Making Sense of the East

How many circles of friends do you have? You surely have your best buddies from good old high school times, of course some college friends, and maybe also another group of friends for your favorite hobby? Think about how you’re interacting with each of those circles, you will discover that within each of those groups you show certain behaviors you would not show in the other circles. I call this culture.

Now if you have ever changed the school, you can definitely understand what I am talking about. I remember when I was 13,  a few days after changing school within Taipei, I made THE JOKE OF THE CENTURY, only to discover that no one was laughing, instead I was confronted with a century lasting awkward silence. This was when I learnt what insider jokes are.. and to think twice before speaking. For everyone who has ever moved to another city, you wont have any difficulty to come up with a similar example where culture within a group has shaped your thoughts and actions, and some of those did not match with the new environment.

But much more interesting than looking at how behavior has changed is looking at how the new environment was expected be. And this extends to much more than just circle of friends. Remember those two weeks before the big move? Latest after having all those goodbye parties and drinks, thoughts about the next destination come up: “Will I survive 40 degrees C?” “Is my flat too far from work?” “How will my boss be like?” “Will I cope with the new environment?”. Of course you will eventually.

Unsurprisingly, regardless of how much information about the new city or country has been collected, how many conversations with people from there or who have lived there have been held, how many times you have checked directions on google maps for your route to work… You will never know how it really is and how you cope with people and weather and roads and public transportation until you have been there. This is because you see things with your current set of values and understandings and have a natural lens through which you try to make sense of things you have heard about the new place. And this is exactly what is happening with people from the west trying to understand the east.

“The white men superiority complex”

I have recently read a few articles about how western societies are trying to understand China and Asia as a whole, and how so many predictions have been plain wrong. Take the communist party for example: After Tiananmen, people were so sure that they would lose credibility and crash. A lot of people also thought with the economic boom starting in the 1990s, China would be forced to become more democratic. Clearly no signs of democracy there though… Or take Japan for example: According to western economists, Japan should have collapsed decades ago. Investors have repeatedly shorted Japanese government bonds, and of course repeatedly lost outrageously. How can a country with over 200% debt rate and a stagnating economy survive and not collapse? What kind of sorcery is this??

Martin Jacques has explained it quite well in this article“Why have we managed to get China so wrong? The reason is hardly rocket science. We insist on viewing it through a western prism. For the best part of two centuries, Western societies have seen themselves as the model for all others. But China isn’t like us. It never has been and never will be. The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China – not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.”

I mean how can your perfect economic model work if Japanese banks go as far as seeing supporting Japan and buying Japanese government bonds as a “public mission”?

The growing interest in China these years goes hand in hand with its rise, and has certainly come to a point where the interest is not only justifiable, but necessary. I am not going as far as Martin Jacques yet, he is more or less suggesting that there will be a Chinese paradigm dominating the world. But China will certainly become one of the stronger forces shaping the world.

Truth is, most of the people are just trying to answer the following question: “What is this monstrous, ever-growing beast taking over the world over there??” I personally think that China is probably just as scared as you are. If this should calm you down or worry you is up to you 😉

Endless skycrapers in Shanghai

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