Making Everywhere More the Same

There is a dynamic tension when you move abroad. You celebrate what is different about your new home. At the same time, you miss things about what you left behind. After more than nine years living in Thailand, a conversation with a Thai friend who is considering returning to Bangkok after a long time in the United States, made me realize that everywhere is becoming more similar.

As I put it to him, “In the nine years I have lived in Bangkok, I have gone from really missing many things about living in the United States, to now being able to find most of those things here.” The obvious exception being family and friends who still live back there.

But when it comes to brands, foods, and treats that I used to think of as specific to one area or another, more of those items are available in most major cities around the globe.


Pinkberry is a Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt chain whose loyal customers’ cult-like adoration of the brand is similar to what you see when Krispy Kreme donuts opens in a new corner of the world. (Which happened here two years ago…)

I really like Pinkberry and enjoy getting some when I am back in California. No longer must I wait for a trip to the United States, though, as the first Pinkberry opened a few weeks ago at Central Chidlom mall in Bangkok. Certainly more branches will follow.

Harrods, Eric Kaiser, Fauchon, Laduree, Isetan, Uniqlo, Gap, Starbucks, Din Tai Fung, Krispy Kreme, Bon Chon, Muji, and now Pinkberry. The list of items you miss from home gets shorter and shorter as more and more of those items become available here. And that’s not to mention the items like tasty southern-style barbecue or European-style bread that is available from local providers.

That is a good thing, from a quality of living standpoint. But it causes me to wonder if there isn’t a downside to the ease and convenience with which I can get previously-regional items anywhere across the globe.

Does a place become a little less special when the local specialties are now available across the globe? Do we become a little more spoiled when an increasing number of our desires can be fulfilled, no matter where we are? And at some level, does “place” cease to matter?

No easy answers to those questions, but they are worth asking.

Traveling by Air

Tuesday evening, I returned to Bangkok after a twelve-day trip to the United States to renew my Thai visa. This trip, like ever other trip I make by myself, always finds me a bit awash in melancholy. This time, the waves came while eating noodles in the lounge at Narita Airport in Tokyo.


I have been traveling by air since I was a month old. Over the years, I have come to associate air travel with so many things: adventure, family, friends, romance, and escape. On each trip, the moment comes when I feel like I am in transit, literally suspended between points in my life. The idea that I am part of a larger network, knowing friends and family around the globe, excites me. At the same time, I feel disconnected and not at home anywhere in particular.

It is an interesting sensation and one that, the more I experience it, the more inviting it becomes. Maybe there is a point where I cease to be grounded at all and am forever flitting about the globe.


American Exceptionalism

While waiting in a hotel lobby to meet a friend for lunch, I read a front-page article from USA Today: “Obama and America’s Place in the World.”  The article talks about the way President Obama addresses questions of American exceptionalism and Republican attempts to capitalize on this in order to paint the President as un-American, without having to use those words.

American exceptionalism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a belief that the country is unique and exceptional in comparison to other countries.  Historically, it did not mean that America was better than other countries, but in the past few years the term has been coopted by those who would like to give that meaning to the phrase. 

British writer G.K. Chesterton noted in a 1922 essay, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence…”  The Declaration’s introduction defines this ideology as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

The ammunition used by those who believe that President Obama is un-American doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, is his response in April 2009 (his opponents have to go back twenty months to dig up dirt on him, it seems) to a question by a British journalist about whether America is uniquely qualified to lead the world:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

This strikes me, a passport-holding American who has traveled widely and has spent more than five years living overseas, as a tremendously reasonable, level-headed statement.

What also strikes me, as an American who has seen the way many countries in the world are rapidly moving from “developing nation” to “developed nation” status, is that no amount of arguing how exceptional we are or aren’t is going to help us compete in the 21st century.

Discussing the growth of China with a friend who recently spent two years working in Shanghai, he noted that in just the past few years, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network (already some 4,600 miles), and they are on track to have as much as 16,000 miles built by 2020.  Compare this to America’s infrastructure, which the American Society of Civil Engineers currently grades as a “D” and will require more than $2 trillion to repair.

Is America exceptional?  No doubt it is.  But the issue isn’t whether we are exceptional or not, it’s whether we are willing to do the work necessary to remain exceptional in the century to come. 

I think all of our mothers taught us that it is immodest to brag.  We may well be the smartest kid in class (or at least want to think we are), but announcing it to our peers rather than spending our time studying for the next test is the surest way to become the schoolyard dummy.  That’s a form of exceptionalism, too, but not one that I suspect any of us want to bequeath to our future generations.

What say you?

Related to this: do you remember the bruhaha surrounding a photo of President Obama reading a copy of the very insightful book “The Post-American World?”  Blog entry from September 2009 about it.

Message from a Big Person

In the past few years, I’ve read a lot about how the proliferation of media – especially online – is balkanizing us.  Instead of giving us access to more information and a broader range of perspectives, we are self-selecting sources of information and groups of people who mirror our already-held beliefs and values.

