Is the world truly flat?

New York City scene

The world is shrinking; and with it, we are gaining and losing something every day. We are challenged to reinvent our own cultural identity almost on a daily basis, and with it, we are forced to redefine who we are, or the show can't go on.

We surely are living in the most dynamic period in human history. No brick is left unturned. The way we interact with one another, the way we do business, the way we travel, communicate with our peers, and even the way we do our groceries has changed so much that I guess that a person from only a century ago would have a really hard time to adapt to our living speed. On the other hand, any of us would probably die of boredom and lack of stimuli after only a few months of living in the 19th century. Our psychology is changing at a fast rate. We don't think the same way past generations did.

Aymara women, El Alto, Bolivia

We use the term “modern” in a variety of ways, often very loosely, with a lot of implied associations of new, contemporary, up-to-date, and technological. We know the difference between a modern country and a third-world country and it usually has less to do with art and more to do with technology and industrial development, amenities like indoor plumbing, simple access to consumer products, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to vote. Therefore we ignore a big part of what culture really means while perceiving the world in terms of comfort and civil rights.

We live in a world with huge differences between its people. Uncontacted tribes still exist in the Amazonian rainforest, while we've been paying taxes in the name of civilization for centuries. Neither has every third-world person access to basic education, clean water, and electricity as we do. And even if you think a flat world means having a McDonald's in almost every corner of the world, then remember that McDonald's and similar companies always take into consideration the local preferences and they adapt their menu accordingly.

When people are walking for miles in search of a well, stilt fish for the family dinner, and fight epic battles with dangerous sharks, for in the end their loved ones to die of the common cold, how on earth can we say that the world is flat? I, of course, asked myself why they still do it, what is actually worth facing all these life-threatening dangers? But no matter how much we would like to complicate things, the answer is simple - that's how it's been done for centuries & this is a lifestyle they inherited many generations ago. And then, ladies and gentlemen, we must take into consideration that holding on to one cultural identity might be a matter of life and death.

Mursi woman, Ethiopia

As English is spoken almost anywhere, the language barrier many times falls down. If you want to feel at home even halfway across the globe, when you do your next holiday booking you can choose a hotel chain you are familiar with and even eat at the same restaurants you would at home, or at least the same type of food, anyways. And then you will go back home at the end of a week or two and be under the impression that the world is leveling out. Why? Because it will all be a big bad world outside your comfort zone that you don't understand and therefore are afraid of; because you never took the chance and never risked anything to prove yourself wrong.

There might be minor differences between nations that might almost pass unnoticed. For example, punctuality does not have the same meaning in all cultures. While in the USA being right on time for a meeting is a positive trait, in Brazil, people who are late for the meeting are considered to be nicer, more attractive, happier, and more successful than the ones right on time. So think about it the next time you date a Brazilian!

The architecture might change to some extent, religions might come and go, and you might not be able to read the signs in some countries. You might argue that we all play, sing, laugh, love, hurt, and die. Kids will be kids and adults will be adults anywhere you go. Only that's not true. There's child labor, women's discrimination, poverty, and people being treated differently for holding different beliefs. And in the end, the world might seem flat to the traveler, but not in the aspects that really matter.

Lonely immigrant violinist in Granada, Spain

Economic and technological progress dictates that ethnic groups and tribes should disappear for the greater good. The powerful and the many always assimilated the weak and the few. The communists did their best to delete any ethnic, religious, gender, and any other imaginable differences between the people living under their surveillance. If given enough time, they might have even succeeded in their ambitious task.

Lolita, one of the major Japanese fashion movements

However, what amazes me most is that even in developing nations, the assimilationist ideal is regarded as a prerequisite for modernization. Granted, a flat world leads to greater cohesion, and fewer differences between the existing groups, and that might translate into peaceful living. But we are not there just yet!

I once had a hometown and a country. But my travels changed me so much that now Europe is my hometown. And I expect the moment I set foot outside the old continent my 'hometown' to grow even larger because all the many experiences I will have will eventually end up having something in common. And though I might try to simplify the world I'm living in by ignoring some details, the truth is, the world is not flat. It is me, the traveler, who gets flattened!

Photos via Flickr Creative Commons
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