How Globalization, Migration, and Hybridity Affect Literature

Loosely speaking, globalization is a phenomenon that describes how the world has become more deeply interconnected and how this different form of human contact has transformed our economic, political, and cultural lives. This world of mobility, mixture, linkages, and exchange may be best illustrated in the following narratives:

In Russia, McDonald’s is nowadays a prominent feature in the local landscape. The physical topography of Moscow’s streets and pedestrian walkways, for example, is shaped by large red signs with recognizable golden arches and arrows directing pedestrians and motorists to the nearest restaurants. Furthermore, political demonstrations—anti-American or otherwise—often use McDonald’s restaurants as land-marks for staging and dispersal areas. And whereas school groups formerly took cultural excursions to sites such as Lenin’s tomb, museums, and factories, today the same groups take educational tours through McDonald’s restaurants and the McComplex production facilities.

In Hong Kong, it is the spring of 1994 and everyone is talking about female inheritance. Women in the New Territories are subject to Chinese customary law and, under British colonialism, still unable to inherit land. A group of indigenous women has joined forces with Hong Kong women’s groups to demand legal change. In the plaza in front of the Legislative Council building, the indigenous women, dressed in oversized hats of farm women, sing folk laments with new lyrics about injustice and inequality. Across the plaza, a conservative group representing rural elite interests gathers in large numbers to protest female inheritance on the grounds that it would undermine tradition. One banner carries the message: “Why are you killing our culture?”

In the preface of Arjun Appadurai’s book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, the author writes, “In my own early life in Bombay, the experience of modernity was notably synaesthetic and largely pretheoretical. I saw and smelled modernity reading Life and American college catalogs at the United States Information Service library, seeing B-grade films (and some A-grade ones) from Hollywood the Eros Theatre, five hundred yards from my apartment building. I begged my brother at Stanford (in the early 1960s) to bring me back blue jeans and smelled America in his Right Guard when he returned. I gradually lost the England that I had earlier imbibed in my Victorian schoolbooks, in rumors of Rhodes scholars from my college, and in Billy Bunter and Biggles books devoured indiscriminately with books by Richmal Crompton and Enid Blyton. Franny and Zooey, Holden Caulfield, and Rabbit Angstrom slowly eroded that part of me that had been, until then, forever England. Such are the little defeats that explain how England lost the Empire in postcolonial Bombay” (1996, 1).

Raymond Williams, a foundational figure in cultural studies, prefaces his chapter on the culture of the nations with a story: “There was this Englishman who worked in the London office of a multinational corporation based in the United States. He drove home one evening in his Japanese car. His wife, who worked in a firm which imported German kitchen equipment, was already home. Her small Italian car was often quicker through the traffic. After a meal which included New Zealand lamb, Californian carrots, Mexican honey, French cheese, and Spanish wine, they settled down to watch a program on their television set, which was made in Finland. The program was a retrospective celebration of the war to recuperate the Falkland Islands. As they watched it they felt very warmly patriotic, and very proud to be British” (1983, 177).

Each of the snapshots in this gallery exemplifies a particular kind of mobility or cultural flow—of capital, people,•commodities, images, and beliefs/ideologies. In the Russian example, the presence of McDonald’s is perceived as a threat since this American fast-food chain represents a global standardization of goods, tastes, and practices. And this is a phenomenon that is not alien to us. The clothes we wear (Levis), the food we eat (ramen), the music we listen to (Taylor Swift), and the movies we watch (The Avengers) are what other people are consuming across the globe as well.

In the Hong Kong example, conservative members of the rural elite oppose the fight for women’s rights since they view gender equality as a threat to their centuries-old belief about the sexes, in particular that only the male can inherit land. Hence, the lobbying for women’s rights is perceived as a western imposition that would corrupt what is distinct and essential to Chinese tradition and culture.

Appadurai’s recollection of his first experience of modernity is mediated by an array of objects—books, movies, commodities—which not only introduced to him a different lifeworld but more significantly, became formative of his idea of a subjectivity which is made possible by the trappings of western individuality.

As a cultural process, globalization can track the consequences of travel, migration, and media technologies on the symbolic constructions of our identity, how we imagine our relations with others and our ideas of a future. When people travel to another country whether as tourists or workers, they inevitably encounter a culture different from that of their home country. Such a contact can bring about an awareness of how certain practices such as language, religious belief, and customs, which we associate with our home country can be strikingly dissimilar or even unintelligible in a foreign land.

At present, the growth of migrant populations and the consider-able scale assumed by immigrant experience have given way to an understanding of migration as “a mode of being in the world” since the passage from one place to another inevitably creates a different consciousness and/or identity. When migrants cross national boundaries, they never leave their “homelands” behind. Rather, they are able to forge and maintain connections between their home and host societies. In effect, migrant consciousness is thus formed from that imagined space between cultures. This “in-between” site is what theorists in post-colonial and cultural studies have identified as “hybridity.”

