Take the leap.

How are we connected, anyway? Community, modern culture and nomadism

Heads, talking

We’ve been in Gangtok now, for a full month.

A lot can happen in a month, and we’ve met, talked to and learned from so many people, young and old. Yesterday, a group of kids came running over to the three of us when we were hanging out on a bench on MG Marg. Just saying hi to Kush and us, they were, but it was somehow so rewarding to acknowledge the connections we’ve made here in that way.

One of the remarkable things about this place (aside from the amazing scenery and the sense of calm that comes from it) is the way people treat each other. They are respectful and kind. They stop, shake hands, look at each other and cock their heads, with broad, genuine smiles. They have time for each other. They give freely. They gather, and do things together. They have community.

Community is an important topic to me, and we’ve talked a lot about it over the years. We reminisce about the ones where we’ve felt welcomed into. We analyze and rationalize our building and failing to sustain numerous “communities” around us, wherever we’ve been. We talked about it with a group of people in one of our earlier dialogue event.

THE CRIME OF MODERNITY

The other day, during one of these conversations, Dipika said, “modernity is what ruined it. I feel like I should start going to church or something.”

I tend to agree. Modernity (and its cousin, urbanization)—with its ardent pursuit of efficiency, social and geographical mobility, and wealth and enlightenment for the “masses”—instead of bringing happiness and togetherness to our culture, isolated us from one another. All sorts of social and mental ills of today, I think, stem from the lack of feeling connected to one another at the core.

In the news, I hear about another shooting in America, and violent events in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and beyond. It’s really easy to blame all this to the “progress” made in terms of material wealth for some of us at other’s expense, and the rapid developments that routinely displace and disenfranchise the poor.

So, do we go back in time, renounce our iPhones and social media? Kill the TV and go listen to the pastors in the flesh? No more high-tech healthcare and exploration of the space? No news? How far should we go back?

Well, few of you would agree that’s a reasonable solution. The problem is that we live in a postmodern world.

By the 2010 Census data, more than 40% of Americans lived in states other than the ones they were born in. According to the United Nations, half of the world’s population lived in urban areas at the end of 2008.

In other words, people have uprooted. Modernity has happened. To these people who’s left their hometown, the upward mobility has turned into rootlessness, and we have nowhere to go home to. At least to them, going back to the way things were in their parents’ generation (or even before that) would be a tough sell, even if it was possible at all.

Next Saturday, we are hosting a conversation roundtable event called Modern Sikkim. Modernity is happening to Sikkim, which was a Kingdom until just 38 years ago. Infrastructure overhaul is still in progress. Air pollution is becoming a serious problem. But everyone has a cellphone. New buildings are going up everywhere. “Mod Cons” are becoming the norm, rather than luxury.

Do we, as a member of the “developed society” tell the people of Sikkim to revert to their old ways? “Go back! It’s not worth it. You have what we all want, and your iPhones are going to kill it.”

Hardly convincing.

So, what?

NOMADS AS AMBASSADORS

Here’s my personal take. As an immigrant, nomad, and a member of minority class (in more ways than one) everywhere, I feel my existence epitomizes the postmodern, mobile, rootless era that we live in. We are a family of immigrants/expats who have spent the majority of our lives in between (and in the margins of) cultures.

At the same time, that identity is also tied up with the modern, nuclear family cultures that we grew up in (and rebelling against). To embrace and reconcile these seemingly incompatible backgrounds means, at least in part, letting go of the search for “home.” And of belonging to a traditional—physical, geographically-defined—community as “ours.”

And, I don’t think this is a unique condition to us. And the concept of embracing this condition isn’t brand-new. More and more of us are finding ourselves in this new reality, and more of us are embracing it.

For what is happening today is that cross-cultural movement has become the norm rather than the exception, which in tern means that leaving one’s native country is simply not as dramatic or traumatic as it used to be. The ease of travel and communication, combined with the loosening of borders following the changes of 1989, give rise to endless crisscrossing streams of wanderers and guest workers, nomadic adventurers and international drifters.”

—Eva Hoffman, “The New Nomads” Letters of Transit, 1999

What does this mean? For me, it seems that we have a role to play, as a person with this relatively new, increasingly common human condition, in the bigger context: the time of rapid change, threats of environmental catastrophe and dwindling resources, and polemic conflicts between ideologies.

Sonam Gyaltsen Tashi, our partner in organizing the Modern Sikkim event, asked us at one point, “what relevance does our conversation hold to the wider world you are connected to?”

My answer would be: “Of course everyone’s voice is relevant. That’s the definition of dialogue!” Whatever comes out of our conversations here would be a fresh, different take on the similar questions we ask wherever we might be in the future and past, and therefore useful in opening our eyes to our own blind spots and hidden new ideas. This is why we are doing this, going-around-and-make-dialogues-happen project of ours.

But what can I, as a nomad, offer to Sonam that would be useful in thinking about the future of his home state?

Ours is a culture of the airports—ever arriving and departing, exchange of ideas, people and cultures, without a sense of belonging to a fixed space. We are travelers of those undetermined, uncertain inbetween spaces. At worst, we are rootless, lonely, and ever ambivalent. But at our best, we are ambassador of new ideas, carriers of fresh air, and practitioners of creation. Because to be creative is to continuously step into the unknown despite the fear of it, and us nomads know what it feels to embody this practice—it’s our very survival strategy.

And that—if I could be so bold to say this—makes us the ideal facilitators of these kinds of conversations, and connectors of the conversations and participants.

Whatever the outcome of our dialogue, and the on-going conversations around the topic of modernism, progress, sustainability and community, we hope to continue to bring out new voices and points of views in light, and share them with the world.

And maybe, that’s how we are building our own, new kind of community—the one that is not defined by location, race nor ideology, but united by the openness to the notion of uncertainty and its creative potential.