a Thai girl exchange shy questions and tentative glances, neither knowing whether either is after love or something else. Sometimes, the romance seemed like a blind date, sometimes like a passionate attachment; sometimes like a back-street coupling, sometimes like the rhyme of kindred spirits. Always, though, it made any talk of winners and losers irrelevant.
Usually, too, the cross-cultural affairs developed with all the contradictory twists and turns of any romance in which opposites attract and then retract and then don’t know exactly where they stand. The Westerner is drawn to the tradition of the Easterner, and almost covets his knowledge of suffering, but what attracts the Easterner to the West is exactly the opposite—his future, and his freedom from all hardship. After a while, each starts to become more like the other, and somewhat less like the person the other seeks. The New Yorker disappoints the locals by turning into a barefoot ascetic dressed in bangles and beads, while the Nepali peasant frustrates his foreign supplicants by turning out to be a traveling salesman in Levi’s and Madonna T-shirt. Soon, neither is quite the person he was, or the one the other wanted. The upshot is confusion. “You cannot have pineapple for breakfast,” a Thai waitress once admonished me. “Why?” I asked. “What do you have for breakfast?” “Hot dog.”
It is never hard, in such skewed exchanges, to find silliness and self-delusion. “Everybody thought that everybody else was ridiculously exotic,” writes Gita Mehta of East-West relations in
, “and everybody got it wrong.” Yet Mehta’s cold-eyed
perspective does justice to only one aspect of this encounter. For the rest, I prefer to listen to her wise and very different compatriot, R. K. Narayan, whose typical tale “God and the Cobbler” describes a chance meeting in a crowded Indian street between a Western hippie and a village cobbler. Each, absurdly, takes the other to be a god. Yet the beauty of their folly is that each, lifted by the other’s faith, surprises himself, and us, by somehow rising to the challenge and proving worthy of the trust he has mistakenly inspired: each, taken out of himself, becomes, not a god perhaps, but something better than a dupe or fraud. Faith becomes its own vindication. And at the story’s end, each leaves the other with a kind of benediction, the more valuable because untypical.
Every trip we take deposits us at the same forking of the paths: it can be a shortcut to alienation—removed from our home and distanced from our immediate surroundings, we can afford to be contemptuous of both; or it can be a voyage into renewal, as, leaving our selves and pasts at home and traveling light, we recover our innocence abroad. Abroad, we are all Titanias, so bedazzled by strangeness that we comically mistake asses for beauties; but away from home, we can also be Mirandas, so new to the world that our blind faith can become a kind of higher sight. “After living in Asia,” John Krich quotes an old hand as saying, “you trust nobody, but you believe everything.” At the same time, as Edmond Taylor wrote, Asia is “the school of doubt in which one learns faith in man.” If every journey makes us wiser about the world, it also returns us to a sort of childhood. In alien parts, we speak more simply, in our own or some other language, move more freely, unencumbered by the histories that we carry around at home, and look more excitedly, with eyes of wonder. And if every trip worth taking is both a tragedy and a comedy, rich with melodrama and farce, it is also, at its heart, a love story. The romance with the foreign must certainly be leavened with a spirit of keen and unillusioned realism; but it must also be observed with a measure of faith.
Let me add, finally, a few words of explanation about what I did while traveling, and what I have tried to do while writing. I
make no claim to be authoritative about the places I visited. Quite the opposite, in fact. I spent no more than a few weeks in each country, I speak not a word of any of their languages and I have never formally studied any Asian culture. Nor did I try—except in India and Japan—to consult local experts (a job best left to other experts). Punditry comes expensively enough at home; abroad, it was well beyond my reach. Entire books have been written on even the smallest of my themes, and if I had even tried to keep up with all the literature that comes out every week on China or the Philippines or Japan, I would never have found the time to write a paragraph myself.
Instead, I let myself be led by circumstance. Serendipity was my tour guide, assisted by caprice. Instead of seeking out information, I let it find me. I did not bend my plans to look for examples of the Western presence, or to bolster any argument. I simply read those books or articles that chanced to come my way and listened to the rickshaw drivers, strangers and fellow travelers I happened to meet on the road. Most of my intelligence, in fact, came from the kind of locals that a tourist is likely to meet—touts and tarts and black marketeers, cabbies, storekeepers and hotel workers. Such characters are hardly typical of their countries; but they are, in many ways, representative of the side of the country that the visitor sees.