Although there are several definitions of the concept, some more politically inflected than others, hybridity essentially refers to the mixing together of previously discrete cultural elements, which results in a creation of new meanings and identities. As Stuart Hall has put it, migrants:

[They] are people who belong to more than one world, speak more than one language (literally and metaphorically), inhabit more than one identity, have more than one identity, have more than one home; who have learned to negotiate and translate between cultures, and who, because they are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and culture have learned to live with, and indeed to speak from, difference. They speak from the “in-between” of different cultures, always unsettling assumptions of one culture from the perspective of another, and thus finding ways of being both the same as and at the same time different from the others amongst whom they live. (1995, 206)

In Hall’s account, when migrants or immigrants uproot themselves from what is familiar and are incorporated into a new society and culture, rather than assimilate to the foreign way of life associated with the host society, they interpret, translate, and customize foreign cultural forms in a way that draws from their local or national culture. Hybridity has become one of the useful concepts for representing the migrant’s identity as an articulation of cultural (racial, ethnic) difference. Moreover, the concept highlights the crucial idea that identities are always formed in the process of our interaction with other people, are thus relational and not essential.

Given the cultural encounter that takes place when people move to foreign spaces temporarily or permanently, hybridity can describe the split-consci
ousness of migrant identities (e.g., Filipino American), cultural practices (e.g., Bollywood, flamenco rock), language (Taglish), and literary forms/genres.

Let’s read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Year’s End” from her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2007) (read it online on The New Yorker. The Indian Bengali American author was born on July 7, 1954 in London, England and immigrated to the United States with her parents. In an interview with Bookforum, Lahiri said, “My parents befriended people simply for the fact that they were like them on the surface; they were Bengali, and that made their circle incredibly vast. There is this de facto assumption that they’re going to get along, and often that cultural glue holds them, but there were also these vast differences. My own circle of friends is much more homogenous because most of my friends went to college—Ivy League or some other fine institution—and vote a certain way.”

  • Kaushik, the narrator in the story, finds out that his father had married Chitra whose husband died of encephalitis, leaving her with two daughters. What does he feel about Chitra even before he makes the trip to Massachusetts to meet her and her daughters?
  • How is Chitra different from Kaushik’s mother? When Kaushik arrives at Massachusetts, where he spent the better part of his childhood, he discovers that their house had been redecorated by Chitra. In what sense does he regard Chitra as an alien presence?
  • Although Kaushik is disturbed by the idea of his father marrying “an old-fashioned girl half his age,” the father explains that he married Chitra since he was “tired of coming home to an empty house every night.” Does this suggest that the father has betrayed the memory of his dead wife? How does this moment illustrate two conflicting notions about tradition?
  • Kaushik’s family is Indian and yet the three of them are very different from Chitra and her two daughters because they have adapted to American culture. Which instances in the story demonstrate this?
  • Despite Kaushik’s reluctance to throw himself into the role of a car-ing stepbrother to Rupa and Piu, he brings them with him when he orders breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. When Piu asks him to describe his mother, he can only stammer “She was—she was my mother.” And yet, ironically, Kaushik felt that the two girls, regardless of their short acquaintance, understood him better than his friends. Explain.
  • When Kaushik catches his stepsisters rifling through the photographs of his mother, which his father had sealed in a shoebox, he lashes out at them, gets into the car, and leaves. The next day, Kashiuk calls his father and discovers that the girls had made no mention of his outburst to either Chitra or his father. The next time Kashiuk sees Rupa and Piu is at his college graduation and he notes the girls’ politeness and the absence of any memory of his rash behavior on their faces. Why does he feel that their silence “protects and punishes” him?
  • The title “Unaccustomed Earth” is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House”; in Lahiri’s epigraph:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

In this passage, Lahiri’s appropriation of the phrase “unaccustomed earth” is an allusion to the immigrant experience. Hawthorne’s observation about human nature seems to suggest that transplantation, to relocate to another place of residence, can bring about growth and success. Is this true in “Year’s End”? Why or why not?

Apart from hybridity, another significant pattern of consciousness that globalization provokes is cosmopolitanism. The word “cosmopolitan” derives from the Greek kosmopolites, meaning “citizen of the world.” The long history of the concept has disseminated the following positions:

  1. All human beings, regardless of their national or religious affiliations, are members of a single community or one humanity;
  2. An intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness to what is foreign;
  3. The ability to imagine one’s self from the viewpoint of what is culturally different or other;
  4. Cf glocalization: a transformation of cultural practices via the integration of foreign cultural objects and expressions.

Read Haruki Murakami’s short story “Kino” (2015) from The New Yorker. In a critical analysis paper, examine the cosmopolitan subtext which informs the story.