Monthly Archives: September 2016

Lessons Learned

I have traveled internationally all of my adult life. And I’ve found that, without exception, every time I visit a foreign land I end up learning more about myself than my destination. For the nine years I lived and worked in China, the lessons I learned profoundly changed the way I live and evaluate my life.

Here are a few of the key lessons I learned:

  • Trust v Obligation

How we live our lives, and the stress that flows from our choices, often comes down to our ability to predict the behavior of others. And in Western cultures, more often than not, that ability of prediction often comes down to trust. Westerners put great stock in trust, which is why we put such great cultural emphasis on telling the truth.

Chinese culture, by contrast, turns on obligation. Trust plays a secondary role. And, as a result, so does telling the truth, at least in the Western sense. Without a concrete expectation of obligation, in fact, the Chinese trust no one.

And I think they are on to something. Perhaps I’m just fed up with the 2016 presidential election, but I’ve come to believe that obligation is a much simpler and more practical way to determine behavioral reaction to the behavior of others. The rules of obligation, in a conceptually structured culture like that of the Chinese, are very straightforward and easy to understand. A child is obligated to his or her parents. You do me a favor and I owe you one. You respect your elders.

Trust, on the other hand, is a much more challenging judgment. There are many variables at play, including the ability of one party to act out the tenets of trust. With trust, you often have suckers.

I’ve concluded that the beauty of obligation, beyond its simplicity and predictability, is that obligation is naturally a two way street. If you demonstrate obligation to me, I am naturally inclined to feel obligation to you. It’s just how we’re wired.

Even if I trust you, however, I may not be able to assume that you will put your interests above my own when the two are in conflict. That’s a crapshoot that requires a fair amount of guesswork.

  • Result v Process

Deductively – minded Westerners typically put great emphasis on process. A job well done is to be praised even if the objective is not realized. Businesses, in particular, spend much of their time codifying processes in the belief that this will lead to more predictable results with minimal risk.

The Chinese, in contrast, typically focus exclusively on results. A job performed according to a pre-defined process brings little satisfaction if the desired result isn’t achieved.

And doesn’t the Chinese perspective make more sense? There have to be boundaries to the process, of course. If everyone cheats or breaks the rules, you have anarchy. Nonetheless, it’s the W that really matters.

Which is why the Chinese would surely applaud the women’s Swedish soccer team for knocking out the Americans at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a slow down strategy of conservative play. America’s goalie, Hope Solo, on the other hand, mocked the Swedes for leaving their womanhood in the locker room and not giving the Americans more chances to win. (I have to go with the Chinese on that one.)

  • Speed v Longevity

Everything happens faster in China. Buildings go up seemingly overnight. Online purchases often arrive the same day. Elaborate houses can be gutted and totally refinished in a matter of weeks.

In Beijing, a city of 22 million people, they recently replaced (replaced, not repaired) a 10-lane overpass, complete with lane markers, in 43 hours. (You can watch it in time lapse on YouTube.) The state of Michigan, by contrast, recently announced a construction project to improve one of the main arteries into Detroit that will last 16 years. Yes, almost two decades!

Speed is money, of course, at least in the short term. Longevity, on the other hand, can be money in the long term. If a building needs to be replaced in X years, it may not be cost effective in all cases to cut the corners that allowed you to build it quickly.

But the world is changing more rapidly every year. Who knows what our needs will be 20 or 30 years from now. That, in my mind, increasingly gives speed the edge.

  • Acquisition v Fulfillment

While the millennial generation is changing the game, Americans typically like to acquire things. It’s no wonder that personal consumption drives 70% of the US economy.

The Chinese acquire, too, of course. Newly acquired wealth, in fact, often leads to conspicuous consumption. China now represents the biggest luxury market in the world.

The Chinese, however, use acquisitions to define their success, not who they are. I’ve met some very wealthy Chinese. Many have gained and lost multiple fortunes. Seldom, however, do they define themselves by their things. In their minds, that’s just business; that’s not life.


I’m not suggesting the Chinese are ‘better’, or even right. I do believe, however, that self-reflection is always a good thing. And there’s no better way to promote it than to immerse yourself, even temporarily, in a foreign culture. That assumes, of course, that you can do so with an open mind. If you can’t, save your money. You’ll just get frustrated.

