When Culture Lets Go
For this month of April, Wilson has been visiting me, staying at my place. As with any close friend, he’s more than just fun to hang out with; he provides me with new ideas to think over. He inspires me. Our conversations cover a broad range of topics, but they usually center on China. On us, and why we’re here. And on where all this is going.
After staying in Hangzhou, China for a year and a half, Wilson returned to an America he has discovered he’s pretty unsatisfied with. There’s one sentence he keeps repeating. America is culturally bankrupt.
In our many discussions, when Wilson refers to characteristics of life in the States, I can’t help but think that what he really means is life in California. California has a distinct subculture of its own, one that I associate especially closely with materialism and narcissism. But then, I’ve never really spent any time in California, and to be honest, I haven’t spent enough time in the United States in the past four years to be any real authority on current cultural trends. Regardless, one thing is clear: the lives we imagine ourselves living back in the United States right now are unfulfilling.
If it’s merely materialism we’re shunning, however, you’d think that Shanghai would be the last place either of us would want to settle. The scramble for wealth in all its forms here is nauseatingly apparent. But we don’t feel such a steely grip on our souls here. Why?
You could say that living in China has been sort of an “out of culture experience.” We have left our cultural bodies back home to float over here for a look. The result is that not only do we gain an outsider’s perspective on what’s going on in China, but we can view much more objectively what’s going on back home, and how we’re enveloped in it.
Change is unavoidable in any society. In China, it’s coming in a raging torrent, but we actually feel like we can be part of what’s directing the flow. That’s exciting. In the United States, the change feels much more sluggish, but it nevertheless seems to sweep us all away along with it, like drowning rats.
Living outside of one’s home culture just feels empowering to us. We feel much more capable of rejecting the values with which we disagree, both those from back home as well as those from China.
In spite of all these feelings, we can’t deny that it is American culture that shaped us. And we’re grateful for that. But there comes a time when you have to gather what you’ve gained and spread your wings. I like where I’ve come to rest. Like I said, the view is great.
NOTE: Those that like reading about cultural issues regarding Americans and Chinese should definitely take a look at an excellent new blog called Zai Mei Guo. It deals especially with stereotypes.
nice piece as usaual. being an outsider is not easy esp. when someone lives in his/her montherland but with an eye and heart as outsider’s. that is called loneliness.
excellent blog u recommended. thx.
hope to see more blogs written by european non english native speakers, as i assume their perspectives may differ from ur guys, or maybe not.;-)
I felt the same way that Wilson felt when i came back from my year and a half in Germany. It is hard to put your finger on, but there is just something that changes inside of a person when they spend time abroad. This affects how one looks at the US and puts things in an odd and often dissapointing perspective.
What i think makes this truly stand out is when you try to recreate a cultural experience in the states to somehow compensate for this feeling of cultural bankruptcy as John put it.
This entry really struck a cord with me as all the negative things i thought about during my last months in Germany, eventually all came miserably true. Everything i do now is working towards re-establishing myself in Europe where my life felt oh so very fulfilling.
Anyways, im not sure if im making sense to anyone but myself, but this entry really hit home and i thought i would comment.
Very nice piece and well written. Everything I would like to say but wouldn’t have written so eloquently.
p.s. what’s going on with the adopt-a-blog project?
The United States is not culturally bankrupt, but it is culturally splintered. Faced with an endless array of distractions, many choose the least demanding & end up living a odd lives of consumption and superficiality. But others are here living thoughtfully & attempting to influence the broader society. I’ll be sorry if the thousands of young expats don’t come back & shake us up.
I think Margaret makes a very good point. There are plenty of people who are living fulfilling lives here in America. I completed a year of service in AmeriCorps last year, and I was able to observe as well as compare and contrast the varied perspectives of people living in incredibly small towns and people living in a large city. I think that while John and Wilson might have valid perceptions re: their US vs. China experiences, they should keep in mind how limited their US experiences have been in relation to how varied the US is on a whole. I’m not arguing against what John said though. I felt some of what he talked about in my travels abroad too, which is why I feel so compelled to do more travelling abroad and hopefully live abroad at some point.
OK. I’ve been listening to this same rhetoric for months. Here are my two cents.
America is NOT culturally bankrupt. I don’t believe we can say that. Just open your eyes and look around. California, especially, is one of the most culturally diverse places in the United States. We need to look beyond the tract houses that are all lined up in neat little rows, the shiny SUVs parked in the driveways and the cookie cutter families that live in those homes. Even then, suburban America offers its own culture. I can’t help but think of all those housing development projects cropping up all over southern China where one “villa” looks identical to the one next to it.
