Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Perspective: Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?

This week my wife and I flew to California to attend a grease industry convention near Palm Springs. Boring business perhaps but good people. The company I work for sells a raw material used in the grease making process. Not our most interesting market but, for me, almost a "living time capsule". The last time I attended this convention was 1999.

I did not expect to see so many familiar faces (plus 12 years of aging, of course). The numbers attending the event were up compared to the last time which was a surprise for a low tech business in a down economy. In the past, this event was dominated by American attendees. Americans are still the majority but there were many more Asian attendees this time. The Japanese have come for years but now there were representatives from several other countries. Mostly they were young, coming to learn something or deliver a technical paper.

A few things struck me. The event was much less formal than last time  - I wore khakis and golf shirts to some sessions and still felt over dressed. In 1999 suits were, for the most part, the dress of the day. In a similar fashion, behavior is also less formal with a continuing trend in American towards declining "social graces". When the "grease guys" go casual, you know it is a trend.

Although attendees from Asia are up there seemed to be very limited cultural interaction. Asians off in a corner together during cocktail hours or breaks. Perhaps not unusual, particularly with a largely technical group but sad to see missed opportunities. Most technologists from Asia will get few chances to visit America and to meet and speak with non expat Americans.

While, in general, it seems Americans are more open and less insular than many cultures - it was hard to tell by observing interaction at this event. Americans, at least those of a certain age, were taught that America was the "great melting pot". My Japanese teacher corrected that notion for me referring to America as the great "salad bowl". The obvious inference being that cultures were thrown together like as tossed salad rather than becoming the single entity that melting implies. I will leave the proper reference to cultural experts but I think my sensei had a valid point.

I felt strangely comfortable at this event - like putting on a pair of perfectly broken-in shoes. Nice to see old acquaintances and talk about now grown children, business, sports or any other common ground. Very natural. On the other hand, I felt a bit out of place and "different". I felt a need to speak with the Asians using Japanese, Chinese or the very limited Thai I know. The reaction was almost universally the same - people (the Asians and Americans nearby) looked at me as if I was from Mars. If I speak Japanese or Chinese to someone in their native country - they usually smile, speak back in English if they know it but if I continue in their language; they are usually happy to continue - in either language. At this event, except for one Japanese guy; everyone seemed very confused that an American was using their language in his native country. Most smiled but seemed very ill at ease in how to react. We all seemed uncertain about the ground rules. This seemed very odd to me having had similar experiences one on one speaking Japanese or Chinese in cities from Oslo to Buenos Aires to Charlotte. I am not sure what was different this time except in prior cases I was usually helping someone who was lost or had some other need to interact with a "foreigner".

I have attended conferences and industry meeting all over Asia - China, Japan, Singapore, etc. There seems a common thread of dynamism - change, new technology, youth, etc. Of course, these conferences are normally in markets that are high tech and developing rapidly. The focus is usually on innovation and the "next big thing". Comparing these events with an American grease conference is "apples and oranges". On the other hand,  it does concern me that in my limited experience America seems to be in decline vs Asia on many levels. Americans develop the IPad and Asians make it. An American company still makes the profit but how long will that last????

Of course Asians still want to send their kids to our best colleges. Wealthy Chinese now join tours to the US for the express purpose of buying houses because, even in our expensive cities, houses are cheap by the standards of Shanghai and Beijing. Wait until the RMB appreciates....

I have told many Japanese and Chinese friends - it is easy for you to become an American but I can never become Japanese or Chinese.  The playing field isn't level and Americans are playing on the uphill side. Our government has no idea of how to foster economic growth despite spending trillions. What I saw this week in California was a concurrent look at the past and the future.

 Maybe I should wait 12 years to go back to this meeting.