Different Is the New Normal: Perspectives From China-US Travel

04/06/2015 05:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

I recently spent 3 weeks in China and was reminded of how amazing people are around the world, how much propaganda remains between countries and how much we have to learn from our differences. Fortunately, we live in a world of social media, where so many of these boundaries, misconceptions and negative assumptions are shifting.

As the cofounder of a cross-border investment fund in the U.S., part of the passion for my work, stems from the fact that I am the product of a multi-cultural world. I am the daughter of an Italian engineer immigrant, who came to the U.S. in the 60's for school, fell in love and had me. My childhood was definitely not always the easiest, and growing up bi-culturally or bilingually was confusing at best.

There were so many mixed messages. Often, when I tell the story of my childhood, I say that growing up with my Italian engineer father was like growing up with the United Nations because his friends were leading engineers from China, Israel, India, the Middle East and beyond. I was exposed to so many different people, cultures and food that I didn't really know what "normal" was.

Being "normal" today is very different than it was in the 70's. Growing up then, I felt that I was caught between two worlds and didn't feel at home anywhere. When I was in Italy, I was considered the "Americana," and in the U.S. when I would go to Italy and return, I was considered "different."

Back then I think the dominant cultural messages were to conform. Many of my friends from multi-cultural or bilingual families tried to hide their culture or language so they could better "fit in."

I believe that is changing. Today, I am what I like to call, a cosmopolite, or global citizen, and find that my "different" upbringing is what has actually helped shape who I am.

As the world opens up and communication between countries and across borders is expanding, slowly an acceptance for diversity is growing and different is the new normal.

While diversity issues and discrimination across cultures still have a long way to go to break down barriers and misconceptions, I believe things are moving in a positive direction. They have to.

Part of this has to do with the Internet, social media and cross-border business and how the world's borders, and differences are shrinking. Part of the responsibility of those of us who are traveling, living or working across borders is to share those differences, remind us of our similarities, and how we can learn from these differences.

I visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and I was blown away by the warmth and hospitality of those whom I met when I stepped outside my time, and comfort, zone.

As I consider myself a conscious capitalist, I am constantly striving to learn from other models in business that not only make money but also create win-wins and leave a positive impact on the planet and the people whom the business touches.

Three things particularly left an impression on me from the culture, business and politics of China: guanxi, social capitalism and WeChat.

Guanxi is a Chinese word that means "relationships" and is the quintessential foundation for life, and business, in China. Essentially, it is "good juju." What you do, the type of business that you do, doesn't matter as much as the manner in which you do it. If you treat people with respect, create win-wins in your deals and practice integrity in your words and actions, your guanxi grows.

I was touched by this custom, as often in Western culture, business is purely transactional. While this is changing in the U.S. as more and more businesses are aligning with social values and conscious capitalism, it is still the norm.

In China, I met several business people who spoke of deals they were a part of in which they had two opportunities on the table -- one that would return $3-5 million more than another -- and they chose the lesser financial return based solely on the fact that the other was lead by someone they liked better.

Ultimately, the deal ended up leading to much more business and lifelong relationships. This approach is refreshing in that it takes the long-term win-win view of business and cultivating relationships, rather than a shorter-term transactional approach. This is a foundation of Chinese business and culture from which U.S business could learn.

The U.S. is considered as one of the world's leading democracies. Yet, I was intrigued by the implications of the Chinese government's social capitalism.

Historically, anti-communist propaganda has portrayed China's government negatively. While no government is perfect, I was struck by the interesting blend of socialism and capitalism, which seems to lead to efficiencies that many times a "democracy" with dueling parties across ideologies does not afford.

With essentially one party, decision-making can be more efficient. It may not always be balanced or inclusive, but I witnessed examples in which this can be a benefit.

China is often criticized for its unsustainable growth and the impact it is having on the environment. Yet I had conversations about several examples of the efforts to the contrary.

One example related to the pollution in Beijing and how the government was working with a group of scientists to identify solutions. Scientists found that dust was being blown in from an outlying region and that if trees were planted along the valley between the region and Beijing, pollution would decrease significantly. Within a month of the initial problem identification, the government reviewed the reports, made the decision and planted the trees. Although Beijing still suffers from significant pollution, the solution resulted in a meaningful shift in the pollution.

In the U.S., that short turn around would likely never have happened if a decision had to be made between Republican and Democratic parties. While nothing is so simple or black and white, it stands as a reminder of what we can learn from each other rather than judging each other for how we are better-worse or different.

Finally, I was amazed by the social media app, WeChat, and how it has transformed communication and business in China and beyond. Instead of Facebook or Google, China has WeChat, a robust social media platform that has more functionality than Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Skype, Paypal and Instagram combined.

WeChat is much more than a messaging and communication platform. WeChat also enables posting pictures, video or audio calls, uploading and sending files and purchasing and monetary transactions. It demonstrates the advanced communication and consumer power of the technology industry and the expanding marketplace in China and the opportunities that we have to learn from each other.

The trip reminded me of my upbringing and the unique insights and lessons that our differences, and cross-border perspectives bring. We have much to learn from other people, cultures, businesses and governments. Rather than demonizing or judging, perhaps growing our awareness, friendship and compassion will lead to more, better and different outcomes that can have positive, sustainable ripples for the economy, planet and people globally. After all, different is indeed the new normal.