What Is Southeast Asia? Rose, Unicorn, Sponge, Jigsaw Puzzle, or Collage?
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Southeast Asia is generally held to be composed of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, East Timor, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei. This is a region of considerable geographic, social, linguistic, and cultural diversity, so much so that an earlier generation of Southeast Asia scholars wondered whether the region could be considered a natural “unit” akin to a rose (re: Shakespeare’s famous line in Romeo and Juliet, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), or if the region was not an invented fiction without any intrinsic unifying cultural characteristics—a kind of geographical unicorn (Emmerson 1984, Waddell 1972). Still others depicted Southeast Asia as a border zone: a spongelike region that absorbed the cultural and religious influences of more powerful neighboring areas (i.e., China, India). An example of this sort of analysis is Coedes’s The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (1968), which traces the influence of Hinduism and later Buddhism in the rise of early states such as Angkor (Cambodia) and Srivijaya (Sumatra). More recently, the Filipino scholar Fernando Zialcita underscored that the concept “Southeast Asia” has been continuously evolving and is gradually cohering (albeit in different sorts of ways) in the minds of Southeast Asians. He points out that although Southeast Asians themselves did not have a common term for their realm until Western names for the region began circulating in the twenty Southeast Asiaand Everyday Life. Southeast Asian political and cultural organizations enabled a contemporary search for symbols that Southeast Asians feel differentiate them from the rest of the world (Zialcita 2003: 36). Zialcita argues that although we tend to conceive of the world as an enormous jigsaw puzzle wherein each region has its unique defining essence, in fact it is more realistic to conceive of Southeast Asia as a collage. By this metaphor, he means that Southeast Asia is best thought of as a “configuration of cultural traditions of different shapes and textures overlapping with and interconnected with each other”. We find Zialcita’s approach to Southeast Asia, as a realm of intersecting continuities and discontinuities, particularly useful.




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