ON several evenings recently I counted the languages spoken at the playground where I take my daughter. English and Spanish were constants, French and Chinese were frequent, and on various nights I could hear Dutch, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and Russian -- just what one would expect in Silicon Valley, which is a magnet for engineers, designers, managers, and other professionals from all over the world. Many of the families here maintain traditional customs and active ties to the countries where they (or their parents or grandparents) were born, but also deal easily with American institutions and culture. Several children at the playground were of mixed ancestry, like my daughter (and me). There's no commonly accepted term for people like us: our lives cross too many boundaries -- racial, ethnic, national -- that are usually (and erroneously) regarded as fixed and all-important. Call us hybrids -- or, a cruder term, mongrels. Hybrids today are growing in numbers, public prominence, and economic importance: they jump-start regional and national economies, give industries a critical edge, strengthen states, and diversify the intellectual capital of corporations. Indeed, according to G. Pascal Zachary's new book, The Global Me, hybridity is the modern philosopher's stone, the key to economic vitality among global corporations and advanced nations.
Institutions and nations that know how to intermingle traditions have been around for a good while. Cross-cultural trade has long been a part of world history, and the leaders of the early and medieval Christian Church came from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. In the modern era skilled migrants have energized European cities -- such as seventeenth-century Amsterdam and nineteenth-century London -- that needed outsiders to develop local industries and global connections. What's different today is the degree to which such mixing produces a new kind of people, and to which hybridity's benefits translate into significant economic advantages. Many factors now favor hybrids, who are more numerous and visible than ever: transnational, interracial, and multi-ethnic marriages are at an all-time high. Civil-rights activism over decades has created an atmosphere in many advanced nations in which discrimination is discouraged (if it hasn't been eliminated) and mixed social identities are possible. Transoceanic telephone service, e-mail, and international flights have made it easier to maintain strong, real-time ties around the world. Disney and Nike are global commodities, but so are Hong Kong action films, African music, and Brazilian soap operas (this kind of globalization has been accelerated by the Web). Transnational careers and reverse migration are more common. Finally, a greater consciousness of the "invention of tradition" has made it easier for people to see conventional ethnic and racial categories as resources, not restrictions, and to define themselves not just by what they "are," or what others say they are, but by work, passionate interests, and experiences. Such people aren't rootless cosmopolitans or eternal outsiders, Zachary argues; it's now possible to have both "roots" and "wings" -- to develop meaningful affiliations without renouncing one's origins.
ADVANCED nations welcome such people in part because their information-intensive economies need them. Hybridity -- whether in the boardroom, on the project team, or in the regional office -- hardwires creativity into an enterprise. It provides access to a distinctive expertise that can help to serve local markets without resorting to the insulting tactic of race-based marketing. "Rather than try to pigeonhole its customers," The Global Me argues, "the hybrid enterprise acts as if they are all mongrels." In other contexts hybridity permits a measure of ethnographic distance that is valuable in asking basic questions and challenging convention. Multinational corporations use people with mixed backgrounds to find their way in local markets, customize standard products for new circumstances, and finesse international tensions while maintaining their own technical standards and practices. Indeed, work emerges as one of the new critical sources of identity: in many of the case studies of individuals that are scattered throughout The Global Me (some first written about by Zachary in his capacity as a Wall Street Journal reporter), professional ability or devotion to work is as defining as nationality. Even sports teams benefit from mixing it up. European soccer teams now combine German offensive strength, Brazilian flamboyance, and English long-ball handling. The 2000 U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team includes racers from Belgium, Britain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, and South Africa, as well as the United States.