Let’s look more specifically at the Bay Area in California. We’re surrounded by ethnic diversity. Let’s not forget that America was founded on immigration. Hyphen communities offer a culture that one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. The abundant array of foods, music, literature, and lifestyles cannot be overlooked.
Now let’s turn to politics. Where else in the world would you find an ex-bodybuilder, action movie hero as a prominent political leader? Let’s not forget the whole circus surrounding the California recall. I admit, crazy politics can be found the world over. Just look at the current situation in Taiwan. But I can’t help but wonder if the 2000 election debacle and the California recall had some influence on how the world thinks a democracy should be run.
Culture is not static. It’s ever-evolving. How we feel about culture depends on our perspective. As human beings, we tend to always look at what we don’t have and spend little time appreciating the things around us that we do have. If something is truly missing, I say create it!
You say it yourself, “the lives we imagine ourselves living back in the United States right now are unfulfilling.” The lives you IMAGINE living. I wonder if you would feel the same way if you gave it a chance and LIVED it. I mean really give it a chance. Apply the same energy and enthusiasm you’ve applied to life in China to life in the US. I think we may all be pleasantly surprised.
I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a citizen of one country or another. I grew up in both Asia and the midwestern United States, always spending parts of the year in both regions, so I never thought of myself as belonging only to one area of the world. I’ve never been a “foreigner” in either place so I wouldn’t know, but I’m sure being a “laowai” has a lot to do with one’s views and how one is treated anywhere in the world.
The concept of being a “global citizen” has always been part of my identity, regardless of what my passport says. As a kid growing up in two such very different cultures, I was always asked which place I preferred to live in. I could never answer that question. Now, I think I’ve finally found the perfect answer: Why choose if we don’t have to?
John, Wilson, I love you guys, but all your talk about American “cultural bankruptcy,” “values” and “spread[ing] your wings” is straight out of a bad self-help book.
Far from being bankrupt, America is the MOST culturally strong country in the world. There is more cultural diversity and ingenuity within America than ANYWHERE ELSE in the world. Within 60 miles of where I live, I can probably meet just about ANY nationality on the face of the world. Within the past month, I’ve had Thai, Persian, Chinese, and Japanese food. America pop culture rules the world; everyone else, including the Chinese, is just imitating. America has the biggest bookstores in the world, and the Library of Congress is the biggest library in the world. Many, if not most, of the major cultural advances within the past century have been American: movies, jazz, rock, etc. In fact, everything you think is “Western” is really AMERICAN: supermarkets, fast food, the internet, etc. So no, I don’t think America is culturally bankrupt; it’s the direct OPPOSITE. If you WANT culture, America’s the place to be.
However, I do feel unfulfilled since being back in America. But it has nothing to do with America’s supposed cultural bankruptcy. The source of unhappiness of (male) Americans who return to the US could be summed up simply in 4 parts (from most important to least important):
I may be cynical, but I truly believe these are the real reasons why most (though, of course, not all) Western guys stay abroad. Learning a new culture and language are just icing on the cake, but they are NOT the main reasons.
I was surprised to view the piece by John and would like to applaud him. John loves living in China. Unrooting and making a home abroad is inspirational to witness.
Living abroad is of great controversy and interest. To some it’s a reality that can be chosen and made. To others, it’s a glorified escape from reality. It’s only with the latter when you understand your time abroad is temporary and you must return ‘home’.
I have been saying “America is culturally bankrupt” for months on end. When I say “America is culturally bankrupt,” what am I implying?
Culture, depending on your definition, abounds aplenty in America. It’s on TV, it’s on the Internet. Yes, there are yellow, white, black, brown, green people in America – what ethnic diversity! Straight, bi and transgender sexuality. Marriage and Gay Marriage. Hungry? You can eat Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican food, all on one street. Across America, you can find culture in your local Chinatown, Japantown, _____town, ____ghetto. But is all this cultural richness? Do we actually embrace the multitudes of culture. Do we conveniently package, label and consume culture? Do we care?
Is there a real understanding of culture when you’re eating fast-food buffet Japanese sashimi made by Mexicans in a franchise restaurant in a suburban sprawl shopping mall? Is that culture and if so, is it a culture you can believe in?
I suppose what interests and inspires me is a society and culture with history, with purpose, with direction – something I can believe in.
Interesting post. I like your analogy of the sushi place in an American shopping mall, and shudder at the image. There are MANY such places in southern California, and they’re ghastly.
