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Crossing boundaries
Globalization of American culture does not necessarily mean control

By Hamid Naficy
October 28, 1999
The Iranian

From Hamid Naficy's The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angles (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 1-2.

A couple of year ago, my brother and his wife and their daughter who live in Germany came to visit us in Los Angeles. Their daughter Setareh and ours, Shayda, are almost the same age (then eight years old). They did not share a common language -- Setareh spoke German and Persian and Shayda English -- yet they communicated beautifully through the songs of Disney's then-current hit film The Little Mermaid.

That such crosscultural communication by means of movies should occur was, of course, nothing new. What made it unusual was that the version Setareh had seen was entirely in German (including the songs) while the one Shayda had seen was in English. They took turns singing the songs in German and English, but at times they sang in two languages simultaneously; their joint performance resonated with the film's story: a young mermaid longing to cross the boundary of species and become her other, a human.

Setareh and Shayda, seemed to use this story to cross the boundaries of their own specific cultures. Perhaps such differences made each alluring to the other and the family environment permitted safe transgressions of boundaries of culture and selfhood.

Four days later our guests left. On the way to the airport, Shayda decided to learn one of the songs in German and Setareh set out to teach her. In an amazing feat of mutual instruction, within the span of some 45 minutes the mission had been largely accomplished--they sang the German song in unison.

At the departure lounge, the two girls hugged each other hard and long. Shayda was very sad, and she wanted to go with with Setareh. That night Setareh's mother called to say that Setareh had cried when she left Los Angeles, the first time she had done so upon leaving someone. She then put her on the line to speak with Shayda and I stayed on to translate what at first appeared to be a very mundane conversation.

But something remarkable happened: Setareh began singing to Shayda -- like a lover serenading -- the German song she had taught her earlier that morning. Shayda did not miss a beat: she followed her in halting German, missing a few words here and there and having to stop and start a few times.

The globalization of American pop culture does not automatically translate into globalization of American control. This globalized culture provides a shared discursive space where transnationals such as Setareh and Shayda can localize it, make their own use of it, domesticate and indigenize it. They may think with American cultural products but they do not think American. As a result, the contents of the culture of transnationals is not only transnational but also personal. The personal may become global.

The exile television that Iranians in Los Angeles produce and consume is an instance of creating such personal and local voices amidst the cacophony of transnational media in this capital of postindustrial era, Los Angeles!

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