The US is from Mars, China is from Venus (reprint)

This was originally published on in November, 2009:

Obama’s rolling into town in a few days. He’ll have with him an entourage, a few gifts and a burning need to transact. Like most visiting American representatives he wants to drop by, do his business and then get on with his life. What does China want? Beyond the treaties and the high-level discussions on military cooperation and currency, China wants something deeper and more meaningful. China, like so many geo-political actors who came before, wants The Relationship.

America has been down this road before – or more accurately, has struggled to avoid this road time and time again in the past. There has been a long list of trade and military partners who have assumed that they and American were on the verge of starting something big, something important – something real, dammit. And each time, America has infuriated and spurned its partner by failing to commit on any real cultural level. Oh sure, we’ll do the trades, we’ll sign the treaties, we’re happy to hold the joint naval exercises – we’ll do anything as long as we don’t have to talk about The Relationship. When it comes to intercultural dialogue, America is the strong silent type with all the right boxes checked – but an ocean of communication issues.

If our past relationships are any indication, then China is about to get its heart broken. It will try so hard – just like a long string of former partners – to establish a healthy nation-to-nation dialogue. But in the end will just end up waiting by the phone for a call-back that never happens. It’s not you, China. It’s US.

Bad Relationship with Mom
When it comes to Bad Cultural Relationships, the US is a serial offender. We’ve been doing this – well, ever since the Louisiana Purchase when France told us we’d always be special, and then went ahead and supported the Confederacy. Yeah, that’s probably where it all began. Since then, we haven’t been able to keep a peacetime ally in a normal one to one relationship. We’ve always had more to say to our enemies than to our so-called friends. Just look at our track record:

The UK. Supposedly our steady & mature, if unexciting overseas relationship, it tends to be a bit one-sided. When British people talked about their ‘special relationship’ with the US it always makes us cringe just a little bit. We’ve never understood what it was supposed to be. Sure, they bother us less than the other Europeans do – and they’re usually good for an overseas throw-down of some sort, but what’s with all this “special relationship” talk? It always seemed a little bit crushy – like a tween girl and a movie idol. Sure, ‘mates’, it was fun saving you from the Gerries & all – and we did appreciate the help in the Mideast that time, but no need to get all bro-mantic now.

Japan. Many Americans will be looking up, trying to remember if there even was a national relationship between the two. Ah! That’s the point. To the Americans, there was never a relationship at all. Ask an American about the Japan relationship, and he’s as likely to talk about Pearl Harbor as the 1980s economic linkages. But if you were in Japan during the 80s you probably saw more American flags in Tokyo and Osaka than you did in pre 9-11 US. During the 70s and 80s, Japan defined itself by how American or not-American something was. For over a decade, America was the cultural, artistic and commercial yardstick by which the Rising Sun understood its own place in the world. As for us – well, we started eating sushi off of fast-food conveyor belts. So much for THAT relationship.

Canada – The one who knows us best – our hopes, our desires, our fears, our weaknesses – wants the least to do with us. We are brother & sister – yet our relationship is distant and forced. We see each other every once in a while on special occasions, but after that the less Canada has to deal with the US on a cultural level, the better they like it. Everyone loves Canada, and Canada loves them. Everyone but their Big Brother across the border. Oh Canada!

Mexico – Our booty call down south. We like the cheap manufacturing and access to low-cost raw materials – but don’t want to know about it the next day. In the heat of the deal our hearts beat as one, but the next morning its all ‘illegal aliens this’ and ‘thousand mile security fence that’. Hot and sexy – but not someone you take home to Washington.

Now we are starting to see The Relationship (air quotes implied) creeping its way into the vocabulary of Sino-American discourse. The People’s Daily frets about how the US can best repair the damage. “Sino-US Relations: Are they strategic partners or archrivals?” asks one reader poll under a banner ad showing Hu Jintao and Barrack Obama separated by the title, “How Far is it to Bridge the Gap?”. China is already starting to define itself by how different it is from American – starting special trade zones that exclude the US and loudly criticizing our fiscal and industrial policies. Not making the same mistakes in Africa or SE Asia. Chinese BBS’ chatter on and on about the weaknesses and shortcomings of American culture — how uncultured and uncouth we are. We’re sooo bad. Exciting and kind of outlaw – but too rough, too immature…

But on a recent trip to the US consulate in Shanghai I saw that the locals are still lining up for visas and citizenship applications. Meanwhile, US manufacturers have gone back to MEXICO for their cheap manufacturing.

Don’t do it China. You can’t change us. You can do so much better. That nice Australia with all of that lovely mineral wealth. We’ve all seen them looking at you…

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