Convergence and The Geography of Thought

(This isn’t in Tianzifang, but in Beijing’s Art District.)

When I was strolling along a street close to Tianzifang in Shanghai with my friend Christoph in June, we walked past some modern buildings with a Starbucks and two other, similarly designed coffee shops. I got weak and bought myself a heavily overpriced Macha Latte as we sat down at a raised bed on the side of the boardwalk to rest a bit.

At that point, Christoph sighed a bit and remarked how Shanghai, to him, demonstrated the possibility that in 20 years time, all around the world, things might be and look more or less the same.

I already wrote about Shanghai being a bit like this law about the internet: if you can imagine it, it exists. Shanghai has – obviously – characteristics of an old and new Chinese city; it has a partly European heritage and is apparently greatly attracted to modern European luxury and food. And it has pretty much everything people usually mean when they talk about the McDonaldization of culture (KFC, Burger King, McDonalds, Starbucks; and many more US chains that are in Shanghai, but not in Europe.) to cinema chains showing the latest international (American) movies.

(Cut.)

I read a book recently about how people from the East and the West think differently, called The Geography of Thought. It described, quoting many different experiments as well as arguing historically that there are fundamental differences in how people think and perceive, how this influences behavior and how this in turn shapes a culture that – via socialization and language – favors a particular mode of thinking. While all those experiments paint a convincing picture about differences and while those surely play a role in the way people construct meaning and communication works – although the book never really goes into much detail about the scale or gravity of differences –, I found the open conclusions of the book most interesting.

First of all, it argues that people’s cognitive tendencies are culturally malleable. Where you live has a profound impact on how you reason, judge and perceive. Nurture doesn’t end when you’re grown up. Living in China or Japan e.g. will probably make you more contextually aware. Living in America will make you more of a logical reasoner. I find that fascinating, and it’s one of the reasons why I look forward to the start of our Singapore adventure.

The final argument however, is about whether we’re up for some sort of globalized Americanism. Nisbett argues what we’re seeing is instead Western and Eastern cultures influencing each other. Westerners seem to have a bit of an issue with this:

“[They] dend to confuse modernization–defined as industrialization, a more complex occupational structure, increased wealth and social mobility, greater literacy, and urbanization–with Westernization.”

“But a third view should be considered, which is that the world may be in for convergence rather than continued divergence, but a convergence based not purely on Westernization but also on Easternization and on new cognitive forms based on the blending of social systems and values.”

Yes, we’re seeing people run around with Cokes all over the world. But we’ve also witnessed the influx of Asian horror themes into Western pop culture, fusion cuisine as well as the diffusion of Asian noodles as e.g. middle European street snack (including a hell freezing over moment with McDonald’s now selling McNoodles in Austria). That was obviously only a short list of things that were on top of mind right now; there are many examples in the book. The world isn’t going one way, it never has done that.

All of this, when I read it, reminded me of Shanghai, and of course Singapore, again. Ideas are always travelling from some place and put into action in another one. They are adapted, remixed and shaped to fit another place. That there are some executions of it, like German ‘beer gardens’ in those cities that feel out of place to me or what is called ‘Sechuan’ food in Austria, is another story. Nobody complains about Irish pubs all over the world anymore. “Cultures” are never one static body, they never have been.Globalization has been going on ever since people started to walk.

I think convergence, not towards something known (“American culture”), but rather towards something maybe entirely new is fascinating. And I look forward to acting on the other side of that imaginary fence for a while.

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