A few weeks ago, Claire Chiang, the co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, had a public discussion with Dinda Elliott, global affairs editor at Condé Nast Traveler. In front of a mainly Western audience, they talked about the corporate social responsibility that Chiang's Singapore-based boutique hotel chain has been practicing and trying to promote in Asia.
During the Q&A session, a Caucasian woman who taught photography to Asian students shared one of her observations. "We (Westerners) pride ourselves on our ability to be critical and to be innovative. My experience in Asia is there is rigor, there is discipline, but nobody would like to engage in negative criticism," she said at the event at the Asia Society in New York.
Chiang, a Singaporean born to a Chinese immigrant family, listened attentively. She acknowledged the possibility that such conservativism arose from the suppression of independent thinking in the Asian education system. But she noted that there is another way to look at it.
She said that Westerners should question their own assumptions through their exposure to an Asian culture where answers may not always be clearly defined. "The Western notion of right and wrong and black and white is very clear. The Chinese notion is lack of clarity. The middle path has value. It is the ground for new discoveries," she said.
The audience smiled and nodded as they clapped.
The scene would be hard to imagine just a few years ago. There have been always Americans interested in the Chinese culture. But most do so out of curiosity rather than a real wish to benefit from traditional wisdom.
And the Chinese, although often talking about their traditional culture with pride, seldom have genuine confidence in the ability of their ancient philosophy to be truly relevant in the modern world. The middle path that was highly regarded by Confucius had long been considered only a way of survival even by his own descendants.
This is not a surprise. Western culture has been, and, indeed still is, the dominating force in this world. In the past 30 years, the Chinese have quickly adapted to the tastes of Coca-Cola and McDonald's, the fashion trends led by Levi's and Louis Vuitton, and the life styles presented on the big screens by Paramount and Columbia.
But when the Chinese culture travels to the Western world, it is a different picture. It gets swallowed up and has to adapt so much that it can be almost unrecognizable from its original roots.
Our chefs had to create inauthentic dishes such as chop suey and General Tso's chicken. Our artists had to rely on altering images from the revolutionary propaganda posters. And our musicians had to put together whatever instruments and sounds that could be considered exotic. We put thick makeup on our own culture to cater to Western tastes.
Some Western countries may have trade deficits with China, but China has been suffering from a cultural deficit.
Apparently, things have started to change in recent years. Some luxury hotels in Manhattan now provide Chinese congee and fried dough for breakfast to attract Chinese tourists. Some French department stores raise red lanterns on their gates to please Chinese customers. And learning Putonghua has now become a new fashion among US real estate brokers.
But these are just bottom line driven endeavors of uncertain consequence. If Westerners start to understand the Confucian way of thinking then it could potentially lead to a less confrontational world.
But the scene Chiang created at the Asia Society is symbolic. Here, what is valued is not only the fat wallets of the Chinese but our way of thinking.
In the 1990s some proud Chinese scholars believed Confucius could rescue the world, which sounds like a joke. Chinese traditional culture is not a magic pill for all the problems in this world. No culture is. But once accepted by more people, it could provide some balance.
After all, the world is built on yin and yang.
The author is a New York-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org