Journal Entry #35
A Second Pair of Eyes.
LAKE WARAMAUG, CONN., JUNE 10—I do not know exactly when it was I realized what I had been doing all those years in Asia as a paid observer, an officially sanctioned outsider, someone who made a living looking around and asking questions of strangers. In memory it was after the correspondent days were done and I was writing a book of reflections on all I had seen and heard over nearly three decades. The book came out as Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post–Western World, and I still think of it as the best thing I have ever written. I allow that this may be simply because the months I spent writing those three long essays made one of those singularly contented times that bless us not very often.
The book’s title may suggest a little of the point. It came to me—gradually or suddenly, I cannot recall this, either—that the true object of those decades going to and fro in the non–West was to understand not others so much as myself. All those Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians, Thais, Filipinos, Indians (easily the most revelatory of the lot in this connection) Japanese, Koreans, Macanese, Iranians, and others had taught me a great deal about themselves, surely. That is what I got paid to learn. But the most profound lessons had to do with who I was and how I—an American, a “round eye” altogether—had a place in the story not at all like the place I might typically assume I had.
One does not return home quite the same after such an experience. I understood everything about America and Americans just as I always had—the gestures, the affect, the language submerged beneath the spoken and written language. I was still as American as Ezra Brooks and Saran Wrap. But I saw and heard as all those others I had known would, too. I thought of it as having “a second pair of eyes.” If I had been an outsider even before I left for the East, there would be no chance of altering this fate ever again.
I have written before of this phenom. There is nothing exotic about it: No great gift attaches to this second way of seeing. I suppose there are people who return after a long time among others and forget everything. But I think in most cases one is like those characters in Somerset Maugham’s superb stories written from the East. There has been a transformation. Nothing about the home ground is quite the same because one is not at all the same.
The months I was writing Somebody Else’s were months of blissful solitude, even though I had a small flat in the congested Central district of Hongkong. Almost everything took place within a matter of a few blocks. The furthest I went were my walks along the old footpaths the Brits etched into the jungly mountainsides or along Conduit Road to the top end of The University of Hong Kong, where I was lecturing. I stayed away from the F.C.C. and saw few Westerners—this by unconscious design, it seems to me in hindsight. I wrote at least three times a week and as many as five. The writing typically started at 6 or 7 a.m. and was done in time for a late lunch. Apart from a few of my students, my most pleasing conversations were with the produce sellers in the “wet market,” Hongkong’s version of the rue du Buci. Mrs. Yau sold me my mangoes—four or five a week of different ripeness. She would number the skins with a felt pen: Eat this one first, then this one….
I still recall that time vividly and more than I probably should. It was a sort of sequestration from much of what had been familiar—from the West, maybe, although Hongkong is Westernized such that this was not a heavy lift. An immersion of a sort, me and my four eyes.
And to the wandering Cú Chulainn’s point.
I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT FIND as interesting as I did these few insights from a very keen observer of things American and Asian,” a friend “out East” wrote a few days ago. “It is from a dear friend, who has worked alternatively in Asia and the U.S. for the past 35 years and currently heads the Asia–Pacific operations of a global business-services firm with multiple offices across Asia. A fluent speaker and reader of Chinese, he is a graduate of an East Coast university. Each year he does what he calls his ‘American refresher tour,’ and he sent this note to me as his ‘tour’ this year nears an end.
The sender of this note to me has been a source for nearly three decades—a reliable source, as we used to say—and I have no reason to question the provenance of the note his longtime friend sent him. It is so pithy and to the point, especially at this freighted moment in trans–Pacific affairs, I reproduce it here in full, points of style uncorrected. I have stripped it of any identifying detail as a matter of discretion:
“As you know I have been on my annual ‘America refresher tour’ for the last 2 weeks, meeting clients and people in government. This year has been even more interesting than in the past, as the stark contrast between what we see actually happening in reality across Asia, and the views extant here is today bigger than at any time I have seen it.
“For example, people here seem to be still completely oblivious to what is going on around the Korean peninsula situation and concerning deeper economic developments in China. There is virtually no understanding that the broad geo-political situation, as well as economic and technological developments are every day all getting better for China relative to the U.S. and relative to the rest of the world.
“Of course, there are a few pockets of people here and there who have a sense of things, and some even have a real grasp of what is occurring and the underlying dynamics driving the change. But such people—and there are very,very few of them—seem far from power, are largely absent from the media, and appear to have virtually no influence.
“For example, there is everywhere in America this idea that Pyongyang has reached out to China, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. out of complete desperation, following the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign the U.S. has led over the last 12 months or so. That Pyongyang has achieved a level of development of its deterrent and delivery capacity sufficient to give it the confidence to reach out to its enemies is nowhere present in the discussion here. Yet in Asia, virtually everyone understands that. Of course the sanctions must hurt, but again virtually no one seems to understand that North Korea’s economy is now growing faster than South Korea’s economy […] and that China will never allow the place to collapse. That is also the position of Russia, and I dare say it is also the position when encounters in virtually every private discussion at high levels in [South] Korea’s corporate and political worlds. You saw that Air China has restored daily flights to North Korea. That planning for the gas line from Russia to North Korea is well advanced … and is strongly supported in business circles in South Korea.
“It has started to dawn on maybe a few people—by that I mean less than the fingers on your hand—in D.C. that China is the power player in all of these discussions with North Korea, and more broadly about the Korean peninsula. Yet if you have not understood that from the get-go, your negotiation strategy is headed for a brutal crash with reality. However if you listen to the public commentary and private discussions at high levels in companies as well as in government, and in political circles, people seem largely blind to these realities.
“As for the deep economic developments in China and the country’s surging tech sector, there is mostly a cartoonish view of things. I have lost count of how many times on this trip I have been asked, ‘When do you expect China’s economy to implode?’ When I see the surging U.S. debt, the high valuations of equities, the rise of interest rates, I can’t help thinking that the relevant question is, ‘When will the U.S. crash yet again?
“Regarding tech, there is a view shared left, right, and center here that China steals it. This self-serving conceit blinds people to the incredible entrepreneurial dynamism and technological surge occurring across China. And this is all happening in a country with a per capita GDP of about 15% of that of the U.S. Imagine where that would be—where it might well be—when China’s per capita GDP is 30% of that of the U.S. …
“There is more, but what all of this says to me, is that the awakening of America to what its real position in the world is today is still to come. America seems to be facing backward as Asia blasts ahead.
OUR EYES, ALAS. Never mind any kind of second pair. They are acquired only with “travel,” a term Nietzsche—Fritz the wanderer, Fritz the perspectivist—used a lot in an expansive definition to include more than mere boats and airplanes. Those managing policy in Washington—and most of the rest of us, in this man’s reading—cannot see even with the two God gave us.
To what end do we head? In our confrontation—as we insist on fashioning it—with the non–West, the question grows more serious by the day.