But in my opinion–and anyone can disagree, of course–culture is not only “high” culture. Anything that a lot of people painstakingly put together deserves the title of art. Thus, Disneyland, in my eyes, is just as valid a cultural artifact as the Summer Palace.
And I was being half-facetious when I mention Westerners only want to go abroad to not work hard and get laid. I think there’s another element: people want to live multiple lives. Living in a foreign country is the closest thing we have to interstellar travel. You’re like Captain Kirk and the nearest Boeing the Starship Enterprise. You teleport from place to place, meeting new people, seeing new things. Of course, once your ship docks back on planet Earth (i.e., your home country be it America or Germany or wherever), you’ll be bored because you’re seeing the same shit you’ve been seeing all your life! You’re back to being yourself. I guess the appeal of living abroad is like reading a novel or watching a movie: you get to live a fantasy of sorts.
I agree with most of Wilson’s statements. To those speaking to the contrary, yes, America is vast and the differences are great, so culture exists in many different forms. But lately, no matter where you look, these cultures are converging, homogenizing, into one blanket “it better make money” culture. Britney looks hot in a skirt; McDonalds can be a real life-saver sometimes; and “The Last Action Hero” starred a future governor, but is this positive evolution of our culture. America’s uniqueness, it’s diversity, isn’t being preserved, it’s being exploited and shipped off to make money abroad. If I eat at Taco Bell or watch a Christina Aguillera video (both not often!) I don’t feel like I’m experiencing the cultures of Mexico and South America. That’s not to say I don’t have the option of finding an authentic experience, but, give me a break, how many Americans venture into the unknown. Only around 10% of us even have passports. Go ask the guy pumping gas for you which countries border Iraq, or where Iraq is for that matter.
But this isn’t just our problem, talk to Europeans, they’re going through the same crisis of identity. They are also choosing ignorance over substance, but they just have a lot farther to go than us Americans.
And now I feel spoiled, because I live in China, a place that lets me reject the parts of American culture that I increasingly feel contempt for, as well as not having to participate in the parts of Chinese culture I disagree with. Being an outsider has its advantages, but eventually we all must find our home.
…lastly, in my opinion, if Bush wins, pack your bags there’s no turning back.
Good post John and Wilson
First, I want to thank John for the promo for my new blog: thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.
Second, I would echo some of the comments from Wilson and Matt about cultural bankruptcy. I don’t think the availability of mostly Americanized (insert ethnic food group here) food really signifies the vibrancy of American culture. On the other hand, after spending a lot of time in Europe, I came to realize that the US doesn’t have a monopoly on shallowness and superficiality. Maybe it is just unrealistic to expect to find personal meaning and satisfaction from a “culture”; familiarity tends to breed contempt and boredom, so people start to drift in search of something new. Also, I think after you live abroad and return home, you feel like a foreigner in your own country. Many of my Chinese friends have commented on this as well.
Finally, it is true that California is not “America.” It is like a foriegn country compared to where I am in the Midwest. (You think you have it bad.. 😉
Although much of what Wilson and Matt have to say rings true I find that he is ignoring the more noble aspects of American culture and focusing on the shallow. Cultural richness or the lack thereof isnt just about embracing or homogenizing different the ethnicities and foods that exist in America but also about cultural values that make America unique. One of the main reasons that such ethnic diversity exists in the states is a cultural acceptance of different kinds of people be it their sexuality or race, something you wont find in China. Our political institutions, respect for the public good, tolerance of cultural differences and our diverse, even fragmented history our all part of our culture. Hopefully its not just materialism but also the better aspects of our history and culture that influence all Americans.
Wilson, are you implying that China is a society and culture with history, with purpose, with direction – something I can believe in?
While China certainly has a long history, modern China hardly has a deeper understanding of their past than the US. Tacky made for TV remakes of the Three Kingdoms hardly amounts to cultural richness, try finding a Chinese person outside of the educated elite who have read the book. As for the evils of capitalism, Ive often seen a much greater excess of materialism and disrespect of the public good in China than Ive ever seen in the states. (Although the US certainly went through similar periods)
Purpose, direction Are extreme and often blind nationalism, and a strong desire to become a world superpower the type of purpose and direction you speak of? Hardly better than the US, at least many educated Americans are wary of extreme patriotism and its dangers.
I certainly understand the feeling of being dissatisfied after returning to the States after being in China but after several trips Ive become certain that in many ways the US possesses far greater cultural wealth than China does.
Wow, so many comments to reply to.
