Citizen of the World

In a time of rampant globalization, are we all citizens of the world? It would be nice to think so. Through history it’s usually been thought by people holding passports from safe, powerful places with a legal system offering some protection.

Diogenes, the philosopher, was among the first to express the notion. But he famously lived in a tub and had so few desires that it hardly mattered where he lived. Cosmopolitan types often use the phrase but rarely lack plane fare home in case things go sideways in a less amiable place. They rarely are poor or trying to practice their broad-mindedness under Mao or Stalin or an ayatollah.

Albert Einstein claimed world citizenship on philosophical grounds, pronouncing nationalism an infantile disease. But it was a lot easier for a German Jew to proclaim such an ideal from Princeton, New Jersey than it would have been from Dachau.

The guards at national frontiers notoriously lack a cosmopolitan viewpoint, still it must be admitted we live in a period of remarkable global give and take. Modern air travel, mass media, the internet and trade all make people more interconnected than previously. The Silk Road and the Columbian Exchange were big deals, but they are dwarfed by the present.

We all know the downsides well enough. Ill-paid laborers from Asia and Latin America displace American workers, but they also provide the affordable merchandise at Costco and Wal-Mart that the reduced pay of formerly unionized auto workers in Detroit or Norma Raes in Caroline buys. It’s a trade-off with complicated winners and losers.

Invasive species screw up ecosystems around the planet, often leading to surprise extinctions and lesser difficulties – zebra mussels, kudzu, Ebola. We have given the world liberal ideals, rock and roll, robber baron capitalism and the response has often been Berlin Walls and suicide bombers.

Still the process seems inexorable, in part because there is a profit in it, whether financial or psychic. Kremlin protesters ape punk rockers. Foreign thugs imitate rappers. We import reggae from the Caribbean, TV shows from Europe and actors from Australia.

In “Citizen U.S.A.,” a lovely documentary by Alexandra Pelosi about new Americans being granted citizenship, there’s a charming moment when she asks a new citizen in Florida what it means to be an American. He’s from Albania and is decked out for the ceremony in a double-breasted cream colored suit of vaguely boxy, middle European cut with a matching fedora. He says that in America we have freedom to try everything. In Albania there was barely bread to eat but here he can have China food one meal, Mexican the next, Italian the next. Anything he wants.

One might suppose this sort of thing a one-way street. We’re the melting pot, after all. But it’s happening everywhere and faster and faster. A year or two ago I was briefly in the south of France for the first time in twenty years. At the stalls at the provincial street fairs there were the predictable cheeses, wines and confitures, but there were almost as many Arab spice merchants and falafel stands.

We all know that Col. Sanders now gains more revenue aboard than at home and that many Hollywood movies only break even because of the foreign box office. I am old enough to remember when I first encountered pizza, tacos and kibbeh, yet today in my little Podunk town those are joined by Salvadoran joints, sushi bars, Korean BBQ and Caribbean jerk chicken.

I was recently told this little tale, a real sign of the times, that suggests there is no end to the mash-ups possible in a world with porous borders and wild west trade. American expats in China grew homesick for Chinese food. Not the sort available all around them, but the Americanized version they’d grown up on.

They decide they probably weren’t alone since so many other American, like them, were constantly in and out of China or had been relocated there for business reasons. So maybe there’d be a market niche for an American-style Chinese restaurant in China catering to other expat Americans.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fortune cookie, which incidentally is the name of the place they opened. Chinese people began to try the Americanized version and it caught on with them. Thus, Americans have now succeeded in exporting Chinese food to China where it is helping to Americanize the palates of the locals.

It’s a funny old world in which we find ourselves citizens.

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