Culture Slide

I decided to make use of slow bus rides to learn American history.

It’s embarrassing that my Chinese friends know more about American  history than I do, and to make it worse, that I also know almost   nothing about Chinese history.  Indeed, I didn’t know who Mao was  until I was well into college, and just learned since being here that   Japan actually occupied China substantially last century.  I really  don’t know how I missed that, but geez there’s a lot of history that’s   pretty darn relevant for what’s going on nowadays that I still don’t  know.    

But I’m not alone:  Americans tend to have a really short attention   span and a crappy sense of history. (Read Neil Postman’s Amusing  Ourselves to Death, seriously good book. And it’s short, in case your   attention span is also short.)  China seems to have a really long  attention span and they care a lot about their history.  But now the paradigm is changing, it seems.  Where stability and   continuity mattered before, progress and evolution seems to be  mattering now.  


An American friend who is a lot more insightful than I   am believes that China is undergoing a fundamental shift in its value  system, right now.  They are aligning with the goals and means of the   developed world, which is roughly materialism:  you are worth what you  own or can control. At least among the folks I talk to, nationalism   seems dead;  people care about their families for sure, but their  villages or communities or country?  Not really.  Not like before   anyway.  (Whether that’s true for most people here (not just the folks  who speak English) is one thing I hope to find out and one of the   reasons I’m learning this wickedly different language.)   

But if China’s culture is really changing, from community-oriented  stability to individual-oriented progress, then why?  Why is China   trying to “be like Mike”?  Is there something inherently good about  the Western system, about our values and our ways of life?    

So I have two theories on this.  One is that they want to be like us   because we have darn good marketing, and so can convince them to want  to be like us.  And the other is that they are afraid that if they   don’t join us, they won’t be able to beat us.  Back in little people school I learned that humans moved from nomadic  communities to agrarian ones in order to specialize, so they could   paint caves and carve arrow heads out of jade or what not.  But Jared  Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs and Steel (and here I’m badly   paraphrasing) refuted this idea.  He thinks that human society evolved  from nomads to cities because agriculture allows more people to live   together in larger cities, and larger numbers and better weapons (and  germs and horses) win wars.  Follow this farther, and it seems that   Britain was able to conquer the world not because wearing a big hat  drinking tea with scones while watching cricket is a nice pastime, but   because they had smanshy ships.  (Or maybe they were really good  scones.)    

So one answer to the “why is China trying to be like Mike” question is   that Mike is pounding on China’s door and wants to play ball, and  China realizes that it better darn well learn how to play with Mike.   It’s pretty embarrassing that they don’t have a football/soccer team  that could make it to the World Cup, while England (a small country   made even smaller by entering separately from the rest of the United  Kingdom) is so highly ranked.  I know football is important, but I   think it would be even more embarrassing if China were too weak to  ward off aggressive trade terms from occupying foreign powers.  Again.    

So how does China play ball?  Some have argued that China’s economy   has been enjoying “catch up” growth;  this country was in really bad  shape during the 60s, 70s and 80s, and has been growing quickly just   to get back to the level it was at before.  But that the “catch up”  period is coming to an end.  If labor prices rise much more, then   manufacturing will shift to even lower cost countries, like South East  Asia.  So China needs to figure out what to do next.      

The buzzword:  Innovation.  (Does anyone else find it ironic that one   reason to pursue innovation is that the US did it — that they want to  copy our culture of innovation?)     But if you speak to anyone, and as I’ve mentioned before, Chinese   students aren’t taught innovation, challenging authority, evolution of  ideas, progress, change.  

It’s still not part of their curriculum, not   part of their culture. And its not just education.  For instance, I  learned from the aforementioned insightful American that China’s legal   system is NOT based on case law and precedent;  rather it’s dictated  from above, which means that it can’t naturally evolve the way our   legal system can — it has to legislated to change.  Or look at  attitudes towards intellectual property (not valuing innovation and   individual contribution), the control that parents have over their  kids (or I should say, kid), deng deng …
Innovation just isn’t part   of their culture, yet.  And yet it’s going to have to be if they  really want to embrace the concept of “development” which is a subset   of “change.”   
But what happens to stability when the culture starts to embrace  change as a fundamental tenet?  What happens to a centrally-controlled   state when its citizens adopt a culture of questioning, rather than  obedience?  Can China win the World Cup one day?    

I think this is a question that will be answered over the next two   decades, but would love to hear your thoughts right now as well!   

* * * 

Another interesting thing to watch is US/China relations.  This  Berkeley American history professor describes American foreign policy   since the Spanish-American War as one of back door diplomacy, in a  way.  We don’t really like going to war and conquering countries.   We’d rather just nudge foreign countries toward a direction that’s  more favorable to us, for instance by internally supporting   US-friendly political groups.  I’ve heard a number of people suggest China has the same idea.  They  don’t like direct confrontation.  So they won’t talk about possibly   using force, but they will express their preference on things.  Use  the back door.     So I think it’s a pretty cool time to creep around to the backyard and   watch China-US doors open and shut.   Or put another way, it’s turning  into a Jane Austen novel:  everyone’s really polite and doesn’t use a   lot of words, but if you pay close attention to the nuances, there’s a  lot going on.    

* * *      

So as you can see, this Aabservation isn’t the typical “what a weird   thing about China” email.  My Aabservations have lost their freshness.   My eyes have adjusted to the lighting here, and it doesn’t look   strange anymore.  I no longer see carrying parasols as weird;  on hot  days, I can’t imagine walking outside without one.  Bikes seem like   the most natural way to transport small amounts of coal, and rules of  the road seem way too limiting.  My English sentences are starting to   sound like Chinese (“is this food good or not good?”).  Meals should  cost a dollar at most, all milk should be served warm, tap water has   always been non-potable, and putting sugar and milk in tea seems  bizarre.  I plan to buy a bamboo mat to sleep on instead of sheets —   it looks much cooler.   


Maybe one thing I noticed recently is that dogs often walk around without leashes.  I know — it’s profound. 
But I have to say, I really have to yet to have culture shock, which is a little disappointing I think.  I had more culture shock when I moved to California.  (True story:  I boarded a plane in California,
and people were helping each other put bags on the racks etc.  Five hours later, the same plane, I assume the same people, land in New York.  And it’s every-man-for-himself, elbows flying, shoving a pushing.  Awesome.) 

So if you want to come visit me with your fresh eyes, happy to host!  I’m here all year (except when I’m in Australia and Yunnan and Tibet). 

This is probably my last Aabservation until September.  Have a great summer! 

An Ke Xin

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