Monday, February 07, 2011

Understanding the Rise of Asia

BigWOWO recently put up this excellent TED lecture from Martin Jacques about understanding the rise of China. The lecture is very valuable, albeit a little bit too broad-brush given the limited amount of time Jacques must have had. And in the process, he also makes a couple of very important points that are applicable to understanding Korea as well. Jacques said:
I think attitude toward China, that of us is one of "little Westerner" kind of mentality. It's kind of arrogant, arrogant in a sense that we are the best and therefore we have the universal measure.
This is a very important point. Koreans talk about "the way Koreans do things." But Americans talk about "the way things are," and never "the way Americans do things." Often, it does not even occur to Americans that our way is not the only way, but in fact a chance result of our particular historical circumstances. Put differently, Americans universalize their own values, although America is certainly not the universe.

To be sure, Americans (and really, all Westerners) try to make allowances around the margins. Multiculturalism and promotion of tolerance prevalent in America are positive efforts. But when it comes to the most important questions like "How significant is an individual relative to a community?", "What does a modern democracy look like?", "What is the source of ultimate happiness?", Americans are utterly, totally blind to the possibility that there can be an answer other than their own. Truly, this is the point at which Americans earn the reputation that they are arrogant. The Korean does not think Americans are arrogant; but we are very self-unaware.

Often, this is the point with which Americans visiting/living in Korea struggle the most. Korea seems like a modern democracy. But the way Koreans approach modernity and democracy is not the same as Americans approach modernity and democracy. Koreans have their own historical experience. That experience sometimes overlaps with America's, and sometimes it does not. And too many expats get exasperated in Korea because Korea, apparently, is "doing things wrong." They make ajeossi and ajumma the symbols of everything "wrong" with Korea, while pinning their hopes on younger Koreans who are more sympathetic to the Western worldview.

Understanding a different culture is more than eating at a different ethnic restaurant once in a while, or even more than speaking a different language fluently. If you want to really, genuinely understand a different culture, abandoning your own perspective and seeing the other culture from an internal, inside-out perspective is the most critical step. And often, the best way to acquire that perspective is to carefully assess where your own knowledge of the world came from, and recognize there may be a different way of doing things, no matter how jarring that difference is.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Eh. I think those attitudes also exist pretty prominently in Korea. The tendency to use 틀리다 instead of 다르다 is normally a bit of a give-away.

  2. @Torm it irritates me when people use the wrong word too. They complain about people confusing 가르치다 and 가리키다.

    On topic, it doesn't seem like Americans will be 'humbled' until they somehow lose their number one status. Perhaps if China became number one they might also become as complacent as us.

  3. One of America's biggest problems, in my view, is the fact that they can't fathom the idea that there might be another country equal to or better than America out there in the world. We're all raised under the impression that we're living in the greatest country in the world and we're so lucky that we were born in the US vs. any other country. And, granted, that is true for many reasons... like the fact that if I weren't a native English speaker I wouldn't have the job that I do or the advantages in the world that I do, but it's not true in the respect that other countries have poorer standards of living than Americans do.

    Personally, after living in Korea for 2.5 years, the fact that in America any mentally ill person can buy guns and walk up to congresswomen and shoot them in the head, or the fact that such a huge portion of our country has no health insurance (and people are fighting to keep it that way), and the fact that that such large percentages of people in America have used or do use drugs, scare me. They scare me and worry me a lot about the future of America and outsider's view of America.

  4. I have a great book recommendation that relates to this post - "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently...and why" by Nisbett.

    Also, parts of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" describe how some cultural patterns/thoughts are so embedded in oneself, even hundreds of years later when a person is taken out of the context of that culture, it affects how one thinks and reacts to situations.
    In some ways, I believe Americans almost physiologically cannot "see" things differently. You can almost say it's against their nature.

  5. What do call people who speak three languages? Answer: trilingual. What do call people who speak two languages? Answer: bilingual. What do call people who speak one language? Answer: americans. I know this not true of all americans but vast number of american speak only one. This arrogance has to chance or we will be left behind.

