17 January 2012

A Bit of Relief for the New Year (Books) - 17 January 2012

Although this blog tends to be on the serious side, even cultural issues need a bit of humour now and then. Though we hate to bother readers, we would like to use this opportunity to announce two new books by your blogger...

The first is a look at cross-cultural romance, especially between Asians and Caucasians. It's a non-fiction work, with some poignant stories, but a lot of humour. It's entitled The White Husbands' Club, a take-off of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Available (and quite affordable) on Amazon:

The White Husbands' Club

The second book is also humourous, though the subject is examines is serious: employment. The history of this book is interesting: we submitted it to a number of publishers and literary agents with little luck -- as usual, they didn't know what "category" to slot it into. But we also got a compliment: one publisher said that they loved the book... but wouldn't publish it because the humour was too "dark". Think of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal", and that's the book you will find here:

Don't Pay: Why Your Employees Should Be Working For Free!

It's a parody of those (dreadful) CEO / business self-help books that one finds in airport bookstores, all cheery and filled with the "can-do" spirit of capitalism...

More soon...

26 December 2011

Reflections and Predictions - 26 December 2011

Well, we are back from Asia... We hope our readers enjoyed our entries from there, and we apologize for the long delay in writing here again. Re-adjusting (back) to life in another continent is not easy. And, of course, one must clean the house -- literally and metaphorically -- after a year away. Why we came back is a good question, but one that will have to wait for a subsequent entry here. Today's entry is about reflections and predictions concerning the topic of this blog, which is, still, cultural issues.

As the (Western) new year approaches, it is good to reflect on a few things that we pondered in the past and how they've played out. Take Myanmar. We were skeptical when there was talk of a "revolution" there some years ago, much as we liked the articulate and thoughtful Aung San Suu Kyi. And we were right; those protests amounted to nothing. Similarly, we said that the protests in Egypt would simply lead to military rule, and we were right there, too. Of course, some will argue that democracy is coming to Egypt, as soon as it goes through its process of elections, but let's see what happens...

Back to Myanmar. Everyone was excited recently about U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to that country. (Nothing about Hillary Clinton excites us, we should note. She represents yet another monolingual Secretary of State with very little geopolitical or cross-cultural knowledge.) The media in the U.S., and even one of our favorites, the British magazine The Economist, gushed about the embrace (literally) of Ms. Clinton and Ms. Suu Kyi.

But as some commentators noted, this was all less about a successful U.S. diplomatic effort and more about, well, Myanmar being in a bit of jam. Things with its current partner, Mainland China, are not going as smoothly as they were, and Myanmar's leadership is likely getting nervous. A hydroelectric project that China was going to carry out seems to have been cancelled, even though defense ties continue (see "Chinese and Burmese Army Chiefs Sign Defense Agreement"). The point of all this is as follows: Anyone who wants to understand this situation has to begin with the fact that it's all about economics. To readers outside the Western world, this will seem obvious. But many in North America and even the more pragmatic Europe think that decisions about diplomacy and military action have some kind of origin in morality, or supporting the underdog (e.g., Ms. Suu Kyi). The fact is that Myanmar has resources (natural gas, for one) and a strategic location, and that is why both Mainland China and the U.S. are making their plays.

What about the future? Well, our prediction for Myanmar is that there will be a split in the upper echelons between those who want to do business with the U.S. (although without, of course, allowing participatory democracy), and those who want to do business with the Mainland Chinese. The latter, naturally, will allow the rulers of Myanmar to govern in whatever way they wish; but the Chinese still do irk some of the citizens of Myanmar, since the Chinese have a great deal of economic power they can wield. Remember, too, that Myanmar, like other countries in Southeast Asia, has a significant ethnic Chinese population, and this also causes issues, even vis-à-vis external policies when dealing with places like Mainland China.

Other predictions:

1. Egypt's military will not relinquish control of the country any time soon. While elections will take place, the military will retain its central role in governing, directly or by proxy.

