In an increasingly connected world, with 'globalisation' marching on unabated, is it easier than ever to understand the nature of daily life in other countries? For example, can a person in New Zealand get closer and deeper into the fabric of Indian society from a distance? Or, in the age of 24/7 infotainment and highly selective reporting (and attention spans), are we in fact getting further and further away from the seeing the truth of everyday life abroad? These questions have been on my mind since I read this interview with Teju Cole, the Nigerian-American author of 'Open City'. He discussed the American portrayal and perception of Lagos, the massive Nigerian metropolis that is his home town:
“It seems to be sufficient for people to just see it as a source of resources, and not as a place that is integral for its own sake; that has lives, internal disputes, artists and creativity and crime; all the sorts of activity we know happens in cities.”
'Open City' was a novel chiefly set in New York. Cole has consciously chosen to make his next book a non-fiction narrative about everyday life in Lagos, an effort to lay out its complications and nuances in a much more extended format than most Americans are accustomed to. I saw Cole speak at an event in Wellington this week, where he gave an example of how, in some ways, Lagos is not so different from anywhere else:
“I had an engagement to speak about 'Open City' in Lagos, and it was very much like this – in fact, it was almost exactly like this. It was in a bookshop, with people sitting and listening quietly on plastic chairs, with buses going past outside.”
As someone who's never been to Lagos – indeed, the thought of visiting any part of Africa freaks me out – I found this very comforting. Life abroad is just that, life, with wonder and depravity and all the shades of grey in-between. I ought to already know this, having spent three years in India and one in Japan. It had never been my intention to visit India and I certainly hadn't intended to live there; once I arrived, my brain quickly shifted into the reality of being in this big country and dealing with whatever challenges it threw at me.
Africa's a different story, though. It's the sickest, dirtiest, hottest, most technologically backward continent in the world. Coming as I do from the comforts of New Zealand, it's not surprising that I'd be wary of going there. Right? I can't verify any of that, of course. My impression, composed of all those negative superlatives, is informed by: a) vague recollections of Willard Price books in childhood; b) a steady diet of doom-laden news reports, intercut with World Vision advertisements; and c) skim-read longform articles out of Africa read – at best – about once every couple of months. What little of Africa I do expose myself to is obviously not strong enough, or frequent enough, to challenge my long-held preconceptions of 'the dark continent' – even when I have witnessed so much of the nuance of everyday life in another previously unknown and unconsidered land, India.
This is confounding and embarrassing. Worse, I have believed for a long time that the world is becoming more intimately connected for the better every single day – especially via the marvel that is Twitter, where I have spent so much of the past year and a half. Through the lens of all the fascinating people I follow, who are scattered around the world, I sense in myself a growing sense of familiarity with foreign lands and peoples. If I jump over to Facebook, I see photographs from friends scattered equally far and wide; as I click the 'Like' button yet again, I don't see much exotic about the views they have captured. My interest in these photographs has little to do with the place where they were taken and more to do with the moment they capture, the actual experience of the person or people present. I like to think I'd have clicked 'Like' even if they were just up the road from me.
But then there's Africa, my biggest remaining blind spot. It makes me wonder how many other places I perceive through a selective prism, the sensational crowding out the everyday. And then there was Teju Cole sitting in front of me at the bookshop, Americanised but still very much African, calmly and eloquently setting aside the stereotypes that seem deeply embedded in my brain. The fact is that writers such as Cole and others are doing their best to present an accurate picture of a place to those who have never seen it, but there is still – in me, at least, and I suspect in others – a laziness that keeps bringing those stereotypes and preconceptions back to the surface.
The answer, to me, is that it is easier than ever to understand the nature of daily life in other countries. However, with such a deluge of severely limited reporting and shorter-than-ever attention spans (yes, I'm including myself there), it's also easier than ever to replace the everyday with short bursts of sensationalism. Just like for a surgeon or an educator, the trick is to be diligent in how you construct your perceptions of foreign lands. The internet offers all the necessary resources short of actually going there yourself, so why not take advantage?