News of this disturbs me because I think one of the greatest strengths of globalization and the internet is their ability to break down barriers and make us more understanding of others’ concerns, feelings, values and perspectives.  On an increasingly interconnected planet, we need to understand each other more, not less.

My experiences on Xanga have sometimes illustrated this balkanization: some people seem really unwilling to hear different perspectives and their responses are more defensive (or offensive, really!) than thoughtful, more attagonistic than trying to understand.

That’s why I want to acknowledge that in the entry I wrote two weeks ago about California’s proposition 8, in the midst of a lot of back and forth, there were several people who really rose above the fray and were able to disagree and debate ideas without resorting to insults and invectives.

Several people contacted me privately and had many encouraging words.  Some of them agreed with my position that proposition 8 is wrong and should be defeated.  Others disagreed with me but shared messages of respect and appreciation for the opportunity to have a dialogue on the issue.  And others shared with me how their opinion had changed because of the opportunity to hear other perspectives.  Here is one such message:

I have been thumbing through your site and am really blown away.  My wife and I have never really given major thought to the whole gay marriage (sorry if that sounded so blunt).  I do like to think that I am an open minded person, and my wife as well.  She is a very religious person but day by day living here in California acceptance and new ideas are always around us, and in the same subject we asked ourselves tonight that if we were on y’alls end of the stick and someone told us that we could not get married even though we love each other, and ultimately it is an expression legally of how we feel about each other… I also have really been intrigued with a lot of your other writings and would like to add you as a friend.  I wanted to send you this message to ask you if that would be alright, since I did come onto your site and threw a lot of bigotry out in the first couple of lines. I would like to apologize for not being open to the subject for debate from the get go, the proposition does not affect me or do me any harm, I know that you should be able to express yourself just as my wife and I do. Thank you for replying to my silly posts and I would love to hear more from you.

It take a mighty big person to be open to new ideas, to challenge his or her own beliefs, and to evolve his or her world view.  Speaking from my own perspective, I know exactly how hard being open-minded is.  Many times I fail despite my attempts.  So I have tremendous respect for people who are big enough and confident enough to recognize the opportunity to learn and grow from others.

To all of you who participated in that discussion, or who have otherwise promoted civilized, thoughtful debate in the virtual and real worlds, thank you for your contribution to dialogue and understanding.  And thank you for being a big person.


My response to the author of the “Message to China” boycott

This morning I received the following email.  It is so sinophobic as to remind me of the “yellow peril” scare of the laste 1800s and early 1900s.  It left me fuming and so I spent two hours composing a response, which is printed following it.  Please note that I added the images to this post; they were not part of the original email message.



180px-YellowTerror Do you want to send a message to China?  Are we Americans as dumb as we appear or is it that we just do not think?  While the Chinese, knowingly and intentionally, export inferior products and dangerous toys and goods to be sold in American markets, the media wrings its hands and criticizes the Bush Administration for perceived errors. Yet 70% of Americans believe that the trading privileges afforded to the Chinese should be suspended. Well, duh..why do you need the government to suspend trading privileges?


Simply look on the bottom of every product you buy, and if it says ‘Made in China’ or ‘PRC’ (and that now includes Hong Kong), simply choose another product or none at all.  You will be amazed at how dependent you are on Chinese products, however you will be equally amazed at what you can do without.  Who needs plastic eggs to celebrate Easter? 

If you must have eggs, use real ones and benefit some American  farmer. Easter is just an example, the point is.. do not wait for the government to act.  Just go ahead and assume control on your own.

2ANTICH1_21 If 200 million Americans refuse to buy just $20 each of Chinese goods, that’s a billion dollar trade imbalance resolved in our favor…fast!! The downside? Some American businesses will feel a temporary pinch from having foreign stockpiles of inventory. ** Downside?? 

The solution ?  Let’s give them fair warning and send our own message. We  will not implement this UNTIL June 4, and we will only continue it until  July 4.  That is only one month of trading losses, but it will hit the  Chinese for 1/12th of the total, or 8%, of their American exports. Then they will at  least have to ask themselves if the benefits of their arrogance and lawlessness were worth it.

Remember, June 4 to July 4.


Here’s is my response:

A response to the anonymous author of the “Message to China”
Easter Egg I was forwarded an email (I’m sure it has been forwarded many times before I received it) that suggested that we should engage in a month-long boycott of $20 each of Chinese-made products in order to “send a message” about their “arrogance and illegality”.  Here is my response:
Painting with a broad brush
For starters, the original author talks about “China” and “the Chinese” and their “arrogance and illegality” as if they were one monolithic group, much in the same way that Islamic fundamentalists talk about “America” and “Americans” as if they were of one single mind.  It is a bit of mental laziness to confuse the actions of individual companies or oversight by specific corrupt government officials with the entire nation or populace.

As an American living overseas, am I personally to be blamed for George Bush’s blundered war in Iraq just because I’m American?  Does every computer running Microsoft Windows around the world represent “America” monopolistically flooding foreign markets just because it is an American-based company?  Does the spread of McDonald’s around the globe and the ensuing obesity epidemic that seems to follow in its footsteps represent America “knowingly and intentionally exporting inferior products” and unhealthy goods?  Of course the answer is no, because individual people and individual companies should not be conflated with a country as a whole.