2. In the U.S., Obama will be re-elected, as the Republicans fail to offer a candidate who has sufficient appeal. As a friend of ours noted, the Republicans in some sense are content with this situation since they have in Obama one of the most conservative Democrats ever -- one who is a close ally, for example, of Wall Street. Obama's second term will see no major improvements in the economy, nor significant foreign policy triumphs.

3. The economy worldwide will continue to stumble through 2012, with the U.S. stock market fluctuating wildly. The fate of the euro is hard to predict, but it seems unlikely that the common currency will be undone any time within 2012.

4. The U.S. (regrettably) will come to accept its current unemployment rate as normal, and the "Occupy" movement will fade.

Finally, we have seen much celebration of the U.S. troops returning home from Iraq. (Actually, given their terrible sacrifice, there should have been much more celebration by the media of their return, regardless of what one feels about the war.) But things are not over; the U.S. has still left behind a significant presence there: one of the largest embassies in the world, and plenty of personnel, too. One should ask why; what is our mission there now? We ourselves don't have a clear answer, but it is worth investigating. Our conjecture is that 2012 will see Iraq begin to sort out governance issues, with the likelihood of a strong, central power structure emerging; some cynics say that the U.S. just wants a new dictator, but we say that what will evolve will be more like the single-party state of old PRI-run Mexico.

Have a great new year...

01 July 2011

Greetings from Asia - 1 July 2011

Well, our current stay in Taiwan is coming to a close... June was a blur of finishing up work, seeing friends and family, and packing in some sightseeing... Lots of cultural reflections, but the conversation that came up again and again in recent months, both with American expats here and Taiwanese, concerned the Westernization of the society. Taiwan has picked up some good Western habits -- increasing care about the environment, greater attention to museums and other historical and cultural venues -- but also many bad ones. We will get into the details in a subsequent post, but for now, a little anecdotal evidence that points to the negative influence of some young (?) Westerners living in Taipei. I spotted the notice below (click on the image for a close-up) on a major thoroughfare near National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學), a place where there are many students from overseas...

The decline of the West, bringing the East down with it...

06 May 2011

Greetings from Asia - 6 May 2011

Sorry, readers: it's been a busy spring, and somehow April flew by without a posting here. We can blame a few days excursion to Thailand (riding elephants, which is wonderful -- at least for the riders, probably less so for the elephants), and other adventures. We've been in some discussions recently, with some other expats here, about what it is, exactly, that makes the Chinese (and that includes the Taiwanese in this case) so different from us. Of course, yes, we are all people, but as we've argued elsewhere, in our business writings (see the papers on culture at, cultures can be profoundly different in their ways of thinking.

We've spent some years now trying to articulate this in a precise way, and it's eluded us. There are some books on the subject, and we often recommend Michael Harris Bond's The Psychology of the Chinese People and the harder-to-find Harmony in Conflict by Richard W. Hartzell, as well as the inside look provided by Bo Yang's The Ugly Chinaman.

But there always seems a deeper level to reach, some more philosophical foundation that can explain everything. Not long ago, we penned the following notes, in our attempts to achieve some greater clarity on the subject of the Western-Chinese difference...

The Jews and the Chinese: The Same... Only Different

There’s an old joke that goes like this: “What do Jews do for Christmas? They eat dinner in Chinatown and then go to the movies...” It comes from the fact that on Christmas Day, the only things that were open, at least in the old days, were the restaurants in Chinatown and movie theaters.

This is part of a larger connection between Jews and Chinese. It’s a complicated relationship, though, as we’ll see. There were Jewish merchants and traders in China who came to China centuries ago, and many even intermarried, leading to a very old Chinese-Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng (開封). These community has been well researched; see, for example, “The Kaifeng Jews: A Reconsideration of Acculturation and Assimilation in a Comparative Perspective” and “Jews in Kaifeng, China: A Brief History”.

