I’m on my way to New York for meetings about Global Perspectives on the United States and Guanxi: The China Letter. These are my two main projects these days, along with Sustainability. Global Perspectives and Guanxi are a fascinating pair, because one explores on the world sees America while the other does something quite similar for China. We aren’t directly examining in Guanxi how the world sees China (though that specifically is a project in early stages), but every issue does help readers understand Western conceptions and misconceptions about China. My aim as editor, working with many Chinese scholars and businesspeople, is to provide a venue in which they can explain to us their point of view. I have learned that Chinese people, as well as Western “China hands,” are well aware of how poorly we understand China, how many false ideas are floating around.
For example, I met someone yesterday who told me that when dealing with the Chinese one has to be very serious and very careful about every word. That’s rubbish: the Chinese are as sensitive as any people could be to the slipperiness of language, and they know that words can be misunderstood. What really counts is the trust that develops between people, the enduring relationships we form. And humor is an important part of that. The first morning I was in China, jet-lagged and overwhelmed, we were standing in a hotel lobby in Beijing with the woman who we’d arranged to meet us at the airport and get us to the hotel (that was the extent of our being guided), with the driver.
I had realized by then that she had brought us to the wrong hotel, and I’d tried to tell her. She was sure she knew better and insisted on our going inside. The driver obviously understood something of what I’d said to her, and he could see from the debate going on with the desk staff that we were indeed in the wrong place. We looked at each other and started laughing. What a reassuring thing, that laughter. It was completely clear to both of us that she was trying to save face, that she was in the wrong, and that if we just waited a few minutes we could finally get going to the right hotel.
Even more important in international relations is being able to laugh at yourselves. The British are wonderful about this, but we Americans are not. We take ourselves very seriously. I suspect that if we could learn to laugh at our national foibles, the world would laugh with us, would like us better, and might forgive us more freely for our mistakes. Of course, it would help if we now and again admitted to a mistake.
Fortunately, there are more and more people who understand that the world’s point of view matters, and that U.S. dominance is not an eternal position. David and the kids were joking last night about a song in the movie Nashville, which has a chorus, “We must be doing something right, to last two hundred years.” Two hundred years isn’t all that long, really.
But we’re also eager to raise people’s consciousness of the truly important contributions this country has made. I’m awed, for example, by the First Amendment. Isn’t is remarkable that those who founded this nation understood that freedom of speech is the single most important aspect of a democracy?