Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: September, 2016

Not rights but duties

Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last week, Asia commentator Urs Schöttli talked about a theme that has preoccupied him for many years: the primacy of duties over rights in the Asian value system. When Western political leaders go to China, he says, they feel obliged to lecture their hosts on human rights, mainly for home consumption, and then they get down to the real business of negotiating lucrative contracts for their companies to sell in the Chinese market. Afterwards, he observes sardonically, they should go to the temple of Confucius and reflect on what makes Asia (that is to say, China and the countries to which it has taught its civilization, notably Japan) economically great – namely, its values.

Schöttli has an abiding admiration for Japan, where he has spent a great deal of time. He says Japan works because people live to fulfil their duties to society, instead of demanding individual rights for themselves. This values orientation makes Asia great and will continue to make it strong.

Schöttli’s view may not be to everyone’s liking, but the point he makes about modernization is a good one. He says people in the Western world suppose that Asians just lag behind them and need to catch up. As soon as they have a standard of living like ours, they will start to think like us and demand individual rights too. This has not turned out to be so. Japan and the Asian tigers have long developed living standards and services comparable to the West, but they show no signs of changing their old Confucian ways.

Schöttli’s point is of more general application. In the Western world, we like to think that progress and modernity mean the rest of the world becoming like us. Look how far our societies have come in the past century, we say. It may take the rest of the world a century to catch up, but catch up they will. Economic prosperity will do the trick. In the meantime, immigrants have to integrate into our societies by adopting our values, and globalization is spreading our values to the places where they come from.

This is all reassuring talk for us in Western countries. But given the way the world is going – in particular the dawning of the “Asian century” – does this really look at all likely as the future scenario?



The meaning of occidentalism

There has recently been much use of the word “occidentalism”, taken to mean dislike of the Western world felt by people elsewhere in the world. I find this usage unfortunate. The term is based on Orientalism, Edward Saïd’s term. This means the historic fascination of the Western world with the East (usually what we would now call the Middle East). If we have a term “Occidentalism”, it should by rights be used for the equivalent positive feeling, not a negative one. It should mean the Orient’s premature embracing of all things Western. Japanese playing golf. Chinese going to McDonald’s. That kind of thing.

There is a difference, mind you. Orientalism was a matter of sensibility, not of ideology. Westerners could get feelings from looking at the fabled East, or whatever they called it, but they didn’t get much in the way of ideas. They didn’t think that the Arabs, the Turks, the Indians or the Chinese were going to teach them how to run their society. They certainly didn’t think the ideas and feelings from the fabled East were universal. They were just quaint, exotic, belonging to the domain of “local colour”.

But Occidentalism, taken to mean the fascination of the East with the West, would be a matter of ideology as well. Chinese, Japanese, Indians et al. don’t just like hamburgers and golf, they read Anglo-American media and books, and consume the ideas contained therein. They go to Anglo-American universities to learn from the academics there. They copy what these people do and say in institutions and organizations at home.

Eventually they may ask themselves: why are we bothering to do this? But by that stage they may have abandoned the better part of their own cultures. The Cultural Revolution was an ill-judged rejection by a younger generation of their own past. Could a new generation be embarking on a new Cultural Revolution? Is this it? Occidentalism?




Exile and the Kingdom

L’exil et le royaume was a collection of short stories by Camus. I have often wondered: what exile and what kingdom? One assumes exile from some kingdom. But that is not quite what he says. He talks about exile and a kingdom. The two things don’t seem to exclude each other.

I have just been rereading the book on Camus by the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, who has something to say about this. His main focus, of course, was on Camus being an Algerian, a French Algerian who lived among the Arabs while basically ignoring them. Camus’ problem was for him the problem of the colonial.

O’Brien thought that the French Algerian had a deep feeling of exile – from France, but also from the real Algeria where he lived. And the kingdom? The kingdom is a kingdom of his imagination and his longing. His longing is for the real Algeria, the place where he lives, but a place with which he is fatally out of touch. He longs, in fact, for an ecstatic kind of unity with the land.