Jewish religious history is quite complicated, but a trend in the past century or so has been the growth of a large demographic of secular Jews. They became secular for a wide variety of reasons (some, such as those in this author’s family, became secular as part of their drift into socialist and progressive movements). A significant number of secular Jews, however, began looking for new spiritual options, and turned to Buddhism. Buddhism was attractive because it had no history of anti-semitism, it was pacificist, and it was exotic. In fact, there is a least one book about this Jewish-Buddhist connection, The Jew in the Lotus (the title is a play on the Buddhist term “jewel in the lotus”).

Today, there is a marked degree of intermarriage between Jews and Chinese. Here in Taiwan (where your humble author is currently posted), there is a small community of Jews (mostly Israelis) who have married Taiwanese women. Most of these women have converted to Judaism.

More generally, however, in other parts of the world, Jews marry “out” with Chinese. The common conclusion is that these are secular Jews, and that they marry Chinese (or, similarly, Japanese) women because these women are essentially secular, too. But importantly, because they are of Buddhist (or Daoist) background, they don’t carry any “Christian baggage”. In other words, for a secular Jew, it’s fine to marry a secular non-Jew, but better to marry one who doesn’t even have a trace of Christian background!

More pragmatically, some Jews will tell you that they marry Chinese because “the Chinese share the same values as the Jews”, namely, hard work, education, and family.

But, like many such observations, it’s a gross simplification. In fact, the Jewish-Chinese connection is a very complex one. For one, Jews have a long tradition involving the “exotic”. Indeed, Jews are often considered to be in the mainstream in America, but all the way up into the 1920’s, they were considered be “from the East”. A 1998 book about the history of Jews in the U.S. has the wonderful title of How Jews Became White Folks. Just like the panic about Chinese immigration, for decades in the U.S., there was a panic about other exotic peoples flooding in. At places like Dartmouth and Penn, there were quotas on the number of Jews let in. In fact, a 2006 story in the Dartmouth News recounts how in the 1930’s Dartmouth’s Dean of Admissions stated that the school’s “Phi Beta Kappa societies are getting so swarthy that it is well to lighten things up a bit.” The “swarthy” was a clear reference to Jews, who were considered “not white”, and who had begun to be come to Dartmouth in greater numbers.

On a more mundane level, perhaps because they were marginalized (or because they were worldly), Jews themselves often were attracted to the exotic: an interesting article some years ago noted how in the early twentieth century the first non-Chinese to enter into Toronto’s Chinatown to eat were Jews.

And so, the connection between Jews and Chinese has almost become a cliché — both peoples are industrious, lovers of learning, and family-oriented. But in fact, there is a very fundamental difference, as any Jew who becomes involved in Chinese culture discovers. The entire Jewish faith, and even the secular Jewish mindset, is based on law, and again whether theologically based or not, it is has a deep, transcendental foundation.

Recall that Moses receives the law; the Israelites don’t invent it on their own. Compare that to the Chinese model: it is Confucius who established the rules for conduct in the society. Certainly, there is a nod to the idea of tianxia (天下) — that is, “under Heaven”. There was also the idea that the Emperor — the head of society — only ruled with the “mandate of heaven”. But really tian (天) is better translated as “cosmos” or “universe”, since there is almost no theological content in the term. Chinese concepts of “right” and “wrong”, and how humans should conduct themselves is based on pragmatism rather than any kind of universal law. It is all relationship-based, and there is even a special word in Chinese for these relationships, guanxi (關係). “God” has nothing to do with it.

In the Jewish tradition, by contrast, laws have to come from somewhere, and they are transcendent, irrefutable, and non-negotiable. However, there can be debate, since humans can interpret the law, and this is part of a great Western tradition of moral questioning, arguments about principles, and ideas. And certainly, later Jewish thinking adopted elements of Platonic thinking (through such figures as Maimonides), which, despite its pagan origins, also builds a very similar idea of a transcendental realm, from which all law (and beauty, and other key values of civilization) are derived. Similarly, too, humans can use dialogue (a Greek word, in fact) to explore and interpret this divine realm and its meaning for society.

This is a highly complex and profound model: in it, human society always has a “level beyond this one”, a perfect place, a transcendental realm that it can look (up) to. Society can use that realm as a goal, to push itself forward, and to try to build a more ethical society.

