Three Keys for Asia’s Future Potential

The author and her child on layover in Singapore, the Garden City.

One Belt One Road (OBOR), lays out a blueprint not only to develop transportation infrastructure, but other aspects of connectivity as well. One of the primary goals is the “people-to-people bond”.

Relationship is important. As the old adage says, “It’s not about what you know, but who you know.” And so as you tip glasses of Turkish coffee or chai with a local sage, you have an invitation into the life of the other. We drink and speak with the same organ — our mouths — it’s little wonder that the words “communication” and “communion” are of the same root.

After years of working in the developing world in the non-profit sector, as well as in education and grassroots-small-business projects, I can say that I’ve met wonderful people in Eurasia along the Silk Road: Africans, Indians, Arabs, Israelis and Nepalese with a desire to see their nations prosper, many sacrificing their time, resources and lives for the sake of helping their communities thrive.

We should not underestimate the power of relationship as we think of the shifting sands of nations that we now stand on.

However, for their to be healthy growth and development in Asia, as is the goal of One Belt One Road, it’s vital to unlock the potential in individuals that have either socially or systematically been held at bay for various reasons over the course of history.

Key #1 Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

It needs to be said that through the process of colonization in the 1700–1900’s, great institutions of learning and medicine were created, for which there is gratitude. However the schools that were started or converted to help produce an English-language literate population, were also used to train the thinking of the people so they would parrot English manners, ideas, aesthetics and behaviors. Creativity and critical thinking were dissuaded, enculturation was encouraged. (See the English Education Act of 1835).

While there have been great strides towards human rights, specifically for women and children in these societies, there is also this nagging feeling in much of the developing world that many post-colonized free-citizens are still “thinking inside the box”. The battle for political independence was won, without a following revolution and renovation of the system of education that was containing the people, keeping them lock-steppe into a prescribed way of relating to one another and the world so they would not rebel against their ruler.

In Uganda one summer as we sat around a fire drinking tea and eating rice, a man named Jon began to explain why the Africans run when it rains.

“It’s because the rain will kill us!”

I pried trying to understand where this belief was coming from. “Have you ever seen someone killed by rain?”

“No, but I read it in the Bible.”

I was intrigued. “Who did the rain kill in the Bible?”

“God saved Noah from the rain, and everyone else died, so we must not allow the rain to touch us!”

This was obviously a misinterpretation of literature, a common problem when critical thinking has not been taught in schools.

In China, Communism is a culprit for the people of the republic being “mentally enslaved”. A