Interview with Ian Burman

WestEast asks academic Ian Buruma to talk a little on globalization and new mobility, and how the world might change with the rise of Asia.Ian Buruma is an award winning Western author, leading academic and expert on Asia, as well as Western-Eastern relations, he has lived in Hong Kong and Japan for many years but was born in the Hague, Netherlands. Now, however, he resides in New York. His books include ‘The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West’, ‘Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies’ and ‘God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey’. He has written for ‘The New York Times’, ‘The Financial Times’ and ‘The Guardian’ and has held fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C and St Antony’s College, Oxford. Now he is Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights & Journalism at Bard College, New York. Here he offers some intellectual insights and considerations that might not else be presented in the heady rush to globalize Asia.

 You have lived in a variety of Asian countries and have become an expert in Asia. How do you think its relations with itself and the West will change in the shifting cultural climate?

Change is never predictable and always subject to further change. When I lived in Hongkong during the 1980s, the Western world was alarmed by the rise of Japan. Japan was going to buy up the US, Japan was going to rule the world. None of this is heard any longer. Now it is the turn of China and India to rise and cause alarm in some quarters, though less than Japan did in the past. Cultural influence – cuisine, film, manga, animation, etcetera – from Asia is already quite profound. Who would have thought thirty years ago that the whole world would eat sushi? Political influence is more problematic. The success of the Chinese model – authoritarian politics, capitalist economics – could take us in the wrong direction. It is popular with businessmen and authoritarian politicians who would like to to break with the messy compromises of liberal democracy. This, in my view, is not the way to go.

In your discussions of the romance of exile you link this relatively modern romanticism to postmodernism and fragmented identities which have become a feature of the contemporary intellectual. For a globalizing Asia in which more and more foreigners exile themselves, and the increasing number of Asians exiling themselves to the rest of the world, how do you think that these (mostly non- intellectuals) face their ‘exile’?

I’m not sure ‘exile’ is the right word for most of these people. Exile mean forced expatriation, usually for political reasons. More and more people from all over the world are moving to other places for better economic opportunities, poor people who cannot make a living at home, but also educated people who look for new challenges. In the case of countries like China and India, I think we might see the opposite: people educated at Western institutions will be going back home, where more money can be made.

For the foreigner in Asia, there seems to be a massive difference between being the wealthier Westernised expatriate types and the other immigrants. How has colonialism shaped our experiences of exile?

‘Exile’ seems the wrong term. I’m not sure who the Westernized expatriate types are. Colonialism certainly produced a Westernized educated class in such countries as India, which has been privileged in many ways. But I think this class is rapidly being superceded by new classes of educated men and women.

As society is rapidly shifting in post-colonial times, what do you see as coming major changes the experiences above?

All societies will become more mixed, especially in the major business cities. But this is nothing new. Chang’an was a mixed city during the Tang Dynasty.

With a globalizing world, do you think that the fragmented identities, multiplicity and placenessless might become an advantage in dealing with the world?

To be at home in various places does not mean ‘placelessness’. But for people with marketable skills it will definitely be an advantage to be mobile and flexible. This means speaking several languages and being comfortable with dealing with people from other parts of the world. There is too much talk about ‘identity’, as if anyone can define him or herself in an essential way.

Do you feel that there is any truth in the ‘romance’ of exile, or is it just a existentialist Westernised notion of heroic banishment? Have you personally ever felt ‘romanced’ in this context in your travels around Asia?

No, I have not. I was never forced to go anywhere for political, social, economic, or racial reasons. By the way, the bitter romance of exile is not just a Western notion. Think of the Chinese poets who created great art out of their banishment to the outer reaches of the Chinese empire.

What has for you, been your most definitively ‘Asian’ experience?

I cannot answer this question, since I never thought of my life in Japan or Hongkong as an ‘Asian’ experience. The first was, if anything, a Japanese experience. Living in Hongkong during the 1980s was not so much an ‘Asian’ experience, as a convenience to travel to many different countries. I think ‘Asian’ is something that obsesses Singaporeans, who find it hard to define themselves as Chinese or Indian or Malay, and choose ‘Asian’ instead. I have rarely met a Chinese, Indian, or Japanese, who referred to themselves as ‘Asian’. There is of course a history of politcized Asian identity. Think of the early 20th century ideology of ‘pan-Asianism’, which began as a cultural response to Western domination, and ended up as a justification for Japanese conquest.

Text: Jing Zhang

Published in Issue 24 GlobalisAsian, 2008