But it also leads Jewish people, in their dealing with the Chinese, to a huge gap in understanding. That is because their model encourages Jews — and Westerners generally, it must be said — to argue things on principle. This simply doesn’t exist in Chinese thinking.

So, despite some superficial similarities, Jews and Chinese are very different in their fundamental mental framework. And since much of Western thinking is influenced by this kind of Jewish and Platonic principled idealism, it means that we are heading for deep trouble as we try to negotiate with the new world power — China.

26 March 2011

Greetings from Asia - 27 March 2011

On the Earthquake

Based as we are in Asia at the moment, we had to say something about the recent earthquake in Japan. See our article published in the Broad Street Review by clicking here...

14 February 2011

Greetings from Asia - 15 February 2011

Cultural Tropes

This blog focuses primarily on cross-cultural issues, with occasional excursions into other areas. In this entry, we will return to one of our favorite topics — learning about cultures from examining cultural minutiae. As some readers may know, we hate when cross-cultural “experts” reduce every cultural identifier to things such as “Americans shake hands, but Japanese bow...” Not only are statements of this kind not quite true, they don’t really tell you anything. Naturally, sometimes cultures operate at very broad levels — the Chinese usually use chopsticks and Westerners don’t — but even those kind of identifiers are not particularly interesting.

What is really key to getting a profound insight into another culture is to look at what we call tropes. This word has different definitions in different contexts — scientific, artistic, and so on. Technically, “trope” is from a classical Greek word referring to “turning”, and in science, for example, it can refer to the behaviour of a plant as it turns towards the light, i.e., “phototropism”.

Here, we use the term “trope” to mean a subtle activity, configuration, or scene that reveals a macrocosm, essentially, in its microcosmic form. “Trope” here is a “turning” or “point” towards a cultural pattern. In Taiwan, some of the best tropes are visual — tiny configurations and settings, out in the street or in people’s homes. Here are some examples, which we will present below before offering interpretations:

1. a can of “Taiwan Beer” (台灣啤酒)


2. a gas unit outside a home, with its base protected by tied-together plastic food crates


3. old boxes and furniture stacked outside a store


4. PVC pipes squeezed under an apartment building door


5. random wiring outside a store


6. scooters parked on a sidewalk


7. sign held up with packing tape


8a. small plant tucked away in rundown, dirty building


8b. small plant tucked away in rundown, dirty building (detail)


9a. repaired statue


9b. repaired statute (detail)


10. trash bin made of old calendar page


The first picture says a great deal about Taiwanese business — problems in branding. Indeed, there is no brand here at all: in both English and Chinese, the name is simply “Taiwan Beer”. Most other countries have names for their beer, e.g., Singha, Tusker, and so on. There is also no logo on the can: in addition to the generic name, there are abstract stripes on the can.

The second picture shows what happens when a rural people are suddenly thrust into technological modernity. This is a classic case of what we would call in the West a “spit-and-gum” repair — which is, actually, very common and appropriate in rural societies where there are no tools and parts for proper repairs. Here, though, the setting is urban, and obviously the person carried out the repair in whatever would be the most expedient way possible, expediency, alas, being another common Taiwanese trait. Finally, this picture reveals another cultural trope — a disregard for safety. The plastic food crates can in no way protect this dangerous piece of equipment against a vehicle collision — and this setup is right on the corner of a very busy street, out in the street itself.

In the third picture, we again see expediency at work — there was simply no more room inside, so the person has used the outside as an extension of their personal space. On a more positive note, it would seem to indicate a safe culture, where one can store things on the sidewalk without fear of theft. In that case, Taiwan’s culture beats American culture, for sure!

In the fourth picture, we again see a repair that exhibits he cultural tropes of both “rural repair” and expediency. Sure, there are building codes in Taiwan, but the pragmatic culture knows how to work around them... We see the same clever, if messy, workaround in the fifth picture.