Let me first say that my original post was based on feelings, not on what I believe to be fact. I was talking about how I personally feel toward the two cultures right now. I didn’t mean to imply that living in the USA is meaningless. I would have written all that out, but I preferred to be brief.
I agree with Da Xiangchang’s second comment: “Living in a foreign country is the closest thing we have to interstellar travel.” Like I said, it’s exciting.
Living within American culture is boring to me right now because of its familiarity. I know I wouldn’t feel this way if I weren’t American.
Lastly, when we look at culture, I think we need to look at the big picture and acknowledge that culture is dynamic. American culture has a beautiful foundation and includes so many ideals I will always hold dear, but in too many ways, it feels like it’s on the way down. On the other hand, in many ways (not all) Chinese culture feels like it’s on the way up. Slowly, people really are looking outward and discovering the outside world for the first time. I can be a part of that, and I believe it’s going to have positive consequences for China as well as the whole world.
I wish I could say the same for the USA. I really wish I could.
Da Xiangchang makes some good (and humourous) points about why certain people like to live abroad. As much as we try to deny it to others (I’m here to study the culture/language,etc.), the feelings of being different and special play key parts in our expat existences. Especially in a place like China where foreigners are often an endless source of curiosity. And do I really have to mention rather crazy amounts of money for rather minimal amounts of work?
But I will also add that it is easy to get tired of this “special” status. It can become quite disillusioning and lead one to long for the familiarity of old friends and places…yes, the dreaded home country. Human beings love attention, but it’s also oh so comfortable to be a nobody sometimes.
As for the knocks on the US for being “culturally bankrupt”, I again agree with Da Xiangchang that it is one of the most culturally interesting places on earth. With the whole world mixing together in one place and with ingenuity celebrated and encouraged, how could it not be?
China might feel more dynamic and alive right now; it is on a “development high”. It seems to have a definite purpose and destination. But if and when it reaches that goal, it will grapple with the same question that haunts many ‘developed’ countries: “Now What?” I’m not sure simple material wealth is satistying enough as an ends to human existence.
People knock places like the US and Canada for “not having a culture”, but the search for identity is strong in these places. In a certain country where people are so sure about their great and unique culture, they seem to have no problem consciously destroying most aspects of it.
Well, in the time it took me to write out my long and rambling comment Donald posted one that is spot on.
If one attacks the US with the usual criticism (materialism,capitalism consumption and such), it would do well to note that many of these are right now found in much more raw and brutal forms on this side of the ocean.
Strange, one of the last things that I expected to happen to me over here was to become more pro-American.
As an outsider on both counts (neither Chinese nor American)and never having been to America, let me state at the outset that I willnot comment either way on America’s aleged cultural bankruptcy.
The point I wish to make is this:
Many of America’s boosters in this thread display a certain (excuse me for inventing a word) America-centric attitude. Da Xiangchang (and I realise your tongue was firmly in cheek at the time you wrote the first post) in particular highlights this attitude. Many of the things you nominate as being uniquely American are in fact quite common around the world, and not because of America’s interest. I could eat just as great a range of food in New Zealand as I could in America, and that is not because America gave New Zealand such a great range of food. America contributed hamburgers, pizza, McDonalds, KFC and the colas, and that’s about it. We have our own traditional forms of fast food, which existed as fast food even before the arrival of American Marines during World War 2 (probably the first big American influence on Kiwi society). The internet being a purely American invention? Funny how I’ve heard about the involvement of scientists in Europe in its development…. Movies? An American development of pre-existing technology. Music? A fair bit of hip-hop can actually be traced back to Jamaica. The first person to fly? Quite possibly not American- check this site out: http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/pearse.html
And tell me, where was the Lord of the Rings made?
My point is not to bash or run down America in any way. Nor is my point to promote New Zealand. If you intend to prove that America is not culturally bankrupt, you’re going to actually have to come up with proof instead of bluster. John and Wilson have very good points. Their experiences are very similar, I suspect, to the experiences of many of us expats, regardless of patria. I am inclined to agree that the West in general seems very much on the way out, as if its greatest contributions have already made.
When ‘culture’ is sanitised and pre-packaged for your consumption, you have to ask yourself some serious questions.
To those who seem to think that living abroad somehow frees you to reject those aspects of your native culture you disagreed with, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. I’ve spent my entire life, both within and without New Zealand, as a dissenter. There are many aspects of New Zealand culture I disagree with. I simply don’t practice them, even when I am there. Freedom is in your mind. If you decide you want no part of the consumer society, then don’t take part in it. Not taking part does not mean fleeing in search of that mythical mystic paradise in the East. It means deciding to live your own life, and is not dependent on geography.
