Jan Nederveen Pieterse is a scholar of globalization, development, and cultural anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Before joining a panel discussion for a Zócalo/Getty Villa “Open Art” event titled “What Can the Ancient World Teach Us About Globalization?” he chatted in the green room about vipassana meditation, Jack Kerouac, and cracked Coca-Cola bottles.
You’re from the Netherlands but you’ve taught in many countries.
Japan, Thailand, Sweden, Italy, France, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia. The list is very long, my dear.
Where and when did you learn to swim?
In a pool at school, in Amsterdam. Everybody learns to swim—there’s a lot of water.
What are you reading for pleasure?
How to Relax, by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
How’s it going—are you relaxed?
[Begins to deep-breathe] Breathe in … and know you are breathing. Long, short, etc.
How long have you been meditating?
For decades. But I started doing it again last week. It’s off and on.
Who was your first teacher?
In Thailand I studied with a monk who did vipassana meditation. Mindfulness.
Do you play a musical instrument?
I did, but didn’t finish. I wanted to play alto saxophone, tenor saxophone. But they gave me a clarinet because that’s what they had available when I was a teenager. I would like to take it up again. I was an early collector of Sonny Rollins, since I was 14 years old.
Do you have a favorite 20th-century American author?
Jack Kerouac. The Dutch were big with the Beats.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I worked in a Coca-Cola bottling plant. We had to check to see if there were cracks in the bottles. That was odd.
Was there a teacher or professor who really shaped the course of your life?
Wim Werteheim, who lived in the East Indies, Indonesia, was my dear friend and teacher at the University of Amsterdam. He was alive, engaged, mischievous, unconventional. He said one of the important things to keep in mind is, “Do not be conventional.”
How do you stay unconventional in your own teaching?
Oh, it goes by itself! I don’t have to think about it.