Having spent a large portion of the academic year reading postcolonial literature, it has struck me that my views on the West versus East dichotomy have been overly simplified, if not naive. Having read novels such as The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Graceland by Chris Abani, it would appear that the social consequences of decolonisation have made the East-West divide yet more explicit and more painful.
Abani’s Graceland examines postcolonial Nigeria where the idolisation of American culture holds the country in shackles, while The God of Small Things presents an India disconnected from its history and heritage; its citizens exploited and transformed into marketable commodities; the locals advertised as ‘exotica’ for rich Western tourists.
So I want to pose the question; what are the consequences of post colonialism and how far has Western culture infiltrated and even corrupted the cultures of others?
Firstly, one of the most blaring examples of Western infiltration in the East is world domination of Starbucks. Having originated in Washington, it has now become an international phenomenon, taking 58 countries by storm. Located in China, Japan, Thailand, India, the Middle East, North Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Starbucks has a truly determined agenda. However, when a new Starbucks springs up in a local community it is almost always at the expense of smaller, independent coffee houses. The corporate giant have therefore been accused of saturating the market.
Further, Starbucks is not representative of local culture and delicacies but has introduced the mass production of standardised coffees smeared with cream and drenched in sugar. It seems that the minty freshness of Moroccan tea, the sweet spice of Indian Chai and the likes of Oliang Thai coffee are being overlooked in favour of the caramel latte or macchiato. Starbucks translates in some countries, albeit as of a fashion statement instead of a genuine indulgence, which leads one to question Starbucks’ global chic. It might have something to do with the media, snapping pictures of American celebrities parading around with Starbucks cups. Not to mention the rise of the Starbucks logo as an icon synonymous with fashion and wealth and all things American. By all means, Starbucks is fantastic for convenience and a sugar boost. But when it becomes a serious threat to the productivity of local and independent coffee shops, we must question the extent to which Starbucks is a force for good.
Along a differing vein, western culture has a fraught history of cultural appropriation, as can be seen all too clearly with regards to Shakespeare. England has a habit of affiliating itself rather too eagerly with the playwright, fiercely guarding his identity as a paragon of English brilliance. The Globe to Globe festival taking place in London between April and June this year demonstrates the Bard’s enduring international influence. The festival will see Shakespeare’s 37 plays performed in 37 languages from Swahili to Urdu.
On the one hand, this is a global event which opens its arms in order to embrace vastly different cultures from around the world. It could be useful to see adaptations of Shakespeare as a complex series of cultural negotiations that attempt to redefine the relationships between Eastern and Western cultures.
However, it could also be argued that this festival encourages vacuous cultural tourism, the consumption of other cultures in rapid succession which does not result in true cultural enrichment. Instead, we are left with cultures consuming concepts of the ‘other’, as the festival is transformed into a commodity which tourists buy into in order to enrich their own ‘worldly’ experiences. We are left with a case of commodification of the ‘other’.
Further, the Shakespearean text dictates the terms and assumes the role of the dominant culture. It does not matter the extent to which adaptations attempt to remain faithful to the original, or alternatively create a radically divergent response, there is always a sense of distortion. In the adaptation, the ‘other’ is inevitably judged in comparison to the terms of the host culture. For example, the Japanese theatre company Ninigawa staged a performance of Titus Andronicus which remained faithful to the original text, yet the success of the play ultimately resulted from the marketing of the performance as something ‘other’. The poster advertising the play depicted a Japanese woman with streams of red ribbons flowing from her mouth as representative of her tongue being cut out. Such a depiction aesthetically frames the notion of the exotic. The forces of cultural tourism are clearly at work with regards to this production.
Furthermore, English and American pop music is carried on the radio to almost every corner of the earth. For instance, I recently took a trip to Marrakesh and as I hopped into the taxi to transport me from the airport to the city, the first song which came blasting through the speakers happened to be a track from One Direction. There really is no escape. A large proportion of artists from outside of the UK or America even sing in English in preference to their native language, demonstrating the need to cater to the dominant discourse in order to gain airtime or large-scale success. Although British music contains a wealth of extraordinary talent, it is simultaneously important to consider the music from outside Western discourse. World music is largely overlooked in favour of insipid chart fillers on the mainstream radio stations in the UK. Evidently, stations must cater to the demand of the majority, yet this ruthless commercialism overlooks some amazing artists from countries such as Mali, Brazil and India.
Post colonialism, the East versus West divide, and issues concerning cultural differences are issues far too complex to discuss thoroughly in one article. However, I would like to assert the importance of fostering a sense of global community and interchange through learning to appreciate, understand and enjoy the differences between cultures. It is only through acceptance and respect for others that we can avoid further conflict and oppression in the future. Perhaps I have proposed an idealistic vision of global peace, but it is a far more promising vision for the future than the Western encroachment of other cultures on display at the present moment in time.