For more about the lessons I learned in China, read my book, China – There’s Reason for the Difference. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Contact: You may contact the author at I am available to share my China experiences at corporate or other group events.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A lot of Chinese architecture, and much of its culture, has endured for hundreds of years. That is part of the beautiful duality of China. You can never figure it out completely.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A lot of Chinese architecture, and much of its culture, has endured for hundreds of years. That is part of the beautiful duality of China. You can never figure it out completely.

The Top Brands in the AP (and the implications)

Annual research conducted by Nielsen and presented by Campaign Asia-Pacific on the most popular brands in the Asia-Pacific region was recently released to the public. The survey encompasses 14 major categories and 13 major markets: Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

The top 10 brands for 2016 are:

  1. Samsung
  1. Apple
  1. Sony
  1. Nestle
  1. Panasonic
  1. Nike
  1. LG
  1. Canon
  1. Chanel
  1. Adidas

So, what do the tea leaves say in all of this? Overall, of course, they’re just tea leaves. But we might draw a few interesting tidbits from the results.

First of all, of the top 10 brands only two, Apple and Nike, are American. Three are European. And the rest are Japanese or Korean.

One might argue, moreover, that the Apple and Nike brands have transcended their national identity. Neither relies on its American roots to define its brand image in the same way that, say, Coca-Cola or Budweiser, do.

A few of my personal take-aways, although I again caution about reading too much into any annual survey.

The first is the question of who will really benefit from the disproportionate growth expected in AP economies relative to those of Europe and North America? This is an inherent key to the debate over global trade that has dominated much of national politics in the US and Europe of late.

Nearly every major American company has some presence in China. Few, however, have been successful there. It is, perhaps, the most competitive market in the world, and Western companies, in my experience, struggle to navigate its waters.

And if you look at what drives the American economy, financial services, media, and telecom companies dominate the list of influencers. These are the sectors that remain the most highly regulated in China and dominated by state-owned companies. And under any circumstances, I submit, are the sectors structurally inclined to provide the most home field advantage in any of the major economies. General Motors has seen a lot of success in China. But will Wells Fargo see the same success, even if the markets are de-regulated?

And although trade is a critical component of everyone’s politics, there is a political element to trade beyond the trade itself. It’s called leverage.

At the moment, China is relatively hesitant to tweak the US in the nose due to the enormous trade ties that the two countries share. As China pivots to a services economy, however, and as the natural dilution of American influence in the global economy implied by disproportionate growth in the AP economies occurs, will the US enjoy the same political leverage in the global economy of the future?

Will the US, in other words, be capable of controlling the South China Sea debate? The human rights debate? The debate over geo-political influence and independence in Asia?

Speculation, of course. But that’s where every meaningful insight starts.

It is likewise interesting to look at the survey results from 2006; 10 years ago. Again, the top ten brands, ranked from most popular down:

  1. Nokia
  1. Sony
  1. Nestle
  1. Colgate
  1. Panasonic
  1. Honda
  1. Coca-Cola
  1. Samsung
  1. Canon
  1. 7-Eleven

Of the top 10, obviously, 3 were American, 2 were European, and the rest were Japanese or Korean. And, of course, some of the change is a simple reflection of the development of the Asian-Pacific economies. Few could afford Chanel 10 years ago. Many could afford 7-11 or an occasional bottle of Coke.

Having said that, however, it would appear that after a decade of investment the West has not made any obvious progress in its penetration of the Asia Pacific economy. Japan and Korea are the only truly consistent players.

One last observation.

Whether or not the US economy became the engine of the global economy on the back of the US political system, the political system gained global leverage, in part, on the back of the US economy. Can the US pivot-to-Asia, therefore, succeed in the long-term if the US loses that economic leverage? As China pivots to services, and Asia continues to develop at above average rates, is the pivot realistic, or even desirable?

Food for thought.

Contact: You may reach the author at

Dandala’s & Tibet

There is a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the sand dandala. It involves creating colorful, intricate works of art; usually by a group of monks working together using dyed sand or crushed colored stone. It is painstaking work to create one. And as soon as it if finished they destroy it in a ceremony paying homage to the transitory nature of material wealth.

The works can be incredible in their detail. The best belong in a museum. But, alas, such is Buddhism. Such is life.

Today is my birthday. I am 62 years old. Not very old, by modern standards. But suffice it to say that I’ve beaten the odds. Most of you have, too.

I am not maudlin, if you’re wondering. But I have never lost my youthful curiosity and I credit it for all of the good things that have happened to me in my life. (Number one, without peer, is the birth of my two daughters.) So I thought it appropriate to sit back and reflect for a moment.