I think I’ve ranted too much.
Culture is the sum of the present. Everywhere has it. Where you are able to pursue what you feel just is where you feel culture is best.
For some of the people who have written in the above it seems like they are able to do that in many places. Most of us are not that flexible.
Wow, lots of great comments and interesting posts. As a Chinese who has been in UK for 4 years and now is still going to stay in UK, I do have similar feeling like John and wilson. Especially “Living outside of one;s home culture just feels empowering to us. We feel much more capable of rejecting the values with which we disagree, both those from back home as well those from China” ( I can;t agree with this more.)
Personally, I am a big fan of Traditional Chinese culture and am very pride of Chinese culture.
China is such a huge country with different culture in different areas as well.Before living abraod, I have accepted traditional Chinese education and became really pride of all the culture thing China had and is having. But after living in UK and travel around in Europe , I started to look at my own culture from a different height(let’s say this, maybe not):
Actually the current culture of China is a combination of “Traditional Confucius culture” and very little bit of so called Maxist culture together with western culture (this became fashionable and lots of young people start to follow e.g. hiphop,dico,pub…etc/Here western culture is not just American culture, it invovles European culture and even Japanese and Korean culture).
Taditional Chinese culture is getting less and less within young generations. Confucius’克己、礼让、中庸、学而知之 and Taoism’s belief became out of date for most modern Chinese nowadays. Probably if you are staying in China now in Shanghai you can feel very little of these cultures. And even ask most Chinese people they probably know very little about 忠、孝、仁、义、礼、修身、齐家 these confucian thoery let alone apply these on themselves.
Traditional Chinese culture emphasis on “天人合一”:
天不是一个既定的事实，也不是一个关于事实的概念，而是思维定势方向。天与道作为哲学思想，是对自然与人在变化中的统一的理解，同时也是对人与自然在和谐中共生的追求。(I don’t know how to translate this frankly, maybe John can help)It basically is a philosopic belief of Traditional Chinese cultre, we believe you have to understand nature and try to survive between human and nuture and try to balance this.( a little bit similar to Environmental friendly concept:)
As a 24 year old, I like western culture myself and I do believe I am quite international. Look at my draw and I can see most cosmetic products are Lancome, CD, Chanel (French) SKII,Shu Uemura(Japanese) Biotherm(Italian)etc…
Look at my music collection, I do see lots of Rock, metal, Rave (electronic music)…
The way I live is quite international but that doesn;t mean my value and my culture feeling is westernized. I still don;t believe in GOD, but I still believe in 孔、孟、老、庄，屈原、李白、杜甫、朱熹的信念操守和信念风范.(xin nian, which is a Chinese belief like Morality standard. In a word, I still believe Traditional Chinese culture rather than a specific religion.)
When I go back to China for holiday, I can see lots of young people are like me, they listen to Western music, maybe using Western products etc…But which doesn;t mean most young people share the same value as I do.
Materialism is becoming more and more popular, in Shanghai you can see it and feel it even in the air.(But I do believe Japan is more advanced in this aspect, they opened to western culture much earlier than China, and they are extremely good at copying other culture as they did during Tang dynasty for copying Chinese culture) However, I still believe with all those materialism there is still some space in people’s belief for traditional Chinese culture.
Culture confusion is for everyone probably, as no such a culture is not affected by other culture in this era. Maybe one day we will share the same INTERNATIONAL culture.
Chris Waugh makes a very important point. Americans have false stereotypes bashed into their heads during their impressionable years in K-12 education (kindergarten through 12 grade).
– We are culturally diverse
– No other country except maybe Western ones has free speech, but ours was the first and is the best
– Our history is short, but something to be proud of.
A lot of these things I believed before I lived abroad, but after being away for 7 months (chump change compared to John), I realize that these things simply aren’t true. But it’s not just the US. Any country has certain values that its education system imposes on its children, but it’s not done conciously. The values line up with the collective, and in the US who are at the top of the collective? Corporations. They power our “#1” economy and set a lot of the policies we have domestically and internationally. It’s called lobbying, and its rarely mentioned in our media because it’s happened so much throughout this century that nobody thinks of it as news.
