26 November 2010

Western Imports

The Chinese are probably responsible for more significant inventions in human history than any other group of people. But during the last 50 years, the economic success of Taiwan, Hong Kong and now China has depended mainly on adopting Western technology, and making products cheaper than they could be made in countries that value human life. But with all these Western imports, there is bound to be some confusion about exactly how they are meant to be used.

Car horns: These are safety devices designed to warn pedestrians or other drivers who can't see your car that they need to pay attention to it. They are not devices designed to let everyone within earshot know that you are frustrated and having a temper tantrum in your taxi because traffic isn't moving as fast as you would like.

Eyeglass frames: These are designed to hold corrective lenses in front of your eyeballs. I wish I could have sat in on the brainstorming session where some eyeglass frame manufacturing executives decided that they could increase sales by tapping into the seemingly unreachable market of people who have perfect vision and don't wear sunglasses.

Margherita pizza: Contrary to common usage in the Village, this is not just a fancy Italian-sounding way of saying "cheese pizza." The word margherita signifies a pizza that is white, green and red (like the colors of the Italian flag). The pizza must have tomatoes (no, tomato sauce doesn't count), fresh basil (no, oregano doesn't count) and mozzarella cheese (no, cheese made from vegetable oil doesn't count). A couple months ago, I ordered a margherita pizza at Pizza Express, and they gave me a plain cheese pizza. When I told them that I ordered the margherita, they told me that the plain cheese pizza they put in front of me was what they called a margherita, and that the pizza I was describing was what they called a "buffalita." It told them that this word has a meaning, and that deciding it means something else is confusing. So then I asked for the buffalita instead, forcing them to make two pizzas for me while only paying for one. I'm happy to report that the last time I visited Pizza Express, their margherita pizza had a picture of an actual margherita pizza, I ordered it, and it was pretty damn good.

Freedom of speech: Recently I learned that citizens of People's Republic of China (let's not get into what the word Republic means) enjoy freedom of speech. Apparently, Big Beijing doesn't understand that having the freedom to say whatever you want, as long as the government approves of it, is the exact opposite of freedom of speech. Here in the libertine Hi-Tech Village, citizens actually do enjoy rather robust freedoms of speech and the press, but they don't seem to understand what those rights mean or what the purpose of those rights are. I've had a couple conversations with Villagers where they asserted their "freedom of speech" against me. This assertion was triggered by the fact that they were saying something I thought was ridiculous or offensive, and I had told them that I disagreed. Freedom of speech does not entail a right to say bullshit and not get called out on it. It does entail a right to say bullshit and not be censored or punished by the authorities. The purpose of freedom of speech is to allow for a robust debate, not to save face and therefore stifle debate. Perhaps this particular Western import simply doesn't mesh with Chinese culture very well.

I know this misuse of imported ideas goes both ways. So let me first apologize for what my country has done to "Chinese food," in addition to many other Eastern imports. I invite our cosmopolitan readers to share their experiences with the misuse of Chinese culture in the West.  The Pub is one place in this Village where freedom of speech is respected and understood.


  1. interesting choice of illustration - the sit-on toilet was invented in China in the 9th century. ironic indeed.

    your freedom of speech point holds in both China and the west. on that note, maybe freedom of speech doesn't work with western culture either. My turn to call bullshit.

  2. Hmmm...I take it you think you've really nailed me here...or something. First, the device currently used as a toilet in the developed world was certainly not invented in China. I guess if you think that the seat was the most important technical achievement in that device, then give the Chinese credit. I personally think the flushing mechanism is more important, and more difficult to engineer. But I guess there is some irony in my implication that toilets are a western import. So I'll give you a partial tip 'o the hat on that one.

    As for my freedom of speech point holding in both China and the West...I think not. If you really see no qualitative difference in the level of freedom of expression in China vs. the West, you'll have to explain how you're nailing me there. Simply asserting that what I say is bullshit without any evidence does not really prove me wrong like you seem to think. The evidence that it's quite different is overwhelming, but the basic difference is that Chinese people are routinely put in prison for criticizing their government, citizens of Western countries are not. There's also the whole internet censorship thing. So if you really think there's basically no difference, I'll need a little more convincing on that one.

    Now if by China you really mean Hong Kong, then my point is a little more subtle. What I was basically saying is that Western culture is just more argumentative, Westerners are more likely to "call bullshit". And calling bullshit is one of the important functions of freedom of speech. Chinese culture is different from Western culture in this respect (Chinese people are less argumentative, more likely to let someone save face by not calling bullshit). Again, if you think that I'm wrong, and that these differences do not in fact exist, you'll have to actually explain why.

  3. Taking inventions from other countries / cultures and adapt it for use in your own culture is and has always been the way which these products have evolved and in most cases, even improved.

    A few classic examples: The Chinese invented gunpowder, but only for making firecrackers to celebrate the New Year, the West "improved" it, and made lethal weapons, and conquered the world. The Chinese also invented paper, but other countries have taken on the technology, and improved it. (e.g. turning paper into toilet paper. A Chinese Wesley at the time might have said, "You're not supposed to wipe your arse with it!!")

    In my view, using imports differently is not altogether a bad thing, and may even be something that should be encouraged. (At the end of the day, products are to serve people, if they prefer using it one way over another, then it's OK.)

  4. I have no problem with people using products for purposes other than their intended use. I'm all for innovation. I think it's hard to call the stuff I mention in this post innovative though.

    Using a car horn to ruin innocent people's day is just rude, and not an improvement on the intended use. It's really not OK, it's ridiculously inconsiderate. Using the term "freedom of speech" to silence people who disagree with you is similarly uncool.

    But hey, if Chinese people want to wear glasses without lenses, that's fine with me, but I still get to make fun of how stupid they look.

  5. car horns: ever been to new york? to wit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88E_T0tQKRs&p=4C95343D1A2E9085

    lensless glasses: again. williamsburg.

    margherita pizza: i'll give you this one. but american pizza has very little in common with italian pizza, beyond the fact that they're both flatbreads, so...

    freedom of speech: blowhards exist in every culture. there are just as many people in the west who use freedom of speech to justify their right to blather nonsense without someone calling them out.


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