The phenomenon of globalization hit home several years ago as I walked into a Burger King restaurant in suburban Illinois, clutching a newly acquired copy of Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations. Surveying the many nations represented among the Saturday lunch crowdalong with those behind the counter serving themI was somewhat bemused to find that mine was the only Caucasian face to be seen in this decidedly mid-American setting. As I settled down with my burger and book, Huntington's observations about the incredible cultural diversity of a world that is becoming increasingly smaller took on fresh meaning.
The myth of globalization is that "everybody's becoming like us" (whoever "us" happens to be). We consume McDonald's and Starbucks, bank at HSBC, drink Coke, listen to Britney Spears, view the same news footage on CNN (or Phoenix or al Jezeera), wear Nikes and watch stars like Yao Ming perform in the NBA; therefore, we must have a lot in common. The reality is that this generic consumerism merely provides a backdrop against which our less trivial differences stand out in sharper relief.
The only way to make sense of globalization on a personal level is to create our own reality from a vast array of choices in everything from food and entertainment to spiritual beliefs and how to express them. Pondering what to put into this column a few days ago, I found myself seated on a subway in a large Asian city, listening on my MP3 player to a message by a pastor in New York, while around me dozens of fellow passengers were deeply engrossed in conversation in at least three different languagesnone with one another. Chatting busily on their cell phones they were (like me) each in a different world, all but oblivious to the presence of those pressing up against them in the crowded coach. Thus, we may find ourselves at home in the same countryeven the same neighborhoodbut our lives may be worlds apart.
Our custom-designed realities lead to increasingly fragmented lives. We have the ability to cross cultures on demandand may do so several times in a daybut our interactions at each of these junctures may have no relevance to one another. At the end of the day we retreat, with the help of our media of choice, into whichever cultural space we find comfortable, seeking a narrative that will somehow string together the disparate pieces of our globalized lives.
Our relationships, not surprisingly, are fragmented as well. Our daily journeys in and out of cultures connect us with many people. Yet the infinite variety of choices available for our individual customized realities means that very few, if any, are able to relate to our lives in its entirety. Nor are we able to relate to theirs.
For followers of Christ, the challenge of globalization is to demonstrate what it means to be at hometo be fully presentin communities where diversity is celebrated yet where a common bond of love allows for genuine relationship. In China, where hundreds of millions are displaced physically because of internal or external migration, or displaced culturally and emotionally due to rapid social change, such communities can provide a welcome response to the realities of globalization.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio