One of the hardest parts of re-entering American society was writing about the difficulties of entering American society. Two years ago I went to Singapore, a small city-state in Southeast Asia, and brought with me the idea that to travel meant a total change in everything, not only in the way one lived his everyday life, but also in a radical change of views, opinions, and an opening up of new perspectives. Yet, despite this idea and the similar convictions which I had, life in Singapore was not only not very different, but also not very challenging.
The reader who was not traveled outside of the US may be surprised to see how, as the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset says, “in all countries the same things happen.” This is, with the exceptions of very poor or very distinctive countries (North Korea, El Salvador, etc.), very true. The process which we call globalization, as well as the internet and the growing business ties between the most remote places, have had a surprisingly negative effect on diversity.
One would expect to see, especially in Singapore, signs of that diversity. It is a small city-state, but one which is located in what some scholars have called the ‘multi-cultural archipelago’, a place so full of different peoples and cultures. But despite this, Singapore is a place just like any other. The vast majority of the population live in buildings called HDBs (which are, incidentally, never seen by the tourists that visit Singapore). These mass housing blocks are the same one would find in any crowded city in China or Eastern Europe, and are practically, aside from the differences in climate, indistinguishable from them. The more ‘touristy’ part of the city, where the vast majority of its visitors stay and the vast majority of its citizens work, is filled with the same buildings one would find in any international city. There are the same multinational companies, the same skyscrapers, and even the same restaurants. One of the most shocking experiences of living abroad is to find that one can surround oneself with Americans, only eat American food, and live life as if one were in the US— even worse than this was to find that there was no other genuine, Singaporean, lifestyle at all.
One would think that this ‘sameness’, and this ability to live life as if one were at home and not abroad, would at least be positive in the sense of decreasing homesickness and making one feel at ease in a different place. But even then, Singapore, like most other ‘international’ cities (in the style of Dubai, Doha, and others), fail. The fact that most buildings, like houses, restaurants, metro stations, and apartment blocks, were built as if they were located in a North American or Western European setting clashed badly with the tropical climate, making it very difficult to live comfortably during the day when the sun was at its hottest. And even when it did work, there was always a feeling of being out of place and being engaged in something ‘phony’.
It is with concern, then, that I write this article about re-entering American society; concern with the fact that all over the world the same manner of living is spreading and that this way of living is replacing all real local traditions, to the detriment of those places. If we value diversity, we have to recognize that real diversity, and genuine freedom, is the freedom to be in a certain, separate, way. And if we want to make sure that traveling is an engaging experience, and not just a small change in the background of daily activity, then we must strive to make sure that the same bland style is not imposed on everything.
by Pablo Reid