In the sixth picture, scooters are parked on a sidewalk. In some places in Taiwan, this is legal, but on this particular stretch it is not. But obviously here people have made their own rules — one person parked illegally, and then another next to that person, and so on. The cultural trope? An organic way of structuring rules and regulations...

Nearby, there is a “no parking” sign. But what is really interesting here is that it is simply a piece of paper held up with packing tape, even though it is outdoors, directly exposed to Taiwan’s subtropical rain and humidity. It is a quick, feeble fix... but an expedient one.

In the eighth picture, we see a cacophony of signs and hideous buildings, and then at the very center a small plant tucked away on a sill right next to a window. Why is it there? How did it get there? The cultural trope here is the strange use of space, the odd juxtaposition of ugliness and natural beauty, attempt at bringing nature into the most typical polluted, overbuilt Asian megapolitan setting.

In the ninth picture, we see another example of “rural repair” — the statue has been repaired with a rebar and bailing wire. No attempt was made at a more subtle, artistic repair.

The final picture shows a small trash bin made out of a calendar page. This is a common trope in Taiwan, as people here love to eat peanuts, watermelon seeds, etc. while having tea or drinking beer, and need a dish for the shells. This kind of bin is a quick, efficient reuse of materials, and certainly has its own engaging aesthetic. The cultural trope here is about a society still in touch, again, with its rural roots — not afraid to reuse materials in a simple but pleasing way.


21 January 2011

Greetings from Asia - 22 January 2011

A Brief Note on Western Painting by Chinese Hands

Since the focus of this blog is cross-cultural issues, I thought that readers might be interested in this issue from the perspective of the visual arts...

I used to dislike Western painting that was done by Chinese artists. The works bothered me because they seemed fake somehow, being in my mind both an abandonment of thousands of years of perfectly good Chinese painting, and an attempt at Western styles, but without Western emotion. But over the years, I’ve found painters whose work has changed my mind.

The term “Chinese painting” covers a broad range of styles and themes, but here I refer to what might be most familiar to readers: the vast watercolor-and-ink landscapes typical of the Song and Yuan Dynasty period (A. D. 960 -1368) and the traditional paintings of nature in the latter history of imperial China (A.D. 1368 - 1895). Typical paintings of these periods include “A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks” by Li Cheng (李成) (919 - 967) and “Mountain on the Other Side of the River”, 1703 by the Qing Dynasty Chinese painter Shitao (石濤) (1641 - 1707). As for “Western painting”, in this case, I mean scenes of people and places that that are found in nineteenth and early twentieth century art, particularly among the Romantic painters and the Impressionists. Many Chinese have studied these styles (as well as Cubism and other movements), and have become adept at them, but I think only a few have done anything really interesting in Western-style painting.

A colleague of mine, Prof. Tsai Minghsun (蔡明勳), is a Taiwanese painter who studied Western-style oil painting in the U.S., at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. He is a good painter, and likes to do scenes of Taiwanese life from the old days. I asked Tsai why he chooses to paint in the Western style, and he told me that Western painting allows him to engage in themes that Chinese art doesn’t normally investigate in any depth — the emotions of childhood: joy, nostalgia, loneliness and longing...

Many of his paintings portray puppets and other toys, objects not unknown to traditional Chinese painting, but not at the scale or in the mood that one finds in Tsai’s work.

Tsai studied in the U.S., but in the old days, to study Western art one went — oddly, perhaps — to Japan. Japan, of course, had opened up to the West in terms of industrialization and modernization at least a century before Chinese culture did. Japanese artists had studied Impression, Cubism, and other trends in European art almost as soon as those trends came on the scene. Taiwan was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, and many young Taiwanese men studied in Japan during this period — indeed, Japan was their primary access to the outside world. One famous Taiwanese painter, Li Meishu (李梅樹) (1902 - 1983), studied Western painting, with a focus on Classicism and Romanticism, at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts from 1929 to 1934. He particularly enjoyed rendering realist paintings of the Taiwan landscapes, although he was also very skilled in portraiture. Li worked to adapt Western romantic notions in the portrayal of a traditional way of life in Taiwan that he knew to be rapidly disappearing. He was interested in and skilled at Western theories of perspective — something certainly rare in traditional Chinese painting — and the figures in his paintings seem to “reach out” to the viewer.

