Tuesday, February 26, 2008

U.S. Also Exports Dreams

The American Dream is no longer exclusive to America. During the past 20 years, 1.3 billion Chinese have also dared to dream as indulgently, as hedonistically, and as short-sightedly as our culture does. Long admirers of the reckless and materialistic American lifestyle portrayed in our Hollywood film exports, the rising core of the Chinese population is becoming free to pursue the American dream of self-indulgence and instant gratification of all their wants.

“Chinese dream of buying a car, a house, a first-class education for their children, and a range of consumer goods conferring status and convenience, just as they do to middle-class families in Europe and America. As disposable incomes rise, people are eating more protein and using more electricity to run their computers, televisions, and household appliances,” writes James Kynge in his book China Shakes the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). We are seeing China undergo in a very short period of time the changes that the U.S. and other developed countries underwent over the course of three centuries. China is being forced through this period of turbulence at an incredible pace because of the social, economic, and political pressures within and surrounding the country. The velocity of the change, rather than the change itself, is the root of the many ills currently plaguing the budding progress of China.

The rate of change in China has not allowed the nation to develop a mature social conscience and moral law. Chinese history is steeped in great thinkers, wise men and profound philosophical insight. This makes it all the more appalling that they have degenerated into a nation without a moral compass. The 1960’s rise of communism imposed atheism that undermined the current generation’s ethical foundation. Kynge states that “[t]he ideological vacuum that replaced communism undermines [trust]. The daily diet of propaganda disorients it. The venality of officials devalues it. The ascendance of a value system dominated by money hollows it out. What is left is a society in which describing someone as honest can just as easily be a gentle criticism as a compliment.”

Without a strong national moral compass, the country is rampant with instances of fraud, deceit and counterfeit. In many instances, these are only for the gain of wealth, but often the cost of the deception is human lives. We read from Kynge that “every time a Hollywood blockbuster was cut, it would appear on DVD in China before it had been released in the same format in America… A sixth volume in the series of Harry Potter novels appeared in China months before J.K. Rowling had written it… Kettles blow up, electrical transformers short-circuit, medicines have no effect, brake pads fail, alcoholic beverages poison those who drink them, and the use of inferior milk powder has caused several babies to starve to death.”

From our Western-centric point of view, it is simple to feel aloof from the morally remiss situations we read about in the East. However, we need to recognize that Americans are one of the leading forces causing the rapid changes to the Chinese nation. Kynge reports that “it is the advertising, marketing, and sales executives in Europe and the United States, as well as the shareholders of the brand-owning company, that take the lion’s share of the value from the product that the migrant workers create.” When we comment that the changes in China are happening too fast for the country to reasonably adapt, we cannot ignore the powerful influence that the demands and the unintentional export of the US culture have had on their current situation.

So it should be no surprise that the ambitions and appetites of its people are also following suit. China is adopting the same American dream of self-improvement, comfort and wealth that has been the calling card of immigrants to our country for so long. However, “in spite of the resemblance China bears to America in an earlier stage of its development, the chances that the Chinese will one day be able to consume at the same rate as Americans do today are close to zero. It is not that they will choose to be more frugal. It is simply that the world does not have the resources to cater to 1.3 billion Chinese behaving like Americans.” It should be added that the world in its current environmental situation does not have the resources for the 300 million Americans to continue behaving like Americans either. --Shawn Butler

Monday, February 4, 2008

Brazilians are like Chinese

Shawn and family stand in the shadow of the 130 foot O Cristo Redentor statue on Corcovado mountain.

Today we leave Rio to return to the United States. I'd like to conclude my four part series of Observations of the Brazilian People and Culture with this final conclusion: The Brazilian people are like the Chinese.

This may sound surprising, or even blaringly incorrect as it follows the other observations I have made, but they are like the Chinese insomuch as their culture exhibits the behaviors of a highly collectivist society. Brazil has one of the highest international rankings for Long Term Time Orientation, scoring 6th out of the 23 countries tested. Compare this to the number 15 rank of the United States' culture of independent living and short-term thinking. Interestingly, Brazil is the first of the non-asian countries to appear on the list.

Having a long term time orientation means that Brazilians value things like persistence, relationship orders determined by status, thriftiness, and having a sense of shame. These contrast starkly with the time-constrained structures of Americans. During my time here, I recognize that Brazilian collectivism and time perspective, although similar in their symptoms, differ greatly in their motivation from that of Asian collectivism.

Whereas Asian cultures seem to pursue collectivist behaviors in order to not stand out, to not draw attention to themselves or to engender unwanted notice, Brazilians observe collectivist behavior in search of a sense of unity. If one Brazilian is uniting with fellow Brazilians, it is not to escape notice or blend together. It is the stemming forth of a shared sense of brotherhood and patrimonio, the recognizing of a kindred spirit, and it is not quiet or subdued. Brazil's version of collectivist behavior is chanting at a fútbol game, loudly sharing a few drinks, or dancing samba with a very large group of friends.

In many regards, Brazil is exactly what others told me to expect. Brazil is the country described by paradoxes in many of the tour guidebooks. It is busy without seeming fast-paced. There is everything to do here, and plenty of nothing to do here. The beaches are covered with people, and the people are not covered with anything. The locals love the tourism and tolerate the tourists. But in so many more ways, the people, culture, and experience of Brazil defied or redefined the expectations that I had arrived with last month when I stepped off the plane at Galeão International Airport. I am thankful to the thousands of people that I have met here, that have offered me help, told me hello, or pinched my baby girl's thighs. I am thankful that they let me share a few moments of their time and see them as they experience life, their own daily lives, without any effort to be more like the Brazil defined by Frommer's Guidebook. --Shawn Butler

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