Yesterday, Brian was telling me about a university in Milan that had decided to stop teaching in Italian and to instead teach all degrees in English. The reasons are possibly obvious: it is becoming increasingly important for business purposes for graduates to be fluent in English. Like it or not, the language of Mark Augé’s non-space has become English (sorry Esperanto). Although I can understand why English might be a useful language to know, I have to admit that hearing about this particular university’s decision made me somewhat uncomfortable (and it seems they are not alone, but are actually joining a growing pack of universities around the world adopting an English-only policy).
I am very lucky in many ways when it comes to my ability to travel. Although I make 50% less now than I did six years ago, my current situation provides me with numerous opportunities to travel to parts of the world that many people will never visit. In my travels to Zimbabwe, Armenia, Romania, France, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, the USA, Ireland and the Netherlands (to name only the places I’ve been in the past few years) I am constantly shocked by how much any sense of ‘local’ or ‘indigenous’ culture is being whitewashed (literally) by the impact of globalisation. In any one of the countries listed above I’ve seen American and European brands everywhere. Sometimes on the main shopping streets I’ve been to recently I literally cannot remember where I am. McDonalds, the Gap, H&M, 7-11, Coca Cola, Gucci, Prada, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Starbucks, Costa, Manchester United, Spar…these are the universal symbols of an eroding sense of local culture. I don’t necessarily have an issue with some big global brands and I, hypocritically, shop at some of them, but I find it depressing that there seems to be an increasing sameness to places that actually have quite distinctive cultural and social differences. Is the desire to join a community of nations being played out via participation in a generic corporate culture? I am certain others have written extensively and more eloquently than I am about this…apologies for not being as well informed as I should be.
I’m writing this posting on a flight to Yerevan, Armenia, where I’m going to spend a very busy e days giving workshops, meeting people in the theatre and arts scene, and (hopefully) developing partnerships for MMU and Proto-type. Last time I was there, in October 2011, I was surprised by how little was unfamiliar. I found some things surprising, of course, but mostly my discoveries were small ones and food related (the amazing food, although not completely unfamiliar had just enough difference in seasoning or preparation to be exciting to my taste buds). I was surprised by the really interesting mix of Soviet and Middle Eastern influences on social conduct and on cuisine, but I didn’t have to look very far to see some sign of multinational corporations (we had to go to a KFC to get coffee once last time…or at least I think it was a KFC…might have been a McDonalds). I’m looking forward to spending more time in this trip trying to avoid those pervasive equalisers that strip away the local. I’m also looking looking forward to learning a few more words in the quite amazing Armenian language (one of the oldest alphabets).
As much as I find a certain sense of comfort when I travel in the fact that English, my native language, has become ubiquitous, I really hope that the Italian university I mentioned above and others who are doing the same, are not harbingers of a larger trend towards losing a grasp of the differences in our cultural identities that make the world such an exciting place to explore. I am always horrified when I see Americans, or more likely these days Brits, seeking out the fast food and big name brand chain stores when they travel abroad. Why would I go to Sicily to eat at a Subway when I wouldn’t eat there at home? Surely the whole point of travelling is to enjoy the adventure of discovery, and to understand something new about yourself as a result of encountering another way of doing things. I’m reminded of the amazing Iranians I met at High Fest in Yerevan last year, who challenged my preconception (which came from reading the news avidly) about what they might be like. Or the friendly, energetic, and open-minded Zimbabweans I met at HIFA in Harare. In both cases, I enjoyed discovering how far off my preconceptions were. That’s why I travel. I also know that the frequency of my travels means that my perspective is a bit skewed (and possibly jaded or nostalgic for a time that never really existed), but I do worry that the desire to join in the prosperity of the American model of capitalism is going to mean less difference and therefore less dynamism in the make up of the world’s population.
I know this posting is slightly all over the place, but I guess my excuse is that I’m in transit on a long delayed flight and I’ve had a gin and tonic. But, hopefully the ideas I’m exploring here make some sense…
I hope to blog more about my trip as it unfolds. For now, the dining cart has arrived so I’ll be eating some generic plane food (could be any airline going anywhere….pasta or chicken?).