What results, then, is just a casual traveler’s casual observations, a series of first impressions and second thoughts loosely arranged around a few broad ideas. The only special qualification I can bring to my subject, perhaps, is a boyhood that schooled me in expatriation. For more than a decade while I was growing up, I spent eight months a year at boarding school in England and four months at home in California—in an Indian household. As a British subject, an American resident and an Indian citizen, I quickly became accustomed to cross-cultural anomalies and the mixed feelings of exile. Nowhere was home, and everywhere. Thus, for example, when I was seventeen, I spent a long summer traveling around India, returned to England in the autumn for a final term at school, devoted my winter to working as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant in Southern California and then spent the spring traveling by bus with a school friend from San Diego through Central America and across Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to Bolivia, before hopping back to
Miami through Brazil, Suriname and the West Indies, and Grey-hounding back to the West Coast. Once home, I started up the cycle again. A little later, I spent two summers careering around Europe writing guidebooks on France, Greece, Italy and Britain, and from there I embarked upon a four-year stint of writing on World Affairs for
I do not know whether such experiences sharpened my instincts for traveling, but I hope that they taught me a little about how much to trust, and when to doubt, first impressions.
THE READER WILL
notice too that this book is patterned less like a conventional travel diary than a series of essays. Each chapter, moreover, is structured to reflect not a physical but a mental itinerary—it follows, that is, not the chronological sequence of my movements so much as the twists and turns of my thoughts as I tried to make sense of the places I saw. Occasionally, of course—as when I visited a country just once—the two coincide. But in most cases, I revisited a place in different seasons and different moods—sometimes as many as six times—and spaced out my trips in order to give both the countries and myself a chance to change. In addition to my experiences, I therefore include all the other factors that guide one’s feelings for a place—one’s expectations before arriving, one’s thoughts while leaving and, most important, one’s reflections in all those stray hours at home when a place comes back from afar and one tries and tries to puzzle it out. The final destination of any journey is not, after all, the last item on the agenda, but rather some understanding, however simple or provisional, of what one has seen.
To some extent, of course, this treatment forgoes some of the jolts and intensities and pangs of one’s experiences. I acknowledge that loss, and feel it. In trying to sight-read a place as if it were a text, one can easily fall into pretension, as well as presumption, and in recollecting it in tranquillity, one can dampen or even distort one’s essential feelings: a reader might not guess from the following pages that the country of my dreams is still Japan.
Yet it seemed to me that the vivid day-to-day account of a journey through Asia, with all its momentary impulses, emotions and excitements, had already been written, and rather well.
Readers who wish to savor adventures in the hidden East, recorded with a worldly shrewdness that makes their moments of surrender all the more affecting, can turn to Peter Fleming or Norman Lewis or Robert Byron; those who want a clever and quick-witted jaunt through the Asia of the seventies will find few better companions than Paul Theroux or John Krich; those who seek sensitive and passionate guides to embattled areas of the spirit can visit Ladakh with Andrew Harvey, or Tibet with John Avedon; and those who like to watch the irresistible triumph of sensibility over substance are hereby advised to return, and return again, to S. J. Perelman’s incomparable
I, however, have tried to take a slightly different tack; rather than showing how one personality acts in different places, I have sought to show how different places act on one personality. For just as we are different people with a mother, a lover, a teacher, a priest, a salesman and a beggar, so we are to some extent assigned different roles by the countries we visit. This may in part be the result of personal circumstance: in one country I found myself an American journalist, in another a former British schoolboy, in yet another a homecoming Indian relative and in a fourth a plain tourist. It may also have to do with the place’s circumstances: in all of Tibet, I found only a handful of locals who could speak English, while in India, there are tens of millions of fluent and loquacious locals more than eager to have their say. But it is also true that places to some extent remake us, recast us in their own images, and the selves they awaken may tell us as much about them as about ourselves. “To survive a war,” as Rambo says in a rather different context, “you’ve got to become a war.” Thus in Thailand, though a teetotaler, I spent most of my evenings in bars, and in Tibet, though not a Buddhist, I devoted all my days to the quiet of mountaintop lamaseries. In Japan, where a foreigner seems always to be an outsider, I found myself turning slightly Japanese—aloof, efficient and lyrical; while in the Philippines, where every visitor is a participant whether he likes it or not, I tended to become as earnest and unguarded as the people I met.