In case you are wondering I won’t wade into the question of whether or not Tibet is legitimately part of China. I take the same position with New Mexico. I can say, however, that I have yet to meet a Chinese person who does not believe that Tibet – and Taiwan, for that matter – are not a legitimate part of China. That’s good enough for me.

I won’t argue history. History is a movie, although we try to make it a post card to serve our purposes. I will, however, argue culture.

As is typical of writers, I am an avid reader. I devour books, although never more than one at a time. And I submerse myself in them. I figure we owe the author that.

I used to read only book-books. You know them. The actual book kind. But I did give in years ago to reading e-books. I guess it was all of those 13-hour flights from Beijing that made reading real books akin to climbing a small mountain in achievement.

Today, however, I downloaded my first free e-book, from my local library. My wife, a Chinese immigrant, found out from another immigrant that, in fact, my local library is more up with the times than I might have guessed. The process was painless. And did I say free.

But back to China.

There are roughly 250 million Buddhists in China, the largest concentration of Buddhism in the world. And while the total population of Tibet is debated, it is estimated to be less than 3 million people.

In other words, there are a lot of Chinese Buddhists outside of the autonomous region itself. Beijing, the country’s capitol, boasts an abundance of Buddhist temples, and shrines. In fact, the celebration of Spring Festival – or the Chinese New Year, as it is commonly known in the West – begins with the Laba Festival.

Like everything associated with Spring Festival the purpose of the Laba Festival is to bring prosperity in the coming year. And it’s modern day custodians, oddly enough, are the Buddhist monks who serve warm Laba porridge made with rice, beans, nuts, and fruits, on that day. In Beijing, which is inevitably cold that time of year, you can see a long queue of office workers on their way to work waiting at the many Buddhist temples in the area for some of the sweet and warm soup.

But I believe the Buddhist culture runs much deeper in the over-arching Chinese culture. And I think that the sand dandala is the symbolic heart of it all.

Since moving to the US several months ago I have been continuously reminded of just how devoted we American boys and girls are to our toys. We wear them on our sleeves, to say the least.

The Chinese do the same, of course. That’s why Mercedes and BMW are doing so well there. Which, of course, is why Ferrari and Lamborghini are doing so well there. If everyone drives a Mercedes you have to drive a Ferrari to really stand out.

Having said that, I do believe that the status means much less to them. Sure, the nouveau riche want to brag about their success. And they do. At the same time, however, I truly believe it means less to them.

I’ve often thought that if Jack Ma, or another of the Chinese billionaires, lost their fortune tomorrow, they wouldn’t shed many tears. They might lose face, but that’s different. Few tears, however. I honestly believe they would just get up at the same time the next day and start the process all over again.

And, in that respect, they are the cultural twins of the same people who make the mandalas.

So, who is to argue that Tibet – or Taiwan – doesn’t belong to China?

Not me.

Contact: You may reach the author at

Ideals v Results

One political debate that has slithered largely unnoticed into the American consciousness during the 2016 presidential election is the debate over political ideals versus performance. Do democratic ideals trump political results?

It’s not a conscious debate, of course. You won’t hear the talking heads of this election having this debate. Nor the candidates. They’re all too busy hurling schoolyard insults at each other for such lofty discourse.

In attempting to understand how the greatest democracy on earth could offer such two equally unappealing candidates for the world’s highest office, however, I inevitably run smack dab into this question.

During The American Century, of course, it was a non-debate. America was both the global paragon of democracy and enjoyed unparalleled success on virtually every front – economic growth, quality of life, growth of the middle class, health care, education, etc.

Now, however, it is not difficult to argue that the wheels have come off. Since the late 1990s the US has experienced a period of sluggish economic growth, stagnant or declining real income, a pronounced polarization in wealth, deteriorating infrastructure, weakened primary education, and a growing sense among Americans that they are not better off than they were a decade ago.

This past week a report issued by the Harvard Business School U.S. Competitiveness Project was blunt in its assessment. Authors Michael E. Porter, Jan W. Rivkin, and Mihir A Desani concluded that the US is “failing the test of competitiveness.”

Their primary culprit? The dysfunctional US political system, which has led to government gridlock and paralysis at all levels.

This failure, of course, has also given rise to the 2016 presidential election, in which two unappealing candidates fight, bare knuckle style, for the most powerful office in the world

And what do the Chinese think of this spectacle?

