Friday, May 27, 2005

Tomenko Street

I have friends who live in the outskirts of San Jose, California. They are from Ukraine, having come here just after the fall of the Soviet Union. I'll call them the Tomenkos. They're wonderful people -- very animated and eager to talk about the world with a crazy American like me. Our kids run all over their huge house while we grill lamb shashlik, eat buttered varenyky and debate politics.

The Tomenkos live in a McMansion. It's positively huge, with sweeping corridors and clearstory windows in the living room. They have a television on the wall that must be the size of a pool table. During our stay, the mega-television blares Ukrainian and Russian cartoons for the kids, while we swill pivo and vodka. I swear that one of the Ukrainian cartoons I saw while knocking-back some kind of insane black vodka showed a Muslim getting beaten to a pulp by an angry bear. But I couldn't understand the language, and the vodka was positively narcotic, so who knows.

The street they live on is strange. All the McMansions are pretty much identical, about two years old. The whole neighborhood was recently constructed. The buildings all have perfect lawns, with facades that are painted with three or four color variations of taupe. They go for about $1.4 million each. The trees on the street are small, being newly planted.

"Do you know your neighbors?" I asked Mr. Tomenko.

"No. The people next to us are from China. And those people over there are from Korea," he said, pointing at a huge two-toned taupe façade. "Those people in that house there are from Germany. I think that house down the street is full of Arabs -- perhaps Turks -- ne znayoo -- I dunno. No one interacts on this street because each house is a different country. There's a lot of different languages on this street. People stick with their kind, you know. It's easier that way."

San Jose is arguably a multiculturalist's dream. There are many cultures in the endless sprawl that pushes its edges toward the south. There's Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Ukrainian, Ethiopian, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, and so on. There's even guys like me down there, born and raised in the Bay Area.

Mr. Tomenko is a programmer who has shrewdly and profitably extended his software business to include workers in the Ukraine, while he gets big contracts here in the States. He pays his buddies back in Ukraine about a third of what software engineers would charge locally. Businesses are looking to cut costs, which keeps him in high demand. His contribution to the American economy is in the form of US tax dollars, and buying lots of stuff from American malls.

I saw two divergent multicultural paths at the Tomenkos house, which appear to be going in opposite directions. One path flattens cultures into a uniculture, the other deepens them into ghettos.

Multiculturalism's Flattening Affect

Canadian Heritage has their definition of multiculturalism posted online:
What is Multiculturalism? Canadian multiculturalism is fundamental to our belief that all citizens are equal. Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of, diverse cultures. The Canadian experience has shown that multiculturalism encourages racial and ethnic harmony and cross-cultural understanding, and discourages ghettoization, hatred, discrimination and violence.

Through multiculturalism, Canada recognizes the potential of all Canadians, encouraging them to integrate into their society and take an active part in its social, cultural, economic and political affairs.
Multiculturalism, as a policy, essentially is a mandate: We should all immerse ourselves in each other's unique customs, holidays, beliefs, language and food to better understand each other and reduce aggravation across cultural divides. Children go to schools that herald cultural distinctions. Each tradition is accorded respect to foster understanding. The world is shrinking, and cultures are rubbing more than elbows in the process. Understanding each other is key.

It seems to me that there will be, over time, a flattening affect by multiculturalism as a policy. Compared to their immigrant parents, children's connection to their own culture will be diluted to some degree. And when they have kids, their culture will be even more modified for that generation -- and so on, until the colors of the multicultural rainbow blend together into gray. Perhaps this is the price of moderation and understanding.

What is integral to most cultures is not just food, dance, art, language and custom; it can also be bias, prejudice, racism, exclusivity, intolerance, and notions that can be antithetical to progressivism. The flattening of cultures down through the generations hopefully will remove much of the arcane voodoo that comes with tradition -- voodoo that could be de-emphasized to nothing, over time. And presumably, if things work out just right, all the voodoo our great grandparents practiced will morph into festive picture books and wall decorations, but little more. Much of what we like about multiculturalism is the food and art, not the religion and duty that comes with it.

We forget that cultures evolved into being because they were isolated by oceans, rivers, mountains, deserts and great distances. Pockets of humanity, remote from one another, educed separately as individual monocultures that spawned unique customs and languages. Sometimes monocultures blended, either by the sword, or by necessity such as trade. But their disparateness is what made them unique, warts and all.

Political multiculturalism's cross-pollination will probably sand down the distinctions between disparate cultures so that they all 'get along' and 'accept each other' -- so that there is essentially one global uniculture. I'm not sure that creating a global uniculture is the intention of the multiculturalists, but culture flattening might be the ultimate outcome over time. It's already apparent.

The Layered Ghetto

The practical, on-the-ground realities of today's connected world are creating a phenomenon that is arguably the opposite of culture flattening. Cheap communication and increased borderlessness are allowing for new kinds of globalized ghettos to come into being.

In a way, all that the Tomenko's neighbors appear have in common are the same breed of neatly mowed turf and terra cotta roof tiles on their McMansions -- and stores like Costco and Target that keep them well supplied. Each house on their street is actually a node in a vast global ghetto, held together by contemporary networks. Mr. Tomenko manages to live in America as a citizen, while simultaneously staying in Ukraine -- employing his friends, and being part of the culture and economy there. The Internet allows this, along with affordable jet travel and cheap telecommunications.

I imagine that each of the monocultural McMansions on that street is wired to other nodes within their culture across the city, country and globe -- never mind those strange foreign kids next door. Giant TV screens keep things familiar and safe -- even angry Muslim-eating bears speak fluent Ukrainian. Immigrants are no longer isolated from their home country like they used to be. Soon enough the Tomenko's giant TV screen will have a live, continuous, high-definition video connection to the clan in Ukraine. I have an iSight camera, and already do this with someone I know in Australia -- telepresence is cheap, ubiquitous, and a very effective way to recreate the familiarity that comes with physical close proximity.

In so many ways, technology allows people to create custom windows that open up other worlds that are live and in living color. Typically, those places are where friends and family are -- where there is comfort and familiarity. The physical neighborhood around the Tomenko's house is irrelevant; what is relevant are the connections they have. Parochialism can flourish with the help of iSights and video walls.

The Tomenko's street is actually an overlay of several globalized ghettos, no longer needing physical proximity to feel safe, in touch, or a part of something whole. The windows might as well be painted over on their street. There's no need to look outside. Tomenkos are also wealthy, so perhaps part of what I saw was driven by wealth. But I also know that the technology and attitudes behind their trans-ghetto will proliferate far beyond the rich. Technology always cheapens.

It is a peculiar aspect of this era that cultures are being sanded down by multiculturalist fiat and policy, while technology allows them to be entrenched like never before. I can't tell if these two phenomena are competing or symbiotic. I do know that the Tomenko's kids sing multicultural anthems by day at school while eating dim-sum, salsa, kimchee and varenyky lunches. And at night they watch Ukrainian bears eat Muslims.

Me? I like the conversations. And the food.