(Speaking of corruption, did you know that the Chinese government actually executes government officials who are implicated in bribe-taking and corruption scandals?  I’d argue that that sends a much stronger message to their leaders to crack down on problems like lead in paint than anything the American government does.  Two years in a country club prison for a corrupt politician or a bullet in the back of the head?  Which is the real deterrent?)
Pennies on the dollar
Second, the premise that boycotting Chinese-produced goods has a direct effect on the trade imbalance and only on “the Chinese” is detached from reality.  Let’s use the example of plastic Easter eggs that the original author used.  Discounting the only valid point that the author made, which is asking why you need to buy plastic eggs in the first place, let’s say the batch of plastic eggs cost you $5 at your local Wal-Mart.
What percentage of that $5 do you think actually is paid to the Chinese company that produced the eggs?  At best, maybe $0.05. 
Consider the entire production chain: there are costs of the raw materials, packaging costs, costs for employees and transportation costs, and that’s before the eggs even reach the US.  Once they are here, there are further transportation costs, the fixed costs associated with building and maintaining the store itself, property and sales taxes associated with the store and this sale, and wages and benefits (minimal, in Wal-Mart’s case).   The dollars you boycott aren’t going to magically drop to the bottom line of the trade imbalance.  At best, a few pennies on each dollar might.
Terminal46@72 The global employment chain
Consider also that the entire chain described above results in people having jobs at each step.  Value is added at each step, infusing each local and national economy with more money and creating jobs.  From the employees in the petroleum industry extracting and processing oil (plastic is a petroleum product), to those at the manufacturing facility that makes the plastic pellets that are sold to the plastic egg factory, to the workers at the plastic egg factory to the truckers, port workers, cargo ship crew, port workers and truckers in the US, and the Wal-Mart employees (not to mention government employees such as customs workers, highway patrol officers staffing truck weigh stations, and workers processing corporate tax payments), there is an entire chain of employment across the globe created by global trade.
Finally, the author’s suggestion that buying real eggs instead of plastic ones will “benefit some American farmer” largely ignores the realities of American agribusiness.  The eggs you buy from your local chain grocery store (or the grocery section of your Wal-Mart) are most likely not raised by “Farmer John” who has the large red barn about two miles outside of town.  Most likely, they are raised by one of the large conglomerates that control most of America’s food production, the same ones that are receiving the vast majority and a disproportionate share of the government subsidies that were just approved in the Farm Bill.  If only your Easter egg purchase actually helped some independent family farmer!
Possible solutions
So what can we do, then?  It is understandable to be frustrated by the trade deficit and to be upset about dangerous products being imported into the country.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to buy American and if you’re serious about the idea, then by all means do it.  Don’t wait for a boycott and don’t limit yourself to $20 a month.  Beyond that, though, how can we have a real impact?  Here are a few thoughts:
First, consider why you’re buying at all.  To his or her credit, the original author did make the briefest of suggestions (“…or none at all.”) to this effect.  Whether those plastic Easter eggs were made in China or the US, are they something you really need to have?  In the past several generations we’ve become a population that is tremendously consumerist, buying things that we don’t need and building up large personal and national debts.  For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans as a whole have a negative savings rate.  On top of it, our government has a national debt of $9.39 trillion dollars!  If you really want to start making an impact, take that $20 you were going to boycott Chinese-made products with, don’t spend it at all and instead put it in a savings account or invest it.
Second, if you are going to buy, buy quality instead of quantity.  We buy more and more things of lower and lower quality.  The things we  buy aren’t necessarily very good for the environment (plastic won’t biodegrade anytime this millennium) and are increasingly designed to be disposed of instead of lasting.  Somewhere in your parents’ attic there are probably toys from your childhood that are still in working order.  How many of your children’s toys will last that long?   You can lower the trade imbalance (and have a positive benefit on the world as a whole and your pocket book) by buying fewer things but things that will last a long time.
wal-mart-image Third, consider the impact of where you buy.  Tens of millions of Americans do their shopping at stores like Wal-Mart, that pay low wages and provide minimal benefits.  Sure, they provide low prices but they do so on the backs of their employees, not just because they are selling a lot of inexpensive foreign-made goods.  In addition to buying less and buying things of higher quality, spend your money with stores that pay their employees a living wage and provide them with reasonable healthcare benefits.  Remember, these “employees” are our fellow citizens, our friends, neighbors, and even family members.
Finally, let’s turn off the TV.  Not only is excess TV watching contributing to record levels of obesity, but the “news” we’re watching isn’t news at all, it is punditry.  Whether Karl Rove on Fox or Lou Dobbs on CNN, we’re watching talking heads spout nonsense that is lowering (or eliminating) any intelligent, thoughtful discourse on important issues such as global trade and foreign relations.  It is the same sort of mind-numbing spin that the original author of the email engages in, proposing an ineffectual and transparently xenophobic boycott to address a nuanced and complex issue.