More than anything else, I believe they are simply incredulous; as, I suspect, is most of the world. When it comes to business and politics, the Chinese are pragmatists. They want results, not bluster. Ideals are reserved for matters of the family and personal obligation.

Chen Weihua, deputy editor of China Daily USA, recently voiced the Chinese confusion when he noted the disconnect between the ideal of the US being the greatest democracy in the world and the specter of President Obama – and his wife – blasting the Republican candidate at the most personal level. (This on top of their candidate of choice having referred to a quarter of Americans as deplorable.)

This is time that Obama, Chen noted, could have devoted to solving some of the country’s most vexing problems. And, more importantly, it flies in the face of Obama’s own proclamation that he is the president of all the people – Democrats and Republicans alike. And, of course, it is all Americans, not just the Democrats, who pay Obama’s salary. (I believe the party is charged something for his travel expenses but I seriously doubt it covers the full cost of moving a sitting president around publicly.)

As a typical Chinese pragmatist, of course, Chen knows that his views will be dismissed by the US political elite, and, in fact, I haven’t seen his opinion picked up anywhere in the US media. This, of course, from a media that touts its commitment to inclusiveness. In reality it is only inclusive if you fall into the right basket.

As always, however, people have a way of finding their own way to the truth. Forty-two percent of the American electorate now identify as independents. And, according to a recent World Values Survey report, fully 31% of those born in the 1980’s no longer consider it ‘essential’ to have American-style democracy for there to be social progress.

In China, only 6% of the population is a member of the Communist Party of China. Yet, President Xi Jinping, the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, enjoys a higher approval rating than virtually any other leader of a major country. The last I saw it was hovering around 95%.

And while the Chinese and the Russians share little in common culturally, the Chinese people generally give Vladimir Putin very high marks. While he doesn’t share America’s political ideals, he gets results. (And he’s not afraid to tweak the nose of the US; which an alarmingly high portion of the world’s population silently cheers.)

What this presidential election has shown, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that we no longer ascribe to those ideals either. Perhaps we’ve just eaten too much cake. Perhaps we’re simply becoming more pragmatic. Or perhaps we’ve brought this on ourselves by allowing money and power to appropriate our ideals and exploit them for their own self-interests.

One thing is clear. We are losing the legitimacy to tell the rest of the world how to conduct its affairs, China included.

Contact: You may reach the author at



Mid-Autumn Festival 2016

Wednesday, September 15, 2016 marks this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. This post was originally made in 2014 but remains relevant today. Like so many traditions in China, this one doesn’t change over time.


The Gregorian calendar is the official civil calendar of most major countries in the world, including China. (Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia are two exceptions.)

The Gregorian calendar was created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date for the celebration of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, meaning it aligns with the Earth’s rotation around the sun and the seasonal solstices and equinoxes that are its byproduct.

While introduced to China almost immediately after its creation by Jesuit missionaries it was not adopted as the official calendar here until 1912. Until that time China used the Chinese calendar, which, contrary to popular myth, is NOT a lunar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.

If there is anything that all of humanity shares beyond the earth itself, it is the sight of the moon in the night sky.
If there is anything that all of humanity shares beyond the earth itself, it is the sight of the moon in the night sky.

That said, Chinese culture, without a doubt, is lunar-centric. And, as a result, China is about to celebrate the second most important holiday of the year (after Spring Festival, of course), Zhongqiujie Festival, known in English as the Mid-Autumn Festival, or more simply, the Moon Festival. (The same festival is celebrated in Vietnam and on the same date but by a different name in Korea.)

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and its roundest (i.e. in perfect balance). It is, without a doubt, my favorite Chinese holiday and has been celebrated in China since the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 10th century B.C.) This year it falls on September 8, 2014.

Part of the attraction is simply the time of year and the typically pleasant weather that accompanies the holiday. The summer humidity has broken and the skies are typically richly blue and smog-free.

In the West the lunar phase that gives rise to the holiday is known as the Harvest Moon, Mother Nature’s signal to bring the crops in. A time of reaping the bounties of the spring and summer, making it, by definition, a time of replenishment.

Befitting their holistic worldview the Chinese take a more holistic view of replenishment. To them to replenish is to rejuvenate; to begin again the quest for balance and harmony.
Befitting their holistic worldview the Chinese take a more holistic view of replenishment. To them to replenish is to rejuvenate; to begin again the quest for balance and harmony.

