During most of the last ten years, I’ve been living on the other side of the world, in countries like Siam, Java, and Bali. And while the Western world accepts the clash of ideologies between Russia and America as the greatest problem of our age, I have come to the conclusion that a lack of understanding between East and West could lead to a situation equally frightening.
Western ignorance of what is known as the “awakening of Asia” is complicated by a million hangovers from Colonial exploitation and racial insults, real and imagined, over the last 400 years. My awareness of this has influenced my entire thinking. To avoid catastrophe, I believe that the building of human bridges between East and West is of the utmost importance. This is a hard and thankless job, I have learned. I’ve suffered reversed racial prejudice, frustration, suspicion, snubs that almost breaks the heart. For at this period it must inevitably go against the Asian grain to trust anyone with a white skin.
From my experiences I’ve evolved two ideas: that the best builders of East/West bridges might be artists, for artists can enter into foreign hearts in ways that are barred politicians or ambassadors; artists speak directly to the feelings of those who see them. And personally I came to the simple and unoriginal conclusion that there is, indeed, no one way of doing anything single thing in this world that is absolutely right. Travel with an open and observant mind can be the key to understanding between all of us. If I judge other peoples by my private or national standards, I at once demonstrate my own narrowness and ignorance.
For individuals and nations, I believe that knowledge based on the widest experience, when combined with a tolerant strength, is far more mighty a weapon than insularity plus the Hydrogen Bomb. For every nation, every village, every individual throughout the world—all of the results of millions of years of infinitely diverse evolution; while, more nearly, each country or human being is a product of his history and environment of the last few hundreds of years. How ridiculous to imagine that the British way of life would suit the Indians, or the American way of life would suit the Saudi Arabians. What insufferable conceit on the part of the Russians to think their way of life offers a universal panacea?
Let me give you a very small example of what I mean. I have found that it is not superstition, but true, that Chinese food tastes better eaten with chopsticks, and Indonesian food tastes better eaten with the fingers. Not only a spoon and fork spells civilization, for in the words of an old Malay to Sir Hugh Clifford: “I’m quite sure my fingers haven’t been in anybody else’s mouth, but I’m not so sure about your spoons.”
I believe then that we should all, Occidentals and Orientals, try to tolerate each other’s ways of doing things. It’s not necessary to copy one another artificially; to understand is enough, and I would hate to see any universal pattern forced on the world. It is arrogance to think this desirable, and its effects would be so dull.
It was partly for reasons such as these that I struggled for several years against many obstacles to bring to the West the Dancers of Bali, who visited this country last fall. I then watched a little girl of 12, Ni Gusti Raka, whom I regarded almost as my own daughter, come straight from her grass thatched hut and its mud wall compound in Peliatan Village in Bali, and dance her way into the hearts and respect of the hundreds of thousands of Western people who saw her. Her bridge was made. She showed that not only Les Sylphides or Lilac Garden are great art, but that very different yet equally great is the Legong of Bali. This for me was a justification of my beliefs.
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