So how does this affect US “culture?” Since the US aims to keep itself at #1, it needs a populous that will support a war “because we say so” (ahm Iraq?). How does it do this? Marginialization of the public. The more money you have, the more your opinion dominates. Who has the money? Again, corporations. They get to choose which TV shows we watch, what music we listen to, and what movies are shown, where we congregate all because they own all the resources that make these things possible. They control our “culture.” I’m not saying corporations are the root of all evil, but I think they play a major role in why people think the US is “culturally bankrupt.” But I don’t think this argument is only limited to the US; I see similar “cultural bankruptcy” in Japan and even in China’s own backyard, Hong Kong. In 50 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if China follows their lead…
To Gracewang: what makes u think japanese culture and korean culture belong to western culture, just because of their brands and products? Have u ever been there?
Both countries keep more 儒学 than china do!!!
You know, the idea that China’s going up and America’s going down is a popular one. I’m not sure if I believe it. Still, I often wonder if America’s in the same position now that Britain was in circa 1900. I hope not. But I believe America isn’t really going down, but rather other countries are going up. Eventually, in the distant future, most of today’s poor countries will be rich, and because of certain countries’ higher populations (India, China, etc.), they’ll be richer overall than America (higher GDPs). American dominance might go down, but I don’t think the standard of living will be any less than now.
Of course, the vehicles that will raise people’s standards of living worldwide are capitalism, globalization, and corporations. I personally LOVE Big Business–the bigger the better is my motto–because it’s Big Business that’s lifting poor people worldwide. Communism and socialism suck, and I find it laughable that people still believe they could work. Everytime I see those anti-IMF or anti-WTO parades, I want to puke.
I hope I’m not the only one who sees the irony in all of this. I respect everyone’s views, but why are we all such slaves to this notion of world hegemony, where one country or culture is more rich while one is bankrupt, or where one country is going up while the other is going down? Is it so incredibly unfathomable to us that there may not be ONE single winner? Why must we pit one country/culture against another?
The irony to me is this: many who have expressed their views have lived or experienced a culture in a country that they don’t call “home.” This “experience abroad” or “out of culture experience” should have opened our eyes, opened our minds, opened our hearts. Instead, I see a group who has become unforgiving and intolerant of one particular country/culture versus another.
What happened our openmindedness? Where are my fellow Global Citizens? Personally, I’m severely saddened and deeply disappointed.
Having opinions and drawing conclusions means we’re not open-minded?
An open-minded person, in light of new evidence, is willing to alter his own understanding of the world in light of new information. That’s exactly what we’ve done.
To me, the sad thing is to go abroad, witness new cultures and mindsets, but to be left with only “every culture is special in its own way.” I think we should be a bit more analytical.
“Of course, the vehicles that will raise people’s standards of living worldwide are capitalism, globalization, and corporations.”
Yes, and it I believe the raising of standards of living causes what John and Wilson refer to as “cultural bankruptcy.”
If you are born into a high standard of living, you become complacent in your daily life. Nothing is good enough for you; you have access to everything you need at the click of a button or a foot to a gas pedal. There’s nothing threatening your existence, so there’s nothing for you to react against. You end up bored, tired, or cynical about everything you experience. The last movie you saw was “OK.” You don’t know what to do on your free time because you feel like you’ve done everything there is to do in your city. In the end, you become mediocre.
I’m not against high standards of living, but I think some people fail to realize how lucky they are to live with so much at their fingertips. Experiencing a different culture, and understanding a different way of thinking never fails to reveal the false pretenses that you were raised under.
I’m concerned about a few things that have popped up since my last visit:
Wulong, I understand your rage, but there’s one point on which you are wrong. The corporations do not control your culture. You do. The power the corporations have is the power the people allow them to have. And please don’t be so anti-US, even here from my anti-American point of view I can see a lot of value in American culture. Take it back from the corporations and be proud of it.
Da Xiangchang, the simple fact is that the world’s economy is far more dependent on small to medium sized enterprises than on Big Business. In New Zealand and China, definitely (because I’ve seen the stats), and I suspect in most, if not all (barring crackpot states like N.Korea) the world’s economies SME’s contribute far more to the economy than the multi-nationals. The difference is one of visibility, not economic power.
Heidi, I see your point, but I feel you may have misunderstood certain points some people have made. In my own defence, I do not believe in any sort of ridiculous competition for cultural superiority. I am immensely proud of the culture I come from and I am eager to learn all that is good from the culture that hosts me. Respect for other cultures, as John pointed out, does not mean refusing to analyse and form opinions.
That’s not what I meant at all. Far from it.
I’m all for being analytical, having opinions, and drawing conclusions. In fact, that’s what I do all day.