Not surprisingly, however, the Chinese take a more holistic view of replenishment and draw a much less definitive line between the worldly and the spiritual and the relative needs of the body in both regards. To them the moon, like water, is a symbol of rejuvenation – a broader, more holistic view of replenishment.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a gift-giving festival and logically the most common gifts involve food. Moon cakes, specifically, are the gift of choice. These are small, dense cakes sometimes filled with sweet paste but always embossed with characters of good luck and fortune. (They are, of course, always round in shape, denoting balance and equilibrium.)

The real attraction of the Mid-Autumn holiday to me, however, is not the celebration of material replenishment, but the concurrent celebration of the basic emotional replenishment and rejuvenation that can only come through connection with family and friends.

The theory is simple enough. There is only one moon. And everyone on the planet can see it. Only its position in the sky and the time of its ascent and setting differs – wherever you are in the world.

As the world becomes smaller it becomes bigger. We become less connected. And connection is the only path to fulfillment.
As the world becomes smaller it becomes bigger. We become less connected. And connection is the only path to fulfillment.

The most important custom of the day, therefore, is for families, who have gathered to consume the bounty of the new harvest over a special dinner, to retire outdoors to look up at the moon and remember friends and relatives who are doing the same thing elsewhere in the world. It is, if you will, a lunar mirror that allows family and friends to replenish their love and connection despite the separation of distance and time.

And how neat is that?

That custom, however, likewise symbolizes what I consider to be one of the most endearing aspects of Chinese culture – the notion that the universe is a vast ecosystem that exists not to support us or to nourish us or to provide us pleasure, but that we are very much a part of. Whether made of cheese or billion year-old star fragments, the moon is as much a part of life as is the water we drink and the air we breathe – and we part of them.

When you think of life in this way, it is easy to see how life becomes both more and less personal in nature. We are who we are but who we are likewise has a more shared quality to it.

It is not the moon; it is our moon. It is, in fact, us. And we are it. It cannot be owned. It cannot be harvested. In many ways, it cannot even be described, although many a poet and writer has tried.

It can, however, link us all together. It is a source of our connection – our shared identity – even our shared cycles of birth, rejuvenation, and mortality.

And in this time of ever increasing segmentation and fragmentation – regional, ethnic, religious – is not the moon the one thing we can share equally? No matter where you live on the planet, what ethnic group you are part of, or what religion you practice, is not the moon – the lone moon – the one thing that is both neutral and shared by all?

The same can be said of the sun, of course, but the sun is not unique to our world. And while the moon moves the tides it exerts a more benign power, a power more poetic than life enabling – or threatening.

The world is getting both smaller and more fragmented. Nations are dividing into ever-smaller states. Markets are fragmenting. Identities are both exploding in number and finding expression in ways both more and less personal.

Is this not a day when we can all, whatever our differences, look skyward and remind ourselves of the core things which still unite us all – e.g. the planet we share, the personal seasons we endure, the connections between us that ebb and flow like the tides.

In celebrating our individuality we sometimes forget the common humanity that binds us all.
In celebrating our individuality we sometimes forget the common humanity that binds us all.

It matters not what language we speak or what deity we worship. It matters not whom we consider our friends or our foes. It is the one thing that is common to us all and benign, neutral, and so vastly powerful all at the same time.

I would, therefore, like to offer a simple suggestion to all of the diverse people of the world. On this one day each year, when the neutral but powerful moon is at its fullest and most perfectly round, let us celebrate not our diversity, but our connection beneath the great lunar lantern in the sky. We can call it the Festival of Lunar Harmony.

To be clear, this would not be a lunar festival. This would be a festival of human connection. The moon is merely the reagent used to bring out the common thread of all humanity. It is quite literally all-inclusive. No one is excluded. We need only to look at the night sky in affirmation of our collective identity as global citizens of something greater than our race or ethnicity, our gender, our nationality, or even our passions.

Try it. And pass it on. It would be the ultimate yin-yang experience. In balance, harmony. In harmony, connection. In connection, peace. And in peace, fulfillment, and the sense of belonging that we all yearn for and the world now so desperately needs.


There is strength in diversity. Of that there is no question. But there is peace in harmony. And harmony comes through recognition of the common humanity that binds us all.
There is strength in diversity. Of that there is no question. But there is peace in harmony. And harmony comes through recognition of the common humanity that binds us all.

Contact: You may reach the author at

Mao Zedong

Friday, September 9, marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, the father of the People’s Republic of China and the first chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Western journalists seized the opportunity to criticize both Mao and the current administration of Xi Jinping, which, ironically enough, they claimed (wrongly so) was trying to distance itself from the very man they were criticizing.

