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By Danton Remoto
(First of two parts)

God’s Dust.

That is the title of Ian Buruma’s travel book about Asia.

The last 20 years has seen an enormous rise in interest in Asia among travel writers from the West. Verily, it is a tradition that goes many centuries back, when the first Westerners set foot on Asia and returned home with fabulous tales about our “exotic” continent of legend and wealth. The high point for this kind of travel writing took place during the 19th century, which was also the century when colonialism was at its peak. 

Western chroniclers sent home “traveler’s tales” that reported the strange customs, the different rites and rituals of the East. The general idea, of course, was that the people of the East should be saved from their backward and primitive lives, with salvation coming from the West. In short, these travel narratives provided a convenient weapon of words for the imperial conquests.

In general, Ian Buruma’s book tries to veer away from this “Orientalist” direction. Although born in The Netherlands, Ian Buruma is the son of parents from different countries. He has lived one-third of his life in Asia, where he wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books. This hyphenated writer spent one year traveling from Yangon to Hiroshima to write this book. He focuses on “what happens to people when the loyalties and traditions of the village break down and are replaced by the complexities of the modern world.”

Mr. Buruma laments the Western cliché that one has to go outside the seemingly “Westernized” Asian cities to discover the “reality” about the country one is visiting. He is right when he said that one only has to scratch the surface of lives in Asian cities to find a “cultural sense of self.” 

Kampung Baru lies near the shadow of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, but when one has al fresco dinner in one of the mamak stalls selling nasi bubur, a Filipino visitor could feel in his bones that the Philippines must have been like this before the Spaniards came. The islands of the Philippines must have been Malay societies where neighbors were linked to each other by blood and social ties, where the way of life was slow and gracious, where nature shaped the gestures and seasons of rites and rituals, customs and ceremonies.

Mr. Buruma also notes that although many Asian societies are torn by economic crisis and the crisis of identity, these crises can also be creative. Verily, he alludes to the Chinese saying that a crisis creates its own opportunity. “The necessity to experiment, to redefine themselves, to find meaning in a world of conflicting values has made the capitalist countries of Southeast Asia extraordinarily dynamic. They are alive in a way that old Europe, complacently bearing the burden of its long, miraculously continuous history, is not.”

His essay on Thailand offers more insights. “Patpong kitsch and Thai traditions coexist; they are images from different worlds, forms manipulated according to opportunity. The same girl who dances to rock and roll on a bar top, wearing nothing but cowboy boots, seemingly a vision of corrupted innocence, will donate part of her earnings to a Buddhist monk the next morning, to earn religious merit. The essence of her culture, her moral universe outside the bar, is symbolized not by her cowboy boots, but by the amulets she wears around her neck, with images of Thai kings, revered monks, or the Lord Buddha.”

And then Mr. Buruma goes for the jugular: “The apparent ease with which Thais appear able to adopt different forms, to swim in and out of seemingly contradictory worlds, is not proof of a lack of national identity, nor is the kitsch of Patpong proof of Thai corruption; on the contrary, it reflects the corrupted taste of Westerners, for whom it is specifically designed. Under the evanescent surface, the Thais remain in control of themselves.”

Mr. Buruma’s essay on Japan, where he lived the longest, is the best in the collection. He points out what ails modern Japanese: the feeling that something has been irrevocably lost in Japan’s dizzying rise to progress and modernity. What has been lost is replaced by an uncritical acceptance of many things from the West. Urban Japan has become like a pastiche of many influences, a modern Disneyland, if you will. Mr. Buruma engages in the history of Western ideas, comparing prewar emperor worship in Japan to “a kind of Bonapartism grafted onto Japanese traditions.”

The essays on Malaysia and the Philippines are the weakest. Mr. Buruma scores some points with his brief discussion on the racial issue, but undercuts it with his shallow take on Malay architecture. Being an archipelago in Southeast Asia, Malay architecture is based on wood and other natural elements. But since Malaysia is also an Islamic country, the motifs of Islamic art – the onion-shaped domes, the curvilinear shapes, the ornate arabesques – have seeped into the country and have been incorporated into the look and shape of the buildings. Therefore, I do not understand Mr. Buruma’s statement that the Islamic Center and other additions to the skyline of Kuala Lumpur are “alien forms [because they were] borrowed from the Middle East.”

Then he notes that “Food is one of the few instances of integrated culture: The delicious Nonya cuisine mixes Chinese and Malay dishes in ways that add an extra dash to both.)” But this assertion is only partially correct, because he does not say how. Baba Nonya-Peranakan cuisine has made Chinese food more spicy; it has also enlarged the repertoire of the traditional Malay cuisine.

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Danton Remoto has published “Riverrun, A Novel” and “The Heart of Summer: Stories and Tales” with Penguin Southeast Asia, as well as translations of Tagalog classics into English. Available in Fully Booked, the website of Acre Philippines and Shopee.

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