The world was coming to an end!!!!
But what world?
So asked Ray Bradbury in his early 1950s short story “The Highway,” through the voice of a poor rural farmer watching city folk frantically drive by his home as they sought to escape the doom. He in turn calmly plowed his fields, wondering what they were going on about.
I read the story as a teen – feeling it was very subversive – and forgot about it until the first time I came to China in the mid 1980s.
In those days – China was just beginning to open and your “guide,” usually with a Western name like Michael Jackson and actually a security service person, would watch you like a hawk and never let you alone for a moment.
There were few cars on the road – everything was drab and old – and the sense of oppression lingered wherever you went.
Yet, even pre-boom – I had an experience on that trip that was like a religious revelation – it changed my thinking and gave me an awareness and appreciation that I continue to hold to this day.
The driver stopped for me to admire a view and take some pictures. It was a pastoral scene – as far as the eye could see there was nothing but rice paddies – no power lines, no buildings, no skylines – nothing – nada – zero.
However, there was one more thing – there were peasant farmers walking through the paddies, back and forth, with their conical hats and water buffalo.
And there it was – “The Highway” made real. The world had changed – was changing and would change even more – yet those people had been walking back and forth like that for thousands of years – What wars? What advances? What nuclear threat?
I realized then the power of China – eternal – rooted in the past – with no fear of the future.
I write this from Beijing – toward the end of a week spent in China.
What a change – now there are not only cars, but BMWs, Mercedes, you name it, and massive traffic jams.
Every major luxury retailer is here in force, and as I walked to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the National Museum – I was struck by the fashion diversity of the crowds – they could have been from anywhere – and the open and friendly manner of all – not to mention the aggressive entrepreneurship of the many young artists and would-be tourist guides. And no one was watching us – in fact, we were the only Westerners in the museum.
What a place – they have their own Facebook called Renren (formerly known as the Xiaonei Network), their own Google called Baidu, and even though it’s not perfect – 80/20 is good enough for now and they know how to move on.
Do you want to feel humble? As awed as we are in the West with Facebook and its big numbers – there are more smartphone subscribers in China than Facebook has members globally. Makes you think – no? And none of them use Facebook….
It’s a place that is eager to learn. I recently read that Panda Express, the largest Chinese-restaurant chain in the U.S., is considering expanding into China and that entrepreneurs in Beijing are trying to market American “Chinese” food to the local Chinese. Get that. They are bringing back to China what other cultures have tried and adapted as their own, curious to see how the locals will react to the American taste of their cuisine.
What about the other way around? Will the next thing we see be the export of a Chinese burger place to the U.S.?
The energy – the power – the positive can-do attitude – the optimism – makes you realize just how closed off people in the West are – or can be. And best of all – no hatred or jealousy of the West – to the contrary, it’s a place to catch back up with – and then surpass. And remember, civilization here was far advanced in the late BCs and early ADs – often way beyond the West.
Which leads me to my POV – being in the museum reminded me – listen:
“Study the past if you would define the future.”
It’s that simple. The world needs to take a lesson. The region is booming because they get it. When others speak of doom and gloom – they ask where? And get on with it – not quarter by quarter, but with a long-term view.
Let’s be clear – this is far from Utopia – but what isn’t?
I contrast this with events in the Middle East where a look back is as glorious in terms of accomplishment as it is here in China. Science, poetry, exploration and even the rich melding of varied points of view and populations. However, that look backward is not defining the future – far from it…
But here’s the thing – around the world, many continue to reject what was – as if the future just happens, as if it’s a random set of occurrences – we see it in the GMOOT philosophy that many follow: Give Me One Of Those – as if nothing else ever existed – nothing to learn from or build on. Wake up – learn from the experts….
What do you think?