During my nine years living and working in China I never once heard anyone disparage Chairman Mao, as he is known to most Chinese. And that’s not because political dissent is oppressed in China. Many Chinese are quick to openly criticize some of the things he did, particularly the Cultural Revolution, but few criticize the man himself.

That includes my first assistant in China, a retired English teacher who was ‘sent down’ as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution to work on an agricultural commune and ‘learn’ from the peasants, just as the current leader of China, Xi Jinping, was.

She was very open about the Cultural Revolution. While she openly lamented the fact that the Red Guard stormed her family home and smashed her mother’s cherished wedding picture for being too bourgeois, and spoke matter-of-factly about the harsh life that she and her fellow teenage classmates led in the countryside, I never heard her complain about the fact that she was forced to spend several years working the fields alongside the poor, largely uneducated farmers. In fact, she and her roommates continue to return to the village where they toiled to meet with old friends and acquaintances.

What gives?

I think it’s pretty simple. People don’t judge you for what you do; they judge you for how you make them feel. And on that front, Mao was right up there with Gandhi, Kennedy, Reagan, or whomever else you might idolize. He believed in the common man and woman and he was sincere. His methods may have been misguided at times, but his sincerity is never questioned by any modern Chinese citizen.

The idea that the current administration is considering moving Mao’s incredibly popular tomb from its central location on Tiananmen Square, as one Western writer reported, is absurd. I’ll wager everything I own that will not happen and is not even being seriously considered.

The Mao phenomenon – a man who is revered but whose actions are sometimes challenged – is not unique to China. Consider the current US presidential election. Nobody is ‘for’ their candidate as much as they are against the other candidate.

Clinton supporters rage about the fact that Trump supporters are so forgiving of his every gaffe, but so are the Clinton supporters. Neither candidate has really earned our respect for integrity, much less our vote, but passions nonetheless run high. Because we judge each candidate based on how they make us feel, or in this case perhaps, how the opposing candidate makes us feel.

When Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world he was taking a risk that he was fully aware of. He famously noted that “some must get rich first.” He may not have been referring to corrupt government officials, but he fully understood the dynamics of a market economy. He needed to look no further than every other market economy in the world for stark evidence of its potential for inequity.

And that risk has materialized in China, as it has in the US and elsewhere. The rich are getting richer and society is increasingly polarized between the haves and the have-nots. In the US even our values of fair play have been monetized. If you have enough money you can jump to the front of the line at popular tourist attractions, for example.

And, yes, there are many Chinese who lament this growing inequity, just as there are many Americans who have jumped on Trump’s bandwagon for the simple reason that he represents – however improbable – the possibility of change.

President Xi Jinping is among them. (The lamenters, not the Trump supporters.) His crackdown on government corruption is unprecedented in its scope. No one has been spared, unlike the US where political connections seem to trump justice again and again. (Excuse the pun.)

Xi Jinping is committed to the same values that Mao was. His methods are very different. But even though his own father was treated harshly by Mao (i.e. jailed) during the Cultural Revolution, his heart is in the same place – pride in the average Chinese man and woman and in the country’s rich and long history.

In this digital age, we have come to digitize everything, from our technology to our politics. 0 or 1. Yes or no. I love or I hate.

But we haven’t changed the human psyche. We will always judge people by how they make us feel. As Freud argued, all of life is personal.

And I, for one, believe that this reality will be the salvation of mankind. I don’t admire everything Mao did, but I do greatly admire what he stood for. So do most Chinese. So should you.

Contact: You may reach the author at

Out for a Walk

Giddy with the clean air we have found in our new home in Michigan, my Chinese wife and I go for a walk every day. It is often a time for her to ask questions or for me to distill my observations regarding the differences between China and the US.

As is often the case throughout the US, but a certainty in the Midwest, whenever we come face to face with a vehicle entering or exiting a parking lot, or even turning at a neighborhood street corner, the driver always waves us through. It doesn’t matter if there is a zebra stripe or not.

It took my wife a while to get comfortable with this and that created some confusion with the drivers at first, not knowing if we were going to go or balk. The hesitation, of course, came from the fact that the whole concept of voluntarily yielding to pedestrians is totally foreign to her. Even though Chinese traffic laws require vehicles to yield to pedestrians under all circumstances, no one does, and no Chinese pedestrian or cyclist would ever assume they would.