What I meant is that while we open ourselves up to a different culture, we become increasingly intolerant and especially unforgiving of another. This leads to our dissatisfaction and disappointment with one culture or another. Why shroud ourselves in dissatisfaction when we don’t have to? A life mired with feelings of dissatisfaction and unfulfillment is sad, regardless of the culture one is living in at the moment.
Moreover, if we continue to engage in a borderline nationalistically-tinged discourse, will peaceful coexistence ever be realized?
Let me borrow a line from the beauty queens: “I only wish for world peace.” Peace between nations, and peace of mind for individuals.
I guess I never realized how I was coming off. I don’t mean to be so anti-American. I believe what I said holds for any sufficiently powerful nation (i.e. developed nations).
I am in the US now, and I don’t mind living here. Sometimes, though, I realize how much I undervalued everything I had here before I left, and how much I now appreciate what I do have. I just take whatever I get from the media here and add about 5 shakers of salt to it before I consume it…
Wulong, my point was the power is in your hands, not the corporations. I didn’t mean to accuse you of being anti-American. I simply meant that it is up to each of us, regardless of where we may be from or where we may be, to take what is good from what is on offer (culturally, commercially, whatever-ly) and use that for the good of ourselves and those around us.
But I realise you understand this point. Here in China, I look back at New Zealand and think, holy shit we’re lucky down there. Same way you see America, I guess, but we’re looking from different angles.
Turning the TV off and going for a walk is a healthier alternative to the 5 shakers of salt you mention.
hey, Johnhan & spring
I am not intend to raise arguments here, just express my opinion. It could be biased, it could be different from yours. That is simply my opinion, nothing like serious or Fact. However, I do respect your opinion 🙂
Thanks for your guys comment anyway.
did even you know that when you referenced wilson’s phrase, “culturally bankrupt,” that you would provoke so many reactions?
did you, john?
you know, i’m so appreciative of you going out on a limb and sharing these intensely personal reflections.
this goes for wilson, too.
at the risk of sounding trite, i am indeed appreciative of all the posts that have imparted their insightful responses concerning this particular entry of yours.
(having said that, don’t you think that you are being a little hard on heidi when you tell her she needs to be more analytical, john? come now.)
interesting to note is how many have felt compelled to either prove or disprove the validity of the US being “culturally bankrupt.”
we do have culture!
no you don’t.
yeah… we do.
um…. don’t think so.
and then the other comments center on what approaches to take in the interest of reaching a resolution, like:
why do we have to choose a culture to which we should align ourselves? we can pick and choose from many cultures what we like, discard what we don’t care for and move on.
and, then, those basic, straightforward comments that echo your entry pop up:
yeah… i know what you mean.
when i lived abroad, (finish the sentence).
then when i came home, (finish the sentence).
when wilson writes, “…what interests and inspires me is a society and culture with history, with purpose, with direction – something I can believe in…,” he expresses a sentiment that i think we have all felt at one time or another, our personal backgrounds notwithstanding.
and, i think, therein lies the core of this post.
to oversimplify his comment, we can conclude that feeling dissatisfied is what underscores his comment.
this is true of your entry in the sense that you attribute some of your motive for spending time in china to feeling that the US wasn’t completely cutting it for you. gaining an additional cultural perspective was necessary for your own personal growth and development.
and, in the end, this is all about the process of personal growth and development.
therefore, i am bothered with how “culture” is being so dreadfully empowered.
“culture” as equated to identity.
you think that i am overstating the treatment that “culture” has received in this entry?
i think not.
what else am i to conclude when you write, in reference to the US’s “cultural bankruptcy” that:
“the lives we imagine ourselves living back in the united states right now are unfulfilling”?
or better still…
your implication that US culture has a “steely grip on your soul.”
what else am i to conclude, when reactions so passionately defend the existence (or lack thereof) of US culture, except that “culture” has been lifted to the importance of identity?
if, by now, you don’t understand that “culture” is nothing more than a tool that you control, that you shape and wield, to serve your identity (i.e. your personal growth and development), then i fear that your homecoming, whenever that may be, will be riddled with disappointment.
if “culture” is too heavily mingled with identity, then you have no other choice but to feel suffocated; i don’t care what culture you are talking about.
however, in the context of china (specifically where you are concerned), you intuitively recognize that the “culture” there is not your identity. in fact, you are using chinese culture as a tool to serve your own personal growth and development.
to be sure, when you spread your wings, come to a resting place, and find the view as being great, (in my mind) you are talking about honing a skill that few ever have the privilege to develop, namely recognizing “culture” as a tool and using it accordingly to suit your needs.
what a shame if, just by changing your environment, you were to lose that skill.
what a shame.
very well put, illy.
