Wednesday, April 04, 2012

China Lab: Note From The Future

2012 was the year I visited China for the first time in my life. I was part of an action oriented course at MIT in partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University and stayed in Xi’an for two weeks. Funny that I still remember some vivid details of that experience as if I had just came back from there.

There was so much hype about the economical rising of China during those days! The believers kept talking about its impressive infrastructure, its growing middle class, and the remarkable attention to detail of the Chinese government. The detractors, on the other hand, kept pointing out the social fractures, the political oppression, and the language barriers.

When I reflect back on those days, it’s impossible to dismiss the prevalent egocentrism of many westerners on this topic—sadly; I was one of them. There is a Chinese Proverb that says “Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own.” I failed many times at this. Even though English is my second language and I have an accent when I speak, I couldn’t stop getting frustrated by the complexities surrounding our project due to language and cultural barriers. At that time, I was blaming “them”.

Yes, I was blaming “them” even though I argued with some of my classmates that China didn’t have to learn English and didn’t have to adapt their traditions for our own convenience in order to succeed. I agreed at that time that a transitional period may be required, but it was clear to me that the balance could go either way. Even then, I still didn’t believe the average Joe—I mean—Wei had to learn English. Making that assumption was egocentric, but that was our world. We traveled the world expecting the world to understand and adapt to us.

Knowing what we know today and based on the role that China plays in the world, these arguments seem laughable—but at that time, we still didn’t know. We were so far behind that the question was not even if China was going to succeed by adapting to the world or adapting the world to her—we were still questioning if China was going to succeed at all. As we learned in our time there, China in Mandarin has the name of Zhong Guo, which means the "Middle Country" or "Middle Kingdom"—or as our Xi’an partners preferred to translate it: “The center of the Universe”. I guess the egocentrism was already present from both sides of the coin. In those circumstances, I can see why it was still difficult to make a sound prediction, but that was our world. We lived our lives expecting to get notes from the future clarifying exactly what was in front of our eyes.

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