She’s learned to accept that the gesture is sincere, but she runs across just to be safe. I inevitably chuckle to myself, having had the shoe on the other foot of foreignness while living in China for nine years.

For me, the most striking difference in perspective that has surfaced during these walks, however, is that she insists on walking directly behind me. Not far behind, mind you. It’s more like she’s drafting me in the way NASCAR drivers do. And, in fact, she claims that’s why she does it. She doesn’t have to watch where she’s going. She just watches me.

I’ll admit it makes me very self-conscious. My prior wife was constantly complaining that I walked in front of her intentionally, out of disrespect. I, probably like most husbands accused of this violation, felt like I was getting setup. I noted that even when I cut my walking speed by a significant amount the gap between us would remain constant. Mathematically speaking, therefore, she was causing me to walk in front. (Of course I never got anywhere with that argument.)

I’ve explained to Lisa on many occasions that this style of walking is embarrassing to me as Americans view it as degrading to women. It suggests that I, the male, am proclaiming my dominance. I can just hear every woman driving by saying to herself, “Look at that old white scumbag with his pretty little Chinese wife tagging along obediently behind him. What a pig.”

Well, Lisa just doesn’t get it. And like wives everywhere, she continues to do what she wants to do. And I’ve given up.

On a recent walk, however, she said to me, “I see people walking their dogs and the dog is always walking in front. If I got a leash to put around your neck would Americans think it’s alright for you to walk in front?”

Of course I laughed out loud. Being with someone unfamiliar with your culture is sometimes akin to being with your small child. But don’t take that as offensive; the Chinese got plenty of laughs out of me, too.

“Well, you do raise a point. I suppose a leash would change the dynamics of the situation. It would definitely change what the women driving by are thinking. I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer they think of me as an arrogant chauvinist, however.”

I guess the moral of the story is that you have to be careful in your judgment where two different cultures are involved. It’s easy to read too much into things. We tend to see the issues only through our own lens and not a multi-cultural lens.

I was reminded of that again today when I read a piece online about a big international flap about a piece that ran in the inflight magazine of Air China, the flagship state-owned carrier of China. The piece was about visiting London and overall it was meant to present a glowing picture, encouraging their Chinese passengers to visit, and buy a ticket from them, of course.

Always the pragmatists, however, the author added one line about safety. That’s always the number one concern of Chinese traveling abroad, both because they are relatively new to foreign travel, and because there are plenty of places in the world where the Chinese are openly discriminated against.

So the article added one short note suggesting that London was generally a very safe city but you should be wary when visiting ‘these’ ethnic neighborhoods, and women should not go out alone at night. I won’t tell you what the ethnic neighborhoods were because it doesn’t matter.

The comment, of course, brought howls of indignation about the racist nature of the article and demands for an immediate apology from Air China, if not the Chinese government itself, and the immediate removal of the offending magazine from all aircraft.

The howls, of course, then lit up Chinese social media with protests of “There go the foreigners again, telling us what to do.” For the most part, however, the reaction was one of confusion. They just didn’t get all the fuss.

The Chinese are very pragmatic about ethnicity, as they are about most things. Being pragmatic, however, is different than being racist if the latter, as it almost always does, implies an assumption of relative inferiority.

And as proof of the pragmatic explanation, it cuts both ways. The Chinese police and security forces openly profile. But not in the way people in the US would assume that would work.

I frequently traveled on the Beijing subway and there was often a group of security police who roamed the subways and randomly picked people out of the crowd to check their identification by scanning it into a hand held device connected to some central database. I probably passed by one hundred of these makeshift checkpoints, if not more. And never once was I pulled out of line. Never once, in fact, did I see a single foreigner stopped. And never once did I see a woman stopped. They knew exactly the group of people they were looking for.

Never once, by the way, did I see a single person being checked complain. And if you think that’s because China is a Big Brother state and everyone is petrified of the police you’ve never been there. I’ve seen many Chinese arguing with police in the harshest of tones.

I would bet that if you surveyed the Chinese population you would find that an overwhelming majority support police profiling. To them, it just makes sense.

And in fact, statistically speaking, it does. It’s abhorrent only when it is accompanied by prejudice, as it often is in the West.

So I don’t condone the Air China article. I honestly don’t know if the author was prejudicial or not. And I do reject all forms of prejudice.

But I do accept that not every culture looks at things the same way. If we truly want to embrace diversity we must accept alternative worldviews and not jump to judgment every time someone seems to violate our own.

