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Around the world in a plate

Around the world in a plate
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First Published: Tue, Jan 15 2008. 11 15 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Jan 15 2008. 11 15 PM IST
Not only McDonald’s but also Subway and Pizza Hut are now common in Indian cities. Sony will be making Bollywood-style movies, and Wal-Mart wants to open wholesale stores. It is a common feeling that globalization in India is disrupting people’s lives, and most of all, the onslaught feels cultural in nature.
But there is a bright side to all the disruption and the complaining. Cultural globalization is often hardest in its early stages, precisely because every change comes as a shock. It’s not so much about how globalized a country is, it’s about how globalized a country feels.
During my two recent visits to India, I heard many protests against the globalization of Indian food markets. Yet, while the Western presence is more in evidence than ever before, I was struck by the vitality of the Indian food scene at all price levels. There are literally thousands of excellent Indian restaurants and food carts for each Western chain; furthermore, some of the chains such as McDonald’s bend towards local taste with curry and tikka and lamb burger. Going out to eat is often more for the air conditioning than for the food. Nonetheless, 30 years ago most Indians had no experience of Western fast food at all and so the growth of these restaurants feels like a big change or perhaps even a cultural crisis.
Most of all, the growth of markets has made food in India more Indian. The major regional cuisines are now available in many different parts of India, not just in their original regions. The most important globalization, if we can call it that, has occurred within India itself and it has spread Indian diversity around the country. But that development feels like it should have been the case all along, even though it wasn’t, and so it is discounted in importance. The fast food outlets are simply more noticeable and thus create many objections. A more dispassionate view would realize that the growth of food markets, viewed as a whole, has disseminated and supported India’s many cultures.
India, of course, has been globalized for a long time. Seventeenth century Indian culture mixed influences from the Mughals, Persia, China, the Arabic world and Europe, among other sources. Food was globalized, too. The potato, tomato, and chilli pepper—critical ingredients in many Indian dishes—came from Mexico and the New World. Yet, these influences no longer feel “global” since they have been part of the Indian diet for so long. The reality is that an older globalization is being replaced by a newer globalization, not that a pure “Indian culture” is being destroyed by “global culture”.
Cultural globalization also can prove self-correcting. Change is disruptive but, in turn, people adapt and insulate themselves from unwanted consequences. For instance, by most objective measures, Switzerland is one of the most globalized countries. The economy depends on exports, it takes only four hours to drive through the country, and most Swiss speak three or four languages fluently, including English. Yet, the country has a reputation for looking inward and many Swiss identify more with their canton or city than their country. The influence of other nations has not destroyed Switzerland, but rather it has focused the Swiss on their best qualities. Switzerland continues to hold a reputation as a very special and unique place, and deservedly so.
Contact across cultures does mix ideas, influences and products, but it also leads to a renewed emphasis on identity. No one goes on holiday abroad and comes back feeling it was just like back home. In my home town of Fairfax, Virginia, it is now easier to get a good dosa than a good hamburger, but it still feels like America, albeit a different America than that of 1953.
Whatever the benefits of globalization may be, it’s not quite right to ignore the critics. The critics are part of what makes the process work, by keeping us aware of the value in the native culture and by warning us about the less auspicious foreign arrivals. Someone should point out that a wrapped, frozen chocolate bar just isn’t as tasty as what you can find in a good Kolkata sweet shop.
So, we need critics, but we also need critics with perspective. Often it is the people who see further than the critics by being willing to embrace the new and treat it as part of the old. When Indian novels achieved popularity after World War II, many Indians slid rather easily into feelings of cultural pride, even though the novel was not an indigenous Indian art form. “It’s an Indian art form now” is often the best attitude.
This posture can lead to mistakes and false enthusiasms, but often that is better than being too closed to the outside world.
The good news is this: cultural globalization will, with time, become less of a polarizing issue in India and in other developing countries. The first Martian to arrive is the biggest news story, but at some point change becomes commonplace and ceases to attract much notice. At the subjective level, people eventually realize that globalization has preserved or enhanced many parts of India’s heritage. The bad news, however, is closely connected to the good. While cultural evolution in India is hardly over, it is possible that the exciting and heady feelings of change have already peaked.
Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University and author of Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jan 15 2008. 11 15 PM IST