  6. Good post, thanks for sharing. I agree with what you and Joanna have written, and the depressing, suicidal complacency should be apparent to people living in the US now.

    David, while I agree there needs to be a greater priority on foreign language proficiency among the average American, you could make the same joke about Koreans, in spite of all the money they spend on "studying" "English".

  7. Well you can say that with China then! For thousands of years, China always though that they were the "one!" So many Chinese just think its their rightful place in history to reclaim the top spot in the world! Why do you think ROK is so afraid of reunification with N. Korea because China WILL claim N. Korea as their own?

    Anyone bother to think that the Rise of Asia (China and Korea especially) was made possible by the WEST (USA especially)! So USA should be PROUD not afraid because they have adopted USA model of consumerism and capitalism for growth! Asia is NOT Soviet Union!

    Sure, people like Jacques would love to see the demise of the west since he's noted communist!

  8. Brian, there is a fundamental difference between koreans and americans on language is that they are trying to learn where as we are not.

  9. Thanks for the book suggestion, Linda! I was wondering if anyone else had suggestions for books or documentaries that explore this idea - maybe even more broadly in the culture anthropology sense, i.e., how does culture inform our perception of truth and common sense? I always love hearing about new perspectives. ^^

  10. Honestly, as a minority in America, I get rather annoyed at the fact that a certain mentality is associated with "Americans", but is typically associated more so with White Americans than Americans in general. I think being a minority in this country gives you a very different perspective on the cultural norms of this country and of others. At times, it is very frustrating to hear people speak so freely of Americans being ignorant, or Americans being arrogant or Americans being insensitive to other cultures when the term American stands for so many different types of cultures and backgrounds. I completely understand the frustration that other cultures and other countries may have with the "American mentality" because I do know plenty of people who fit this stereotype of the arrogant Westerner, however, I'm sure that as an American I am exposed on a daily basis to much more diversity than the average person in any other country. Hell, I am the ONLY American in my incoming PhD class in Chemical Engineering at my college. I have no choice but to understand different cultures and ways of living. It's in my face 24/7.

    I would just like to see a little more differentiation when speaking of Americans in these contexts. Not to say that all White Americans fit this stereotype, because that's certainly not the case, but I do believe that the minority experience is much different in America and can lead to a different perspective of the world at large, especially with respect to things like "the individual's role in the community" or "what is defined as happiness or success".


  11. It seems everyone here has written in someway that Americans are cultural ignorant. All of this seems to be based on anecdotal experience rather than any firm evidence. Please present some evidence to back up your case.


    I think your inference that Americans are mono lingual because of cultural ignorance is off the mark. Rather lets look at some reasons why Americans are seemingly monolingual.

    1.Lack of incentive.

    English is an international language that is used in commerce, academics, diplomacy, travel, and more. It is used throughout the entire world including many countries where English is not the native language. For many people in the world English is a valuable skill that can lead to great opportunities. No matter where you go in the world, English is valuable. Lets contrast that to other languages, which have value but are no where near as practical and useful as English. If I learn Korean for example, it is very useful in the country of Korea. But outside Korea there is very little practical use. The incentive structure in language learning puts much more value on English as it provides more tangible rewards. Other non English languages offer fewer incentives, which can help explain why there is little motivation for learning another language.

    2.Lack of opportunity for use.

    Part of the joy of using a foreign language is being able to speak it in a foreign country. In
    comparison to other countries judging by passport issuance rates, few Americans have traveled
    abroad. There are several reasons for this.

    1.Lack of work holiday programs.
    America to it's detriment has only work holiday programs with 3 countries which are Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. All of these countries can of course speak English. If I wanted to live overseas in a non English speaking country I would have quite a more difficult time compared to other citizens of the world.
    In Europe and in much of the world it is easy to go to a foreign country. With some places you can take a short flight, a train, or you can even drive to a different country. For an American to go any where outside Mexico or Canada it takes a larger portion of ones income and time.
    3.Vacation days.
    Americans have too few vacation days. In fact employers in America are not required to give employees any vacation days. According to this report,
    25% of Americans have no vacation days.

