Like many other things you will touch or use today, this letter to my kids bears the ubiquitous “Made in China” stamp, as it’s being written from the other side of the earth while I’m working in Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen, China.
Dear Cammy & Zack,
While I’ll be home later this week, I have an important message for you that can’t wait: You need to study everything you can about China, learn Mandarin and/or Cantonese, strive to understand Asia, and you should visit the entire Pacific Rim region for an immersive experience as soon as possible.
Trust me, save this letter and then read it 30 years from now and you’ll thank me.
Yes, Cammy, I know that you’re enjoying studying French this year, and for you Zack, Latin is the liveliest dead language you’ve ever encountered. But while both those languages well represent the past, China is the future.
From 10,000 miles away I can clearly visualize you both rolling your eyes, followed by a loud, synchronized “why?”
Well, the answer is long and winding like a noodle in an endless bowl, the wisdom is strong like an army of bamboo soldiers, and the truth but a whisper too soft to touch even the most fragile flower.
You see, I grew up (and you’re in the midst of growing up) in the greatest country in the world. No doubt about it, the best country in the world chant is ours, and ours alone: “We’re No.1, we’re No. 1!”
But, embedded in that well-promoted exceptionalism are elements of arrogance and patriotic narcissism fueled by the misguided and myopic belief that we’re always the best at everything, that we’re always right in our unwavering righteousness, and that in general, the rest of the world is inferior to us.
Not only are those views objectively incorrect and unhealthy, they also limit our own growth and evolution by limiting our world view to a self-satisfying mirror, when what we need now are more windows into the world.
China sits just outside one of those large windows.
In the early part of the 20th century, mother England was a dominant super power. Russia joined the United States as a world super power in the 1960s and ’70s, followed by Japan’s meteoric growth into the ’80s (before entering their dark, Lost Decade).
But, the current explosive growth in China, and this region of the world, represents something different. With thousands of years of history and culture, a population that exceeds a billion, and an organized tenacity of spirit, China is on the path to becoming a world power, equal to us, over the next decade.
Some things to consider:
• It’s a bit of a thing to get here. My journey started with a 17-hour direct flight from Boston to Hong Kong. With the 12-hour time difference, I completely lost Monday – which was fine, because who likes Mondays anyway?
• China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt: about $1.2 trillion in bills, notes and bonds.
• Approximately 266,000 students from China attended American universities last year, representing the largest international block.
• The simple act of giving someone your business card in China requires ceremony: two hands holding the card, the card facing the recipient, eyes locked. And when you receive someone else’s card, it’s an insult to do anything other than scrutinize every word and number on the card with great focus and attention before expressing your sincere gratitude for what should be considered a valued gift.
• Yes, they’ve seen the fork, but after thousands of years, the Chinese are not letting go of their chopsticks. Respect.
• If you’re reading this on your iPhone, turn it over and read the words engraved on that device: “Designed by Apple in California – Assembled in China.” Even that product declaration is subtle and a bit dismissive in its wording. It might as well read, “The real sophistication and genius contained in this device was born in California – and we hired some folks in China to slap it together for us.”
But, can you imagine the incredible production expertise and tremendous skills needed on an industrial level, and on an individual worker level, to produce hundreds of millions of these complex and precision machines every year? A feat that when analyzed, goes far beyond the perceptional definition of the word “assembled.” More respect.
To be clear, China is not a Utopia. In many important and heartbreaking areas, its approach to human rights, child labor, and a deep-rooted misogynistic treatment of women is indefensible. We can only hope that as markets open, communication deepens, and freedoms expand in China, meaningful reforms will follow.
For now, it’s too easy for many Americans to dismiss China and the entire region. There is such a wide physical distance, cultural gap, and language barrier between us, so few Americans invest the time and effort to learn and understand this important global neighbor.
In America, very few people follow even the most basic news from China, whereas virtually every single person I engaged with here had a surprising depth of knowledge about our country. Why?
I hope you and others don’t wait 30 years to answer that question, because the truth and opportunity are available now, in a way that changed me and my world view forever – a view from Maine that I’m looking forward to seeing later this week.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.