Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I didn't catch the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics last week, but the general reaction to the whole spectacle seems to have been: "Wow."

Which is what the general reaction to the opening ceremonies of any Olympics should be, but it seems like this 'wow' could have had another thought added to the end, namely: "Wow -- so this means China is serious, I guess..."

Serious about what? Global domination, becoming a world superpower, ensuring that Asia's rise will keep on rising?

Something like that.

The thing is, I feel like we in the West (even though I'm writing this in the East) constantly underestimate Asia in general, at almost every level.

How can that be? Countless books published on what seems like a weekly basis trumpet China's rise, and India's rise, and yet I feel like there's a still a certain amount of ignorance as to what Asia is all about. What it represents, where it's been, and where it's going.

(Of course, the label 'Asia' is largely meaningless, given how vast a landmass it is, and how varied the various countries underneath that generic label actually are, but we humans like to categorize, so 'Asia' it must be.)

A few months ago while working in Japan I read an interview with an American translator of Japanese, who was raised in Japan by American missionaries. She made an interesting comment, one that I'd never before considered from that particular angle. Westerners, she believes, tend to unconsciously dismiss Japanese ideas and beliefs. This is not to say that Westerners are ignorant of them; one only has to review how paranoid everybody was twenty to twenty-five years ago about Japan buying up American land and companies to recognize that the Japanese influence clearly made itself felt. Yet we tend to look at Japan mostly through the prism of its entertainment, its kitsch, its odd but alluring history. Films like Lost in Translation and The Last Samurai celebrate a Japan immersed in its own foreignness, impenetrable to western understanding. Everything Japanese is seen and depicted as either somewhat goofy, or strange, or funny, or downright weird. (Or else noble and dignified.)

Keeping what that American translator said in mind (whose name escapes me), I think it's not all that much of a stretch to extend her criticism towards the way that Westerners look at Asia as a whole. We take the strange parts, the exotic parts, and fetishize them for our amusement. Everything is either locked in the past or part of some odd, futuristic frenzy. We see the surface and the glitz, without bothering to take the contraptions apart and study the somewhat greasy and ordinary nuts and bolts that make them tick.

This is not to deny how fun the pop culture of these Asian lands can be, or negate what joy sheer entertainment, for entertainment's sake, can truly exude.

But the startled, surprised and amazed reaction to the Olympics' opening ceremony made me think that we in the West are no closer to understanding, or more importantly, anticipating what Asia is up to than we ever were, despite the advances in communications and technology.

My own pet theory? That Canada and America as countries are adolescents, full of energy and optimism to burn, and we're not all that interested in lands with cultures and traditions that were ancient even before we were born. We don't like to listen to our elders, and besides, we're not too interested in what they have to say in the first place. They're up to something, to be sure, these old folks are, but we have better things to do, and more interesting avenues to explore.

There is a big difference between countries and civilizations that are thousands of years old, complete with their own indigenous languages, and those that are mere hundreds of years old, still figuring out who they are and what they stand for.

I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that we will keep being surprised by Asia in the decade to come, again and again, and we will not wonder why we are surprised, which will, perhaps, be the scariest thing of all.