    3.National focus
    For many countries it is easy for them to focus on a single language to learn. And for most of the world that is English. In America, what should we learn? There are many useful languages. Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, French, and so on. All of these languages have different uses for different people. They are not all encompassing like English. So it is difficult to focus on just one. Also if there was a language we could all focus on, it would be difficult to do because of our decentralized education system. States generally have more say in regards to what kids are learning compared to the national government.

    These are not meant to be excuses but rather an understanding as to why. As a bilingual American I wish my fellow countrymen can experience the joys of learning a different language. But as the current incentive structure stands, I don't think it will be an easy task to make America a bilingual country.

  12. Brian,

    The Korean agrees with your observation, but wouldn't you say everything you described is the reason why Americans are culturally ignorant? Put differently, Americans are culturally ignorant because they have no reason to learn other cultures -- why learn any other way when the world follows the American way? So maybe all the reasons you describe cause both cultural ignorance AND monolingualism.

    And that's precisely the point of the post (and the video.) The world is not following the American way anymore. It is developing (and will develop) in a trajectory that is not necessarily the same as the American trajectory (or even the Western trajectory.) That should give Americans plenty of incentive to learn a new language.

  13. The Korean:
    What is the "American Way"?
    Which country in the world has followed the 'American Way"?

  14. It's a loosely used term. But here "American Way" essentially means democracy and capitalism. And the countries that pursue democracy and capitalism are too many to count.

  15. The US has always usually had the pleasure of being able to be insular due to its geography. Most really have no need to deal with other cultures. There will be key people that need to, perhaps a rancher in Nebraska doesn't need to care about other cultures, but those in agra-business and in the government in Nebraska will need to if they want too keep the beef export business open in Korea. There will be a flux of immigrants that will help too keep markets open.

    Others may have a leg up on the US when it comes to understanding how to interact with other nations, but the US also has a lot more room for error. The US has a lot of resources and land. It also doesn't have a lot of neighbors. If you take China things could unravel a lot much more easily in the intermediate term. Mismanagement in China could quickly turn into famine.

    Also things can change by generation, unless something crazy happens rather quick like an EMP blast knocking out electronics over the US, the US has the space and resources to regroup.

  16. I am still boggled as to how it can be claimed that the US has no reason to learn about other cultures when we are one of the most multi-cultural societies on the planet! Yes, there are many Americans who do not have to learn any other language but English. But guess what? There are even more Americans who do know more than one language. Why? Because their parents were not born here. They are from another culture, but they are AMERICANS! Just look at food for instance in America. Name me some of the dishes that other countries eat and I'm sure they are numerous and specific to that country. Ok, now name me a completely American dish: hamburgers and apple pie. Almost all the other cuisine we enjoy comes from another culture.

    So I get what you say about democracy and capitalism, but even our prospectives on those things have evolved as a result of interactions with those outside of the US. It's hard for me to believe that you can look at a multi-cultural society such as the US and still only glean from it the ignorance you experience from people you may deal with on a day-to-day basis. But I just believe there is more to the American than the "Ignorant Westerner" and as an American I just resent the fact that this is how we are constantly viewed due to most people's limited experience with Americans. I'm pretty sure those whom most of you call Americans and have interacted with are not as diverse as the actual "American".

  17. I agree w/ TK on Brian's comment - in that there has been in the past 200 years of American History, many reasons that support Americans to focus only on the American way since it has brought America plenty of success. We've built our education system along w/ our country on the methods we're used to and are familiar with.

    Yes, America is very diverse and we have a lot of different "cultures" and ethnicities that make up many major cities of America. However, it's still very segregated and besides Americans being able to venture out and try a new cuisine and claiming they are culturally-aware b/c they've once had bulgogi or Sashimi, the buck stops there. Americans in general do not like getting out of their comfort zone. They don't like to be challenged in their beliefs, and if they are, they are more likely to take a defensive stance, than a "tell me more about your experience and why you feel that way" approach.

    Besides the few that travel or study abroad, MOST Americans stay in the US forever and MANY Americans still don't have passports. Many Americans that say they travel - mean they've traveled to Canada or Cancun or Jamaica. really. really?

