David Brooks from Chengdu: my lord

Some of his pensees:

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

This is the kind of thing you can say only if you have not the slightest inkling of how completely different a billion-plus people can be from one another. Beijingers from Shanghainese,  Guangdong entrepreneurs from farmers in Sichuan, Tibetans from Taiwanese, people who remember the Cultural Revolution from those who don't, people who remember the famines of the Great Leap Forward from people who've always had enough. The guy across the street from his brother. His daughter from his wife. People hanging on in big state enterprises from those starting small firms. People who stayed in the villages from those who came to the city for jobs. Christians from Buddhists. Hu Jintao from Jiang Zemin,  Olympic weightlifters from Olympic tennis players, Yao Ming from Liu Xiang, Wen Jiabao from Edison Chen  -- and while we're at it, Filipinos from Koreans,  Japanese from Chinese, Malaysian Chinese from Malaysian Malays. Lee Kuan Yew from Kim Jong Il. People from Jakarta from people in Seoul. Hey, they're all "Asians".

Yes, obviously, different cultures have different emphases. I think that American culture has one of the strongest imprints of all, especially with its myths -- by which I mean ideals rather than falsehoods -- that people from any culture can be absorbed, and that anyone can become anything. Chinese culture, given its history, allows a much bigger role to fate -- and to "eating bitterness" stoicism, and to good omens and auspiciousness, and of course to family ties.

But the very most obvious thing about today's China is how internally varied and contradictory it is, how many opposite things various of its people want, how likely-to-be-false any generalization is. Anyone who can look at today's China and not see the powerful individual personalities and traits and dramas is someone more interested in fitting a theory to the current place he is passing through than in learning about that place.

And as for this part, about the Olympic opening ceremony:

>>The ceremony drew from China's long history, but surely the most striking features were the images of thousands of Chinese moving as one -- drumming as one, dancing as one, sprinting on precise formations without ever stumbling or colliding. We've seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present -- a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China's miraculous growth.<<

The spectacle was indeed impressive! But many of those people "moving as one" were (as has been widely reported) from the PLA -- soldiers, mobilized for the event. Hmm, I wonder how that affects the theory. An author passing through Washington DC could, by this logic, just as easily find the the very impressive coordinated drill of the Friday Evening Parades at the Marine Corps Barracks as evidence of America's "collectivism of the present" and its harmonious nature.  But don't get me started.

Take a little time and look around, David. The parts that don't fit what you theorized before arriving are actually the most stimulating.

Update: More on this topic from me here and from CN Reviews here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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