The reasons that Chinese painting itself never underwent the radical transformation that Western art did — Cubism, Impression, Fauvism, and subsequent modern and post-modern trends — must be the subject of a separate discussion. In addition, there are complex reasons that artists in both Mainland China and Taiwan felt a need to look to overseas techniques and styles in the first place.

Obviously, the embracing of something from a foreign culture entails a rejection of something in one’s own culture. It is the rare artist who can somehow embrace both, and I was intrigued when I stumbled upon the work of the artist Ma Paisui (馬白水) (1909 - 2003). Ma was born in Mainland China and worked for many years as an art teacher. Although his studies were in China, and his later adult years were spent in Taiwan, he beautifully combined traditional Chinese styles with Western techniques and themes.

This is not easy feat — the results can often seem awkward or tacky. Ma spent some time in Europe and the U.S., and did a series of beautiful paintings of New York City and its environs, rendering the modern Western landscape and its tropes (for example, suspension bridges and skyscrapers) with Chinese traditional brush called a mao bi (毛筆) and gouache colors. The results are splendid, with vivid colors and bold line-work. Even his painting of the Guggenheim Museum, although at first glance seeming to be completely Western in style, subtly employs Chinese ink to create profound contrasts of light and dark not normally encountered in Western watercolor work.

Ma’s work has an almost transcendent quality, reminiscent of the later work of the Canadian “Group of Seven” artist Lawren Harris.

The artist’s role is to transcend culture, and even time and place (Harris was a Theosophist), to reach some abstract truth or vision of the world. Indeed, as different as Chinese and Western cultures can be, this role of the artist often appears in both places. Why is an artist like Ma Paisui so important? In part, it’s because he breaks a very common stereotype — that Asians are good imitators but not good originators. We’ve heard it said that the Curtis Institute of Music is filled with Asians who play beautifully but with no feeling. I’ve also heard it said that Chinese people can crank out Western landscapes but with an equal lack of passion. In Ma’s case, though, we see an artist who truly has taken something Western and made it his own. This is important because in an age of globalization, there is a great risk at homogenization, with everyone becoming superficially “Western”. Ma shows that a painter can bring his own cultural tools to bear, and create a true — and original — synthesis.

At the same time, artists like Tsai have consciously embraced Western styles as the Chinese themselves have become increasingly subject to Western emotions — or more exactly, the emotional states, such as anomie, that have been brought on by the Chinese people’s rush into modernity.

Li Cheng (李成)
“A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks” (晴峦萧寺)
ink and slight color on silk
Northern Song Dynasty (A.D. 960 - 1127)
111.76 x 55.88 cm

Shi Tao (石濤)
“Mountain on the Other Side of the River”
ink and slight color on paper
57.79 x 35.56 cm

Tsai Minghsun (蔡明勳)
“Flying” (飛揚)
oil on canvas
103 x 139 cm

Li Meishu (李梅樹)
“Washing Clothes by the Clear Stream” (清溪浣衣)
oil on canvas
116.5 x 80 cm

Li Meishu (李梅樹)
“Dressing” (梳妝)
oil on canvas
116.5 x 91 cm

Ma Paisui (馬白水)
“Yehliu” (野柳)
ink and color on paper
66 x 33 cm

Ma Paisui (馬白水)
“Hudson River in Autumn” (哈河之秋)
ink and color on paper
51 × 61.5 cm

Ma Paisui (馬白水)
“Central Park, New York” (紐約中央公園)
ink and color on paper
38.1 × 50.8 cm

Ma Paisui (馬白水)
“Red Maple Leaves near George Washington Bridge” (紐約GW橋楓葉紅美)
watercolor on paper
45.5 × 61 cm

Ma Paisui (馬白水)
ink and color on paper
“Guggenheim Museum, N.Y.” (古根漢美術館(紐約))
40 x 50 cm