    I have travelled internationally to 3rd world countries on clinic trips w/ many Americans where it has been their first step outside of their country, or even state. The usual reactions of these team members to something new is usually 1) shock "OMG! this is so strange! they eat what? they do what?" then 2) sometimes disgust or pity "I could never live like this! I couldn't live w/o my bberry!"; and after they get comfortable in their environment 2) humor as in "OMG, when I first got here, I didn't understand and it was so funny! I thought I would die w/o my ipad!"

    So back to the TED speech, unless the U.S. as a country, starts taking an active approach to understanding about other cultures and understanding the principles that guide their belief systems which is usually based on thousands of years of history and religion, it is only then that we can still compete as a world power. Yes the US has people from all over the world living within its borders, but the US is a far leap from being, as a whole, culturally-aware and culturally-sensitive. Just b/c the US has commercialized Chinese food, Mexican food, Italian food, and Indian food, does not mean we still aren't ignorant.

    And I am not trying to point fingers or place blame on Americans. I refer back to Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" in saying that much of Americans' thought processes are so embedded in history, that Americans have a natural proclivity to think and act a certain way. But until we realize and accept this and try and change our way of thinking, we won't gain much progress in our relations with the rest of the world.

  18. J Man, agreed, but that margin of error is getting smaller. And of course, it would be even better if there were less errors in general.

    Linda, thanks.


    Actually, your stance is exactly the one the Korean wants Americans to snap out of. America feels like a cosmopolitan place. Like you said, there are a lot of foreigners and foreign-born people in America. Americans accept and welcome foreign cuisine. That is definitely America's strong suit. (When in Korea, the Korean bitches incessantly about how there is no decent Mexican place in anywhere.)

    But bear with the Korean when he speaks from experience here: Americans (speaking in general, of course) are very much blind to a mode of thought that is different from theirs, because they never had to apply any non-American mode of thought. On the other hand, Korea -- and Asian countries in general -- had to go through the painful step of recognizing that their modes of thought were inadequate, and had to graft a foreign mode of thought into theirs. So in this respect, Americans can be incredibly parochial, exactly in the way Jacques describes in the video.

  19. [continued]

    In fact, the reaction to the "Tiger Mom" article was a great illustration of this narrow vision. There were many reasons why Tiger Mom article caused such an uproar, but one prominent reason was: Americans COULD NOT get away from the idea that happiness in life was all that mattered and no child should work 10 hours a day. The oppositions to the Tiger Mom article were by and large not reasoning, but declarations of value: "I would rather raise a happy child," etc.

  20. The US is very parochial, and always has been. It is just the way the US is set up. Its probably far easier for the Korean to say he is an American, than for some ex-pat to say he is a Korean. America is far more of an idea than a group of people from a common area.

    I may also say that I think today Americans are in anyway as near behind as the the Chinese were. Even if those in the US get behind some, they was never the gap that happened with the end of the Qing dynasty that opened themselves up be being exploited by Japan and well just about anyone.

    I think the Tiger mom piece does have the answer, in a lot of ways the answer is not always that you must take a holistic approach at mixing with others. In many ways if you want to do something well, make sacrifices and work hard. If those in the US are losing their place by being lazy and complacent, it might be a good idea to stop being lazy and complacent.

    My guess is that most people are not really cosmopolitan. It would be hard for me to believe with a billion Chinese that that they are all cosmopolitan. I'm sure there are plenty of working stiffs in China that are important to their industry that don't really understand the US as there are counter in the US.

    Of course you do have the case that shear work is not going to exactly be the most efficient way to success. If you want to open up markets, especially markets in need, you do need to go out and understand that market. Culture understanding then is key, then you do want the people you do place in that role to not only seek out understanding, but you'll want them to joint efforts with people from that culture who may understand that market.

    But that is different that just saying wholesale that everyone needs to understand that other cultures. That isn't really a standard that other cultures can hold up to. Typically normal people will only try to understand the cultures they have to deal with.

