Heading out of Beijing after the Olympics, I'm struck by the "new China" I've seen. Beijing was of course spectacularly clean, colorful and welcoming for the Games. But what has really made an impression on me -- from visits to schools, workplaces and homes -- is a China that does not necessarily see itself as trying to compete with or catch up to, the West. In many circles, China has moved beyond America and other countries, in looking forward to a future that combines the very best of East and West.
One night, I had dinner with college students eager to convey to American youth their "opening mind[s] compared to our parents." This meant a willingness, they said, to know other peoples and to "welcome the global culture."
Asked repeatedly about the Olympics as a chance for China to show the world how far it has come, the students didn't speak in terms of Chinese pride or nationalism. Rather, they emphasized the international atmosphere of the Games. "I represent China," said one smiling young woman, "as a global citizen." It may sound corny, but she could not have been more sincere.
This true internationalism, is much more progressive than what we tend to hear in the West. These students don't want to be just like "us"...they want to be something bigger, more all-encompassing. (Though American youth, I should note, are often more cross-culturally oriented than those of us who are, well, older.)
The next day, my seven year-old and I visited the youngest of students at the "Chris International Kindergarten." It wasn't surprising that the children study English; what was surprising was how the school has incorporated some of the culture of an American progressive school. Founder Li Jie said she pointedly stays away from the traditional Chinese education I had expected to see--"children very quiet in the classroom, sitting with their hands behind their backs," not spoken until spoken to. Her model, with kids screaming and laughing and jumping all around, aims to give students space and a model for enjoying life. My daughter summed up the visit saying the children were "more happy than I thought!"
It's catching on, I was told, with waitlists for the children of a new generation of young parents who have been abroad and want their children to have a different kind of schooling than they had. Chinese tradition and culture is very present here, but it's mixed with what Li calls a brand new way to see the world. She hopes her students will grow up to work both in China and abroad, combining what they learn of Eastern and Western culture.
It's also what Kai-Fu Lee, President of Google Greater China, is trying to incorporate in Google's colorful Beijing offices. With some of the hottest jobs to be had here, his local employees say they've had to adjust, from a culture where it's rare for engineers to speak up or contradict those above them, to one where innovation often moves bottom-up.
Still, Google Greater China is hardly "just" an American company. Kai-Fu Lee says it's important to build something that brings the best of both worlds together -- that embraces Chinese culture and its values of discipline, hard work and dedication, and combines all that with American creativity.
Finally, at a closing ceremonies party, I met a number of families who embody the East-West combination, be they people who split their time between New York and Beijing, or long-time expats. Their discussion was full of lively debate -- whether, for example, the Chinese were more obsessed with Gold than the US has been in the past. One woman acknkowledged that yes, China was focused on Gold, but not because of pure nationalism; ever since Beijing was awarded the Games, she said, Western media has given China "such a hard time." While admitting there have been troubling issues, she and her friends felt that the "positive side" of Chinese people's views weren't being reported. "They want[ed] us to fail," she said. A biracial twelve-year-old boy added, this "made China work harder to be their best, and work harder to get Gold."
What really had them going as Beijing prepared to close out the Olympics, were a number of headlines saying "we don't know how to spontaneously celebrate" (a quick Google search of "Olympics" and "spontaneous" or spontaneity" brought up no fewer than five major news pieces decrying Beijing's lack of same). "We do celebrate!" they cried, eager to explain that "maybe we don't celebrate like Westerners do but that doesn't mean...we don't celebrate."
The very fact that these Beijingers pay so much attention to what we think of them and what cultural misunderstandings are taking place in the media and elsewhere, made me wish we in America cared more about what other cultures think of us. True international understanding must start with an appreciation for others' points of view -- valuing, as Kai-Fu Lee told me, our differences as well as our similarities. These Olympic games opened so many eyes, including mine, to a new China with ordinary citizens keenly focused on a global and multicultural future. It's something for us all to aspire to.
Click here for all Asia Society's videos on "A Week in the Life of Beijing During the Olympics"
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