Overcoming the “inevitable differences of the moment”

Obama quoted the Chinese philosopher Mencius in his speech at the U.S./China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in the summer of 2009. I originally found this 智慧 (zhì huì, wisdom) first in Chinese as I was perusing the Web for another Chinese:


Shān jìng zhī qī jiān, jiè rán yòng zhī ér chéng lù, wèi jiān bùyòng, zé máo sè zhī yǐ

A trail through the mountains, if used, becomes a path in a short time, but, if unused, becomes blocked by grass in an equally short time

I couldn’t help but to share, if not more interested in ingraining the idea into my mind in the process. I realize now after reading it for the tenth time that I misunderstood. Initially, taken in the context of Obama’s speech, I thought it was a call to action for the U.S. and American to have more dialogue and better collaboration. Although this is still key in Obama’s speech, the more interesting subtext maybe rather that we (either American or Chinese) have taken to form our perceptions and biases based on first impressions of each other. Based on observation and experience, first impressions of Chinese traditions and cultures by Americans are not always very easily digestible and likewise for Chinese people, the straight-talking super-sized exaggerations of Americans may be overwhelming. But these differences of custom, culture, and language are inevitable and especially so glaring between the two countries. Instead, the future is about overcoming these “inevitable differences of the moment”. The question is how?I don’t believe it’s about avoidance and prevention because this is what cultural and human relations is about. There will always be those fleeting moments we question others’ behaviors and actions and if we knew any better, we’d question ourselves even more. There will always be initial misunderstanding to different degrees. But isn’t that a means to understanding one another as a wholly different cultural beings, countries, ideologies? It’s about observing observe each other as countries, communities, individuals. It’s about listening most of the time and speaking the other times for clarification. It’s about acting with confidence and humility, not to just blindly use that “trail” through the mountains, but thread mindfully. This mindfulness is about being aware in linguistic, cultural, and historical contexts.

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