February 28th, 2006


Culture-shock depressurization chamber

Where solo is sociable, my latest Wired column, continues the individualist-collectivist dialectic that's been going on here at Click Opera over the last couple of weeks. "Shouldn't individualist societies cater better to the needs of individuals, and collectivist societies cater worse to them? How come it seems to be the other way around?" the article asks. "In a truly individualistic culture, you shouldn't have to feel "quirky" when you're out and about alone, should you?" (By the way, thanks for helping me "collectivize" the writing of the article, all those who commented last week! In the end, though, being the hopeless maverick I am, I just submitted it as originally written. To fit in all the issues you raised would have needed book-space, and a whole chapter of acknowledgements. And the idea of collectively-written articles is a pretty grey one, morally and legally. Writing an article for a magazine isn't folk music, even if blogging kind of is.)

My article concludes: "Given current U.S. trends toward living, working and playing alone, the infrastructure of American cities could benefit from resembling a little more the monad-welcoming floating world of the Japanese city". It's a rather provocative statement, and I'm not at all sure how possible it could be. I mean, sure, one aspect of America has always been its genius at incorporating bits from other cultures into its mosaic. Just as they've been Italianized, Irishized or Lithuanianized, bits of American cities have certainly been "Japanized": sushi bars have sprung up, Japanese bookstores and supermarkets appeared, whole parts of the West coast have become Pacific Rim Asia Towns.

Like the Bowie character in "The Man Who Fell To Earth", some people have even opted to furnish their American homes in Japanese style. This week I'm staying in just such a place here in New York, a kind of culture-shock depressurization chamber between Japan and America: it's the apartment I mentioned in a previous Wired column:

"A grad student named Karl Haley read a blog entry I wrote entitled Japanize your ass! and decided to kit out his tiny apartment in New York's Lower East Side with Japanese technologies: a Toto S300 Jasmine washlet toilet, a Zojirushi 3-liter "Panorama Window" Micom Electric Dispensing Pot, a Neuro Fuzzy rice cooker, a kotatsu (a low table incorporating an infrared heater and canopy), and a robotic iJoy 100 massage chair."

The apartment does indeed contain these Japanese marvels, and others. It's all the more reassuring to me because it's on the same side of the same street where I lived between 2000 and 2002, though slightly further north than the Chinatown block I lived on. A mere three blocks south, most of the signs on the street are in Chinese, most of the faces you pass Chinese. And although it may seem unreasonable or unfair to ask a society as multi-ethnic as the US to "Japanize its ass", it's precisely this chameleon side of the US -- the fact that it's a huge patchwork quilt of ever-shifting immigrant groups, loyalties, languages -- which allows it to be the subject of all sorts of speculations and projections, including my own orientalist ones. And since immigration, wholesale importation, ethnic and special interest lobbying has always played a part here, Americans by and large take recommendations like "Japanize your ass!" in good sort. After all, what could be more American than being... less American?