  21. @TK: Thanks for your response. Agreed that America could stand a little jarring to get us out of complacent habits. And I think we we are starting to see that with our President recognizing and saying on national TV that what we are doing is not working, whereas other countries, as he mentioned China and South Korea, are excelling where we are failing (education, innovation, etc). And he mentioned us needing to adopt modes of thought from those countries, such as teachers being viewed as 'nation builders" such as in South Korea. Implementation of these ideas, not there yet, but the fact that we are even having the national discussion I think is a step in the right direction.

    I see you have a fairly open mind about Americans, especially with regards to our diversity, but some of others who comment on your blog don't seem to have that same experience and so I felt I was speaking more to them.

    @Linda: I think it is a bit unfair for you to use the idea that Americans do not travel or leave the country as an example of how we are ignorant. I think if you take the average person from most countries and ask them how often they travel abroad you will probably get a similar answer of not too often or never because it is expensive and the average person may not have the time nor the money to travel. Think of it this way, if you are comparing us to say Europeans, or even Asians, the land mass of the US is fairly large and would span a few countries in Europe or even in Asia. So, to travel from Bern, Switzerland to Turin, Italy is like an American traveling from Washington, DC to New York City. Not a fair comparison.

  22. @Bellanera683 - agreed that many people from all over the world have not traveled outside of their own country/province/village. However, I believe the reasons for Americans differ greatly than the reasons for most other people from other countries. And I base my thought on the many different types of people I have met from traveling.

    Most people in 3rd world countries do not travel abroad b/c of money. Much of the 3rd world does not have a middle class/upper middle class etc like the U.S. It's made up of rich and poor, and poor means POOR. Our poorest in the US still is richer than the world's poor. And guess where the RICH of the rest of the world send their kids to study? the US! They want their kids to learn about the US and how the US does things and as a result, be able to compete successfully in the world as an adult.

    Most Americans can afford to travel. It's quite inexpensive living abroad. But the point is most Americans, if given the opportunity, will choose to stay where they are and what they are familiar with than spend 6 months in a country foreign to them. And that's b/c our mode of thinking is that our way, the US way, is the best way so why spend time doing something any other way.

    Can I use California as an example? Californians to the rest of US is like US to the rest of the world. (I do not want to offend Californians and I am not stating Californians are ignorant, simply making an observation of how circumstances create a mode of thinking and how that mode of thinking affect their beliefs, actions, and lifestyle).

    California is a great state. It's super large spanning almost the entire west coast, has everything from skiing/snowboarding to beaches, to a great college education system (UCLA, Stanford, Caltech, etc...) to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, great sports teams, great weather, and on and on. Why would anyone want to leave California? Exactly! And so many people born and raised in California (who've I've met) have this mindset that California is simply fantastic and they don't have a desire to really experience other parts of the world, even other parts of the US. They give the impression that they think California is the center of the Universe. They have money so cost of travel is not an issue. The desire and understanding that if they themselves want to make a big impact in the world or in their industry, then they should travel and experience how the rest of the world, even the rest of the US, lives and thinks is what's missing. And this is the same thing that is missing as a whole in the mindset of America.

    Americans don't like change. They tolerate a lot of different cultures but they don't embrace them. They don't want to learn and understand them.

    How come if a non-Asian goes into an Asian restaurant, the waitstaff will gladly offer forks and knives to the patron. Asians understand that not everyone in the world can use chopsticks. If an Asian goes into an American restaurant, how come chopsticks aren't available? Americans assume that everyone in the world uses forks and knives. Is it not possible that someone may be more comfortable using chopsticks to eat their spaghetti?

  23. I don't get what is so different about the Chinese concept of race. The Han Chinese are a race. Is this so difficult? The Uighurs and Tibetans and everyone else within the boundaries of the state are also Chinese. Is this supposed to be mysterious somehow?

    Their concept of the nation-state is certainly different, but then I have often thought every nation-state is in some way a unique entity despite the fact that we treat them as the same. America is like nothing anywhere else on Earth. The UK is an odd amalgam of 3 or 4 (or even more) nations held together by a common history. Germany is at once a part of the legacy of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, and a nation-state based on ethnicity. And we could go on.


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