“Globalization”—beginning in the 1970s—has opened national markets, stimulated growth and lifted millions out of poverty. But the worldwide spread of jobs, goods and people has also had unintended—and unwelcome—consequences. The most poignant among these is the way globalization has made loneliness—that most intimate of heartaches—a public health concern.
In the West, loneliness has become a social problem, recognized as such by national health services. In Britain and the United States, roughly one in three persons older than 65 lives alone; and in the US, half of those older than 85 live alone.
Suicides in America are at a 30-year statistical high, particularly for women and for middle-aged persons distressed about jobs and personal finances.
Through the generations, “rootedness” in a specific place— and long-term commitment to it—have been the foundations of community. Not material wealth but extended family and membership in a social whole have been the primary sources of physical security and psychic comfort.
This face-to-face community itself is changing in its composition and its scale. Increasingly, the individual—and no longer the nuclear family of husband, wife and children—is most everywhere becoming the social unit.
The two-parent household of convention is declining—from divorce, remarriage and cohabitation. In the West, the feminist movement has given rise to alternative family forms—the most recent being same-sex marriages. The practice is already legal in 16 states, and the New York Times reports well over 100,000 same-sex couples raising children.
Single women head households and work as primary breadwinners. House-husbands tend children, though the socialization of the young is still most often devolved to ayahs, nursery schools and daytime TV. Families flit like migratory birds to where the jobs are. The average American moves location roughly every four years.
Where Americans emphasize their individuality and autonomy, Asian families thrive in their interdependence. It is well known that the Japanese prize group harmony even over economic efficiency; and in the US, Korean immigrants are models of cohesion and competitiveness. That the suicide rate among Asian-Americans is only about half the national rate suggests their cultural stability.
I grew up in the Sampaloc district of Manila in the 1930s; and you could live there all your life without having to move away.
Our Legarda-Street community had two churches, one of Manila’s four high schools, two movie-houses and several more in walking distance. Streetcars and horse-drawn buses trundled us to other districts.
Most every corner was a Chinese storefront. We had pawnshops, pharmacists, tailors, dressmakers; even public toilets and municipal faucets where the local folk could do their laundry.
By then, a neighborhood opium den was memorialized only as a street name. But we still had brothels, and a beer bar with sawdust floor. A balut vendor squat by its swinging doors, his basket of un-hatched duck eggs nestled in a coil of coarse cloth to keep them warm.
My Sampaloc landmarks are all gone. For my children, Legarda Street is just another traffic chokepoint, on the occasions they drive that way. “Downtown” for them is at least one hour away from where we are.
Community in America
As early as the 1830s, the French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, had thought America to be the vanguard of man’s future.
In our time, its people seem to be trying out experimental forms of the family—and, until now, not finding something that suits them. Meanwhile, the extreme secularization of American society has drained organized religion of much of its cultural authority.
Today’s America is a “fissured nation,” according to the New York Times writer Roger Cohen, “and traveling inner America is traveling through a foreign country for the cosmopolitan, coastal American.”
Americans are dividing by class, education and culture. And nowhere is the fissure more dramatic than in the election to the presidency of the populist folk-hero, Donald J. Trump. Meanwhile more and more young Americans strain at the laws that bind them to their parents’ care until they’re 18.
New virtues for old
For children to feel no debt of gratitude to their parents may seem callous to us Asians. But perhaps today’s Americans are merely replacing the old virtues with new ones.
Certainly, systemic self-centeredness is responsible for the vigor and variety of American art; and the cultural vitality that so attracts the most talented migrants to New York City.
And certainly the awareness that you depend on no one but yourself must also call forth, in the individual, reserves of moral strength and even religiosity that we Asians do not know of, having so little experience of being alone.