In the first story in Camus’ collection, “La femme adultère”, Janine experiences this kind of epiphany when she looks out from a colonial fort in the night on a Bedouin or Tuareg encampment outside the walls, and beyond it sees the vastness of the African sky and the desert; and indeed, she thinks of the “étrange royaume”, the “strange kingdom” inhabited by the nomads, which is a vastness of land and sky.

As a colonial in Algeria, or indeed as an inhabitant of the New World, what one longs for is communion with the land, but it is the huge overwhelming vastness of the land, of desert and sky. In Europe we do not experience that, because the landscape is long since tamed and settled by man, and human traces merge with the landscape and divide it up into parts that are on a human scale. The only way you can experience it maybe is the way the Swiss feel about the high Alps, or what the Portuguese feel looking at the ocean. Maybe when Rilke was so poetically inspired by his trip to Russia, that was what he was picking up on – the vastness of the country stretching off into the East.

To experience that feeling of a vast landscape, you have to go to a vast new land – as a colonist, ironically enough; and as a colonist you can’t really merge in with it permanently, because you don’t belong, like the natives do; you can only have epiphanies. In Camus’ profound story, Janine’s epiphany has to do with thinking of nomads travelling around the vast land of North Africa. Only those nomads – or the Indians in the New World – relate to the land as it is, because they step so lightly there and do not reduce the land to their terms or their scale.

I am reminded of a curious sentence in the book The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. The ornithologist and conservation advocate was writing about his region on the South coast of England, and he goes so far as to call it “a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa”. I now think he was unconsciously trying to cut through the normal Old-World way of relating to the familiar, beloved land, and instead experience it as a vast expanse of wilderness where Nature rules, not man.

Back to skool – to learn Chinese

Journalist Chuck Chiang had a recent article in the Vancouver Sun to mark the beginning of the new school year. The article is about the pros and cons of learning Chinese in Vancouver – of all places. It seems numerous parents and business groups have been lobbying for it in the public school system and say it should be taught more. The only reason given, by the way, is that it helps you make money and be competitive.

The people doing the lobbying are mainly Chinese-Canadian, also by the way. One non-Chinese-Canadian, a former diplomat named Jimmy Mitchell who actually learned Chinese on a posting and has been making a career of it ever since, remarks that there are lots of Chinese speakers in Vancouver but they’re all Chinese. He thinks white guys should be learning it too. Fat chance, I thought.

When I was working with the BC Ministry of Education in the 1980s, we were developing a new languages curriculum. This was triggered by the introduction of Chinese and Japanese as optional subjects in the public schools. I for one told the bureaucrats and educators you might as well focus on offering Chinese as a heritage language (that is, one taught to children of immigrant speakers of that language). They reacted with righteous horror, saying no, public school subjects have to be for everybody. But the bottom line was, and is: no ordinary English Canadian kid is going to learn Chinese, or at least stick at it once the novelty has worn off. If they can’t be bothered to learn French – the country’s other official language, and relatively easy to learn for English speakers – they’re not going to learn Chinese with its tones and artistic writing system.

Another thing is that, in these debates, people confuse teaching with learning. If you ask whether kids are learning languages, educators come out with impressive statistics like “we have so many students enrolled in so many programs”. That’s not what I asked. I asked if the kids were learning the languages – namely, whether they know anything at the end of the program, and have something to apply it to. English-Canadian kids have been dutifully enrolled in French courses for years, and at the end they can’t say a word. Even kids in French immersion programs, who actually do learn French, forget it afterwards due to lack of practice.

Anyway, the basic problem is not Chinese – it’s English. English Canadian society is deeply convinced that no language is necessary but English, and no language should be spoken but English, and anyone who speaks any other language besides English is, like, weird. Young people have learned this from their parents; it gets passed on from previous generations. This is why young English Canadians (like young Americans) can’t be bothered to learn languages.

So if we want to have English Canada able to speak Chinese to China, guess who will be doing it? Chinese-Canadians. Howls of righteous horror, anyone? Well, look on the bright side. Young Chinese Canadians will no longer need to soul-search and ask themselves “what can I do for my (adopted) country?” Their work is already cut out for them – for generations to come.