I'm now one of perhaps 10 or so INSEADers to spend 2 months in the "third continent" over the summer (another 40 or 50 will do so later in the year by exercising the Wharton Alliance). Now Americans (and INSEAD's scarily large Canadian community) would rarely think of their continent as "third" in anything, but to me its the "third" part of my INSEAD experience. And its always fun to refer to them as third in anything.
Amazing as this may seem to many of my European brethren, this will not be a disparaging rant about the uncultured and unsophisticated louts in this continent, far from it. Before I start, I want to state that I am not American, Canadian, a EU citizen or Chinese or Singaporean. I also agree that America does have some problems with healthcare, insurance, gun laws and environmental action. But this blog is not about those things, it is about my experiences and my journey. And physically my journey started in Singapore and progressed to France and then to the USA and that is the journey I wish to try and articulate in today's blog.
I've lived in East Asia for many (discontinuous) years, and I know and understand Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia better than most foreigners (ie people not citizens of those nations). I love the work ethic, determination, can-do attitude, drive to improve their lot in life, their attention to detail, their desire to help, their service culture, their attitude of looking to find solutions and answers. This work culture, can-do attitude and determination has transformed these countries economically in 30 years into middle income countries. They are also extremely cultured (in a way Europeans do not easily relate to). Asia is also extremely competitive and yet self-effacing, polite and obliging. They are sometimes rich and sometimes poor but not in poverty, and they are generally happy. They are not always contented but they are content for the day. They strive for American standards of living but relish their centuries old mix of Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and British & Dutch influence with pride. And they never, ever seek to tell you their culture, way of life, cuisine or fashion is better than anyone else's. They are secure in this. This attitude and mentality of East Asia today, makes it for me, the most interesting part of the world to live in. Dynamic, pulsating, growing, opportunisitc and yet secure, comfortable, happy-go-lucky and self-effacing.
France is different. INSEAD aside, France welcomed me by telling me why it is better than me. It told how to eat and what to eat and why it is better than everyone else's cuisine. It told me that it could not help fix my heating, bathroom, bank account, mobile phone, burger... because its my fault that I didnt set it up/order/ask for information correctly. It told me it cannot help me change or expedite anything because things are the way they are - and that is the way they should stay. It told me that the 28th work hour in a week is tiring and that all work will get done, in good time, which is at the rate of 27 work hours per week. It looked for exactly 0 creative solutions to problems, exemplified the best of a "can't do" attitude and ensured that efficiency was always and everywhere foregone for cheese. Or sometimes ham.
My french friends say, "You cannot understand - we are sophisticated, we have 3900 kinds of cheese, 760 kinds of ham and 150 types of indigenous alcoholic drinks like Champagne, Calvados and Cidre. We have Joie de vive, savoir faire and a certain je ne sais quoi." Wrong. Every old nation (Im sorry but I will very temporary exclude North America, Australia and New Zealand), Great Britain, Spain, Netherlands, Russia, Persia, Arab nations, India, Thailand, China, Japan and Sub-Saharan ones have culture, a love of life and class that comes from thousands of years of civilization. Each has its gentlemen and its scholars, its military strategicians, painters and great chefs. Perhaps our French friends don't know them or havent heard of them, but that doesnt mean they don't (or didn't) exist. In the kitchens of rural Vietnam there are middle ages ladies who make the best fishcakes and steamed vegetables with local sauces in the world. Who cares if they don't have Michelin stars - has the Michelin committee ever even visited them? In the backalleys of Suzhou are collections of paintings valued much higher by the Chinese than they would value Gauguin. Ornate craftsmenship in Indian temples, forts, mosques and mausoleums is on-par or better than any architecture I have seen in France. Kings College Chapel and Ely Cathedral in Cambridge, the architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, the Churches of Munich, the colours of Lisbon and the paintings of Van Gogh and Rembrandt as beautiful as anything in France. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Sun Tsu, Plato, Gulzar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all wrote as poetically as Victor Hugo. Each nation has its history, etiquette in clothing and food, refined cuisine, paintings, art and literature.
Argumentative, self-righteous and moralising, France tells you why you it is better. It is not - and I will tell you why. East Asians queue up to learn English (and have done so for 30 years), the French look at you with contempt if you misphrase sentences in French. But the problem is bigger - to me it represents a cultural attitude which restricts economic advancement, innovation and a creative approach to looking for solutions and new ways to answer old questions. Something that a certain people further west are in fact very good at...
Big. Bold. Beautiful. Brave. Coming to America was a true pleasure. My taxi driver from the airport used his personal cell phone to call my flatmate for directions (If I was in NY, they wouldnt have to as NY taxis now all have GPS fitted in), waiters have consistently adapted dishes to my specifications (no riccotta, can I get parmesan cheese and extra prosciutto instead), suits are sold Jacket and trouser size separately to make it easy for you (unlike France where they told me to get thinner but they couldn't sell me a different size trouser with a certain size jacket as they came together). Banks offer free checking (Ameritrade said I could open a trading account in 5 minutes and they would take care of all the work of transferring my existing securities from my old broker at no charge), Banana Republic offers opinion if you want it , but not otherwise (Europeans smirk at the mention of Banana Republic but in France, I hate that the salesman tells you how and why to dress to make yourself look fit for being taken out in public, incidentally the British sometimes are guilty too, I was once told by a butler at Cambridge to use a spoon instead of a fork to eat my Prawn Cocktail - I told him to f*^k off). These are trivial examples but the reality is Americans work hard, they don't worry about form and status quo, they look for creative solutions and they seek answers, they want progress and push the boundaries of achievement, they may be insecure about their jobs but that drives the whole society to do better at their jobs and innovate. Perhaps occasionally the goals and ends of actions are misplaced, but the "can-do attitude" is still what makes America beautiful. I've heard people say before that the world needs American optimism. Having been to France, I can say, France definately does.
Asia is rich in culture and traditions like France. And fortunately in terms of economic progress, innovation, "can-do attitude" and striving for a better tommorrow, it is learning from the best, America, while retaining its societal Confucian thinking. As populations grow, resources become more expensive and the relative competitiveness of France declines as compared with nations where people are working harder, France looks set for a rude economic awakening. Instead of telling us, repeatedly, about the superiority of their culture, tradition, cuisine and lifestyle, perhaps France should look West... or East ... otherwise as one non-French writer put it "Pride goes before the fall".