Let’s visit the global corner market together. We are the new generation of virtual travelers; we hold the power to redefine the way the world sees itself.
I had just arrived in Budapest, Hungary as an exchange student in the fall of 1993. I was eager to explore what was then a mysterious and barely known (at least to most Americans) East. The East, at that time, was synonymous with the adversarial Soviet empire, a recently dismembered nuclear rival of the United States and its Western allies. Other than a bit of light reading on Hungarian history and culture, I didn’t know too much about what I was entering. I braced myself for a massive shock.
A week or so in, very little seemed unusual to me. Most people went about their day the same as people in the States: go to work in the morning, have some lunch, get off work and grab a drink, have dinner, and wake up the next morning and do it all again. Sure the language was strange to me, but most of what I experienced was disappointingly normal. Then I had a pedestrian experience in a local market that changed everything.
With only one Western-style supermarket in Budapest at the time nearly everyone shopped at a corner market for food and sundries. So, after a week of eating out, I found my local market and began frequenting it on a daily basis. The first day there I got my meat, bread, and cheese, paid the clerk, who bagged my goods, and then I went on my way. The next day I strolled in and attempted to repeat the same thing. I got the food, checked out, and then the whole process ground to a halt. While patiently waiting for my food to be bagged – which wasn’t happening – I pointed at the canvas bags and made the universal expression for “Can I have one of those?” (Which, if you’ve done it, looks like a strange pantomime parodying a Saturday Night Fever dance move.)
The clerk looked at me, sized me up as an English speaker, and said, “Gave you bag yesterday,” which meant that customers got one bag that they needed to reuse during each trip to the market.
Being a visitor from middle-class Midwestern America in the early 1990s, this comment had no context. This was the era of more is better in every conceivable consumer way. Grocery stores back home were tripping over themselves to cater to my every convenience and attempting to drive down costs by replacing paper bags with plastic ones. I could get each grocery item individually bagged if I wanted. My kitchen pantry at home must’ve had ten thousand plastic bags sitting in storage.
I was literally frozen for twenty seconds or so because I couldn’t figure out how to respond to this unapologetic Hungarian grocery clerk. My choice was either to demand a new bag or carry my items home in hand (and then remember my bag for the next trip). I filled my jacket pockets and slinked out.
As small as this moment was in the grand scheme of my time studying in Europe, it truly signified my first meaningful cross-cultural experience. It was the first time I considered that something could be different but not wrong. Did I really want to demand a new bag because of my ignorance of the store’s policy or out of a sense of sheer laziness? No, of course not. Whether it was right or wrong, I was used to a different system than the one I was living in. I chose to approach things with optimism and curiosity.
It was my Vincent Vega experience (Pulp Fiction reference). He went to McDonalds and found a Royale With Cheese; I went to the corner market and found a one-bag policy.
Beyond being a cute reflection I want to suggest that the moral of this story constitutes the theme and point of view that I’d like to assert in the newly launched International Politics section of The Good Men Project. We’re living in a world of stark differences between peoples; yet often the biggest learning breakthroughs come from proportionally small exchanges between individuals who aren’t trying to assert, teach, or moralize. They’re just living their lives and noticing differences.
We’re truly living in extraordinary times: extraordinary for some exciting reasons and extraordinary for some horrifying reasons. Never have information, commerce, and people flowed so freely. Twitter- and Facebook-fueled uprisings are astounding spectacles to behold. They offer the promise of boundless opportunity and advancement for the civilizations of the world.
And, I would argue, these phenomena open the door to shifts that might not end so well. How will the Arab Spring turn out? No one knows. It could dislodge autocracy and oppression across the Middle East or it could dangerously destabilize the region for the next thirty years. These uprisings could create a regional black hole of political chaos, cultural barbarism, and ethnic slaughter on a scale not seen in World War Two. Nobody knows.
And what about sub-Saharan Africa? It’s impossible at this point to even guess what these emerging nations will face in terms of political challenges.
In this approach to international politics I take inspiration from a key source. Samuel Huntington authored a landmark paper called Clash of Civilizations in the early 1990s. I read this essay while studying political science upon my return from the year in Eastern Europe. Even then I remember the power and poignancy of his message, though no one could fathom the prescience of his arguments.
Huntington was part of the chorus of academics attempting to make meaning of the end of the Cold War period. It was the type of geopolitical shift that the world hadn’t experienced since the end of World War Two. The West had clearly won, but no one really knew what that meant for the future. Huntington posited that the war of ideologies was over. No longer would nations battle over better political or economic systems. Those struggles were essentially settled. He believed, rather, that new conflicts would emerge based on cultural differences. With the world shrinking people would be forced to engage with one another in ways never before possible or imagined. Cultural identities would be confronted by dissonance. Personal beliefs would be tested.
How right he was. The steady march of Western technology and commerce has clashed squarely with traditional cultures across the globe. It has sprouted such wonderful outcomes as MOOCS (massively open online courses) and such disastrous reactions as global terrorism.
We must develop new skills and tools for coping with all of these encounters. We must open new political channels to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. The challenges are mainly cultural so our politics will reflect our cultural experiences.
Let’s visit the global corner market together. We can define the way these cultural exchanges take place. We can help shift the conversation from abhorrence to appreciation and from condemnation to curiosity. We are the new generation of virtual travelers; we hold the power to redefine the way the world sees itself.