It's what we say so often, taking a wrong turn off the 405 in Los Angeles, suddenly landing up, on business trip or holiday, in China. It's what we think, in almost any country -- India, Mexico, the U.S.--when we drive out of the city and find ourselves in a countryside that seems to belong to a different century. It's what we experience when we're suddenly brought up against someone from a traditional culture, and find we're talking about oranges and kumquats.
We don't know who's in the right or whether the right even exists any more. Are these global neighbors our hallucinations or are we theirs? The only thing we do know is that, as Anne Fadiman writes in her cross-cultural classic about a medical drama among the Hmong community in Central California, "When The Spirit Catches You, You Fall Down," to one person it's a clear case of epilepsy, to another a matter of spirit possession.
"They're as different as night and day," we say, as far apart as clear reason and shadowy superstition. They're as different as one level of our conscious mind, the calculating part, and the other, all that lies beneath.
But the central truth is this: beneath all the categories we use in talking of our global order --North and South, rich and poor, developed and developing -- the simple fact is that these separate cultures, in our hometown as well as across the globe, are as different as the sleeping, imaginative world and the waking one. If all the world's a single body, as more and more economists and scientists (and even Tibetan lamas) are telling us nowadays, then one part corresponds to the head, perhaps, with all its erratic ideas, and one to the soul, with its devils and angels. One part is the legs that carry us, and the other is the heart, which tells us what else to carry, less visibly.
In India, for all its modern developments, it can take hours, it seems, to get online. The home of many of the world's great software engineers feels as if it's hard-wired for the 11th century (before Christ). When at last your Internet connection does sputter on, you start transmitting your essay on "Night and Day" and the electricity goes off, across the state.
The ever-resourceful cyber-managers scramble outside to start up their own private generator and, miraculously, the screens all come back on again, just as they were before. But then you hear that phone connections are going down across the town (for a month, because they're building new phone lines). Then you hear that every shop in the entire country has to close down for three days "for tax reasons. Opening is illegal."
In the nighttime places, which are generally old places, it can be hard just to get a light. The simplest things -- a room to sleep in, medical care, civil peace -- are often hard to come by. The difficult things (faith, community, tradition) are often quite easy to come by, which is why the old places, from Peru to Tibet, are filled with refugees from the materially privileged countries, looking for what they can't get in Bel-Air.
"The simplest things -- a room to sleep in, medical care, civil peace -- are often hard to come by in old places like Peru or Tibet. The difficult things (faith, community, tradition) are often quite easy to come by."
The commonplace truth of all these places is also that the countryside is moving to the city, so that Mumbai, Mexico City, Bangkok look like great modern agglomerations of village life; the slums around the Bolivian capital of La Paz, El Alto, made up the fastest-growing city in Latin America not long ago. On a global level, this means that people from the relative countryside of poorer nations -- Vietnam, Somalia, Guatemala -- stream towards the great capitals of London, Toronto, L.A. But what it also means is that daytime and nighttime are all mixed together and sometimes we lose a sense of here and there.
In Vancouver, in Sydney and in Orange County, we live among fluorescent stores and streets so brightly lit that you can read a book after dark; in other places across our global body there are blackouts and curfews every night. A single Dallas Cowboys football game uses up as much electricity as the entire nation of Liberia in those same three hours -- one reason the globe, if looked at from a certain height, is a cluster of lights surrounded by enormous patches of dark.
We talk, so often, of how we can make a peace between formerly colonizing countries and their subjects, between Islam and the West, between rich and poor -- who now, in our global cities, themselves share the same space but not the same century. But what we're really asking is how we can live at noon and midnight at the same time. In Los Angeles itself and across the globe, we're trying to straddle two tenses that never meet. Are the lights on or are we in the dark? It really depends on where you stand.