Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Leaking Enough

On Sunday evening, as I flipped through the channels, I spared a gaze on TV. There, he was, the aging Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, acknowledging well-wishers on his 87th birthday. I was intrigued by the way Bhattarai was articulating his future expectations for his nation.

May this country and its people prosper, he predictably said, as any worldly-wise political leader would do. Then, he wished Nepal to be a prominent and wealthy nation of Asia, with improvement in people’s living standards.

My first reaction: Well, he’s suggesting we walk past our ingrained South Asian enclosure! But why does this guy go that far, and not farther enough?

Why does he so particularize and not claim the whole world, for the world now, they say, is fast becoming a level playing field. And how can we forget, too, the celebrated advice of our own Laxmi Prasad Devkota that if we are to set a goal, then we should aim to touch the moon.

On second thought, this casual reflection process prompted by a casual TV bite left me with a sense of apprehension; my shallow understanding of Asia, built on crude images in the popular media I consumed growing up, is but a parody of our successive leaders’ lofty claims of making Kathmandu another Singapore, raising Nepal to the Asian standard, etc. Later, during the 1990s, the Asian Tigers were on the spotlight, and now we always hear loud screams that Asia is going Chindia (China and India), and that is where the world is also headed to.

So, then, even without Bhattarai’s wisdom, there is no getting away from the Asia chatter, from figuring out where we fit or should fit in the increasingly intricate Asian puzzle. So far, however, my accumulated impressions of Asia tend to flatly reduce it into an economic creature. We are Asians because we are rushing for the gold. If we are Asians, we better work hard to make wealth.

True, it is a complement that Japan, in its post-war efforts to recuperate and rebuild, led the way in this race. Then came Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and others. However, it is simplistic to label Asia merely as an economic bug. The largest continent of over fifty-two nations and inhabited by more than sixty percent of the world’s population is a complex blend of competing identities based on diverse climes, biology, ethnicities, communicative practices, roles, alignments, values, and cultures.

A perceived image is different from self-identity. In ancient times, for what we today call Asians, there never existed any place called Asia, an umbrella term originally invented by the Greeks to refer to the distant, insulated regions lying farther beyond their eastern borders, extending as far away as India. It was in school that I was first exposed to the geographic notion of Asia, an integral sphere extending today from Turkey to Japan. So I was an Asian by virtue of simply being from a country that happened to be in Asia!

The fact is, I have been living merely as a Nepali Asian, and barely as an Asian Nepali. We were made to read Nepal Parichaya (introduction to Nepal), but nobody bothered to teach us any Asia Parichaya (introduction to Asia), civic lessons about being an Asian citizen. We were never raised to that level, to that sense of belonging. We remained the underbelly of Asia. Asia was merely our rented apartment, not our home. It was too complex and an uninspiring subject to be taught to adolescents, too immense to be fathomed by the uninitiated. We were hardly prepared for this Asian moment.

Today, as Asia comes bursting in our lives, in the form of Yuan and Confucius, Baidu and Mao, InfoSys and Jackie Chan, Sony, and Buddha, we are struggling to understand China next door, its intractable language and culture, and at the same time, we may be falsely believing that just because we share some culture with India, we know this rapidly changing mosaic well enough.

So, suddenly, we have this “oh yea” moment; now it is our turn. Let the giants prosper and they trickle down on us. Trying to keep track of their progress, we are Asia-bound as never before, some scrambling for an Amartya Sen volume or Ogura Kazuo title or Lee Kuan Yew memoir, to drink deep out of the Asian cup. Speed is the essence in this new knowledge economy, so we have to fast forward our Asian consciousness. We have to master the shorthands, our shared values: Hey, whatever others call us, we Asians are a tolerant lot, we are hardworking, pragmatic, consensus-seeking, responsible, and so forth. And we don’t shy away, if we can, from respectfully making money, yes.

Yet the Asian rigidity is such that when the time comes ultimately, in the usual gradual Asian way, to form, for instance, an Asian Union, our continent’s dealmakers and leaders will find it difficult to walk past the argument that Asia is too complex to be aligned into a single entity; that a loss of distance will invite more trouble, that historic rivalries and enmities are too sore to be forgiven and forgotten, and that, partly, is demonstrated by our Korean brothers and sisters. It is as if you get together only to make the feuds more real and personal. So much for Asian tolerance and peace; it is this same mental handicap that the European Union had to overcome.

Politics aside, there is also the split image of Asia, for example, the western public view that India or the Middle East are separate from Asia. Historically traced, Churchill once infamously remarked that India was no more a country than the equator was a country. Biology is another indicator. The popular perception of Asia in America subsumes the Far East, exclusively with people of Mongoloid descent. It is not unusual for someone with an Aryan build from Nepal to hear a comment like this in the American hinterlands: “You look more like an Indian. How could you be an Asian?” In fact, there is also the outside view of Nepal, more Mongoloid than Aryan, and associated closely with Tibet or China.

Today, these kinds of perceptions and attitudes, some genuine and others distorted, get perpetuated in our instantaneous, global, mediated environments. In a way, on the global sphere, we are what CNN and BBC, and since only recently, Al-Jazeera, project us to be. Virtual communication remains largely segregated and it further reinforces existing pictures in people’s heads.

This year’s campaign of Nepal Tourism Year to bring in more foreign visitors, and by doing so more global exposure to our nation, our way of life, and more foreign exchange, I think, is a perfect occasion to start working on how to reassess our identity in terms of our Asian aspirations. Everybody abdicates these days in favor of the image, and as the media guru Marshall McLuhan said long ago, politicians do so more often. Hence, it makes sense to rebrand our country starting right from our leadership.

At a time when China-India framework dominates our public discourse, Asia-India may sound a bit awkward. But idiomatically, Asindia seems to be our reality. Being a diverse country, ethnically and linguistically, we are already a microcosm of Asia proper. And our biological Asianness inherited by our Nepali Mongoloid fellow-citizens, who constitute over 30 percent of the population, is already robust in the field of cultural and creative leadership. For democratic balance, fairness as well as for a change, it is time to take turns.

We are in need of a PM in this country right now. This may serve as an opportunity to Asianize our national politics, for example, by electing Kul Bahadur Gurung or Ram Bahadur Thapa Magar or Subhas Nembang as our next PM. Imagine watching one of these men, clad in western dress and a tie, delivering a speech at the UN general assembly in New York. You cannot tell him from his Japanese or Chinese counterpart. Symbolism aside, it will send a powerful signal as a beginning of our Asian ascent.

We gave Asia its first truly modern hero, Tenzing Norgay, who crystallized the pan-Asian identity as never before. We can start by building on this legacy, and the legacy of another larger-than-life hero, the Buddha. At the same time, we can also begin our gold rush, aiming for US$ 33,470 in GNI Per Capita, PPP, Asia’s highest, achieved so far by Japan alone.

A long way to go, but increasingly, as we struggle to rapidly catch up with others in improving our standard of living indicators, we will learn to reconsider the economics of our image in remodeling our country as well as focus on value issues, most-notably consensus-seeking.

Writer works with the Media Foundation. He is the author of the recently published book, A Compassionate Journalist (2010)

Published in the Republica, Jan 5, 2011