Culture: The behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought, especially as expressed in a particular community or period.
Identity is created by culture and the environment that an individual is in. It’s inescapable. There comes a great time when one becomes a producer rather than a consumer of culture, but consumption of culture never ends nor is it unavoidable. Not all culture is equal nor is it equally abundant.
Culture can only be used beneficially as a ‘tool’ when you’re in an environment that interprets your culture as special or unique – thus validating your culture and identity.
Humans are not passive beings – rather, we can choose not to be.
When did individual choice disappear from the equation?
I create my identity. I validate my culture.
I value the choices I’ve made. I refuse to be passive, and I’m happy with that.
Very, very interesting insights.
However, I’m still finding some people’s views of culture a little hard to take. “Culture” is an amorphous, often invisible element of our surroundings. We live quite a few years on this earth, continuously sucking it in, before we’re even aware that it exists. When you (or other people) talk about “choosing” culture or using it is a “tool” without ever leaving one’s society, I become very skeptical. When you’ve reached a certain degree of awareness, you may choose what you will accept from America’s cultural menu, but when you stay in the USA, you’re still only offered what’s on that one menu.
My whole point was that being out of the USA for so long, I feel that I can see things more clearly than I would ever have seen had I never left, and the specifics are not even easily verbalized.
please note that i truly understand your point, and wilson’s too.
and i respect the insights you have both imparted.
and, to be sure, i am not contesting anything you’ve said.
in fact, i’m just adding an insight.
not meant to undermine.
not meant to invalidate your position.
in the context of china’s culture, you’ve expanded your identity. but you did it.
and (in sinatra’s words) you did it your way.
wilson did the same, in his way.
with effort and dedication, and especially in the beginning stages, you began your odysseys with difficulty.
(here, i am assuming for wilson, so sorry if i am jumping to a wrong conclusion; however, i remember well with you, john.)
the efforts were well worth it.
you guys are experts at surviving and thriving in a culture in which navigation is challenging, and you use your identity as a compass.
in fact, this whole entry’s subtext (at least in the way i read it) implies that wilson is expanding and growing even more… though overtly the text is deflated and somehow melancholic.
but all the posts were overlooking the identity part.
overlooking our role… the part we play.
to use culture instead of being dominated by it.
that’s the only p.o.v. that i wanted to inject in this discussion.
if you think that traveling outside of the US is the only way to hone this skill, that is another bag of beans.
however, that traveling outside the US is not an incredibly effective way to acquire this ability… well, gee… i don’t think i ever suggested that.
i would be silly to even go in that direction.
finally, i have to confess that wilson’s comments concern me, only that i am saddened with the prospect of his dissatisfaction.
i imagine that i am not alone in this feeling.
i will even go so far as to say that many of these posts have been an attempt to resolve his plight now that he has returned to california.
in some trite sense, my comments boil down to some stupid pep talk: “come on, wilson! you rock. you can beat this american cultural bankruptcy. kick it in the teeth!”
what a joke.
we all know only too well that culture and identity are not equal.
but we also know that they do overlap.
and we all know that this issue has no easy answer.
but you know me, john.
seeing someone dissatisfied burns my ass.
just one last question:
if your china experience has afforded an improved vision, of which i have no doubt, then… why would returning to your culture of origin pose as problematic? is it because you feel alone with your new clarity? is it because you feel disappointed by the notion of being surrounded by cretins?
these questions are neither rhetorical nor sarcastic.
they are sincere…
Wilson, first off, great images on racingmix.com, you have a good eye.
I found your words interesting and had my wife read them. I liked her take on the Culturally Bankrupt view and want to share it with you. I’ve only skimmed the responces above so I hope I don’t repeat.
If your familiar with Maslows Hierarchy of Needs you may look at your statement a little differently. Very basically Maslow says we have to fulfill the basic needs before advancing to the next level, ie. once the need for food and shelter are reached we move to the next level. In America, thank God, we have as a society reached so many levels that we now give unimportant things/people significance. Our local talk radio host challenges people to name the winner of any reality TV show, then follows by asking them to name their state representative, most people can’t do that.
The point might be that maybe we are Culturally Bankrupt but maybe that is because we haven’t reached the next level of the Hierarchy. I also feel that the true creative culture doesn’t fit the Prime Time agenda so you have to dig deeper than the TV or radio to find it. I hate the term “underground” but maybe it’s just that.
John, great blog, I visit daily.
Keith in Atlanta