And in the vein of pragmatism I thought the best post I saw on Chinese social media was the writer who suggested that Air China simply stop offering English translations of its articles in the magazine.

Or put a leash on your man when you go walking in case you want to fall in behind and not be judged for it.

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Business is Business

By Western media accounts the G20 meeting that convened in Hangzhou, China on Sunday got off to a rocky start. There was no red carpet waiting for President Obama upon his arrival aboard Air Force One. In fact, there weren’t even any stairs, forcing staffers to scramble for an alternative route for the president to disembark.

And it didn’t stop there. His National Security Advisor got into a verbal tussle with one of the Chinese officials coordinating the arrival, and there was a subsequent argument about how many reporters could accompany Presidents Obama and Xi on their evening stroll.

All of which was generally portrayed as premeditated ‘snubs’ indicative of just how much friction there is between the US and China at the moment. One writer suggested that these snafus were proof positive of just how different the two countries ‘values’ are – implying, of course, that the West has noble values and China does not.

One Chinese official on the tarmac went so far as to proclaim, “This is our country,” noting that they should be allowed to establish security protocols, including where to put the press. And that does, in fact, reflect the strong current of nationalism among the Chinese still sensitive to the Century of Humiliation, when foreign powers routinely ravaged China, took its land, and generally tried to tell it what to do.

The British even went to war in 1839 to stop the Qing dynasty’s efforts to address the growing opium addiction among its people, largely fueled by British traders smuggling the opium in from India in exchange for silver. Britain, it should be noted, had already made opium illegal within its own borders. After capturing Canton, the modern day Guangzhou, and Nanjing, then called Nanking, the British forced the Chinese to cede the island of Hong Kong to British rule, and to open up four additional cities, including Shanghai, to British traders.

Now boasting the number two economy in the world and having lifted 300 million people out of poverty in one generation, the Chinese understandably believe they deserve a little respect, which the US ‘pivot to Asia’ and the harsh rhetoric of the US presidential election concerning foreign trade, would seem to be denying them.

Having said all of that, I don’t personally believe that any of this represents an orchestrated attempt by the Chinese to snub the Americans. “S_it happens,” as the old saying goes, particularly when there are so many egos involved and the Chinese want desperately to see their first G20 meeting come off without a security hitch.

But I really think Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, unwittingly provided the best explanation of why US/Chinese relations appear to be so strained at the moment. Speaking to a Western reporter in fluent English (Before starting Alibaba Ma worked as an interpreter to foreign visitors to Hangzhou.), Ma noted that in his 52 years he had witnessed several American presidential election cycles and without exception the negative rhetoric against China escalated during them.

Ma went on to say, however, that he thought things would return to a more civilized tone after the elections, offering the explanation that, “business is business.”

That very phrase is offered with epidemic frequency among the Chinese and perhaps says more about the Chinese worldview than any other combination of three words. And, I submit, why the US and China just don’t seem to understand each other.

It’s a powerful phrase in its simplicity, invoking the image of balance so central to the Chinese worldview. Business is business; nothing more, nothing less. It stands alone and apart. Which is why Chinese negotiators don’t seek the hallowed Western middle ground of ‘win-win’ in a negotiation. They seek to extract every last ounce of flesh they can.

The other side of that perspective is that, as the Godfather might say, “It’s business; nothing personal.” The Chinese have a decidedly more ‘devil may care’ attitude about wealth and success than Americans do. They don’t, in other words, personalize wealth and success to the same degree Westerners often do. They are more inclined to see good luck where Americans see a noble commitment to hard work and business savvy.

Which is, to say, the Chinese compartmentalize to a far greater degree than most Americans. We are prone to wrap everything up into one big ball of values, principles, and ideals.

President Xi Jinping very much wants to keep the G20 meetings focused on global trade and the world economy. He doesn’t want to see the talks sidetracked by other issues that may be more contentious and subject to individual political perspective.

When President Obama met privately with Xi before the formal start of the G20 talks, however, it was reported that the American president wanted to talk about human rights and the South China Sea, two areas where the two leaders will surely find little common ground.

Compartmentalization is the more pragmatic approach to resolving disputes. There is the chance, however, that broader ideals may be compromised, although we are hardly the shining city on the hill when it comes to human rights, and the benefit to everyday Americans of the pivot to Asia has yet to be shown.

And, of course, the Chinese official is right – it is their country.

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