Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East

Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East - Pico Iyer, Robin Desser Iyer in his introduction tells us this is “less like a conventional travel diary than a series of essays” of a “casual traveler’s casual observations” of the Asia he saw “over the course of two years... [spending] a total of seven months crisscrossing the continent.” Each chapter covers his thoughts about one country: Bail (Indonesia), Tibet, Nepal, China, Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, Japan. Most of the essays have an overarching theme through which he looked at the country. Bali as paradise lost, Nepal as Hippie Magic Bus Tour, India’s Bollywood, Thailand its skin trade, Japan and its passion for baseball. He admitted he had never formally studied Asian affairs and didn't know any of the languages of the countries he visited, but he is well-traveled and well-informed. At the time of his travels he was a writer on world affairs for Time magazine and had written for the Times Literary Supplement, Partisan Review and the Village Voice. The book struck me as rather dated at times, or at least amusingly of its time, the essays mostly being about travels around 1985. A generation has passed since Iyer traveled through these countries. Iyer at first seemed obsessed with this idea of cultural imperialism, hitting that theme continually and calling tourists “lay colonialists” despite showing that those aspects of Western pop culture and ideas are things that Asians adopt--and adapt--for themselves. Just as Westerners often do the same (only to be labeled “cultural vultures” by Iyer.) He seemed oblivious to the ironies of a British-born man of Indian extraction, Oxford and Harvard educated, who called America home ranting about how cultural exchange “corrupts” the “purity” of Asian cultures--while himself as a visitor doing his part to carry the contagion. His very name is a combination of the Buddha’s name and that of an Italian philosopher. He called Japan his “ideal” and he currently lives there with his Japanese wife. So he’s a man who himself mixes cultures, yet seemed often to decry that, or at least be deeply ambivalent. He also sometimes struck me as naive and condescending. I recently read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and though I had my issues and poked some fun at it in my review, I thought Gilbert had a more balanced view of Bali, which Iyer presented as this paradise without crime and a culture of harmony. Gilbert rather than a few weeks spent months there, and she didn’t spend time as a tourist in the usual expat haunts, but actually interacted with ordinary Balinese. The people weren’t museum artifacts to her that need to be preserved under glass. Yet despite my criticism I don’t regret my time spent reading Iyer. He caught Asia at an interesting time. For instance traveling through China right post-Mao, experiencing the maddening house-of-mirrors communist bureaucracy and the vibrancy of the emerging market economy, Hong Kong while still a Crown colony and the Philippines as “People Power” was ushering the Marcos regime out. He’s erudite, often lyrical, witty and at times funny, and, on occasion heart-breaking. His essay on the Philippines and its crushing poverty comes to mind: sad and surreal. His multinational perspective does make him often insightful about the cross-cultural currents he witnessed. And over the course of his book, and in his epilogue and 2000 afterword, he did seem more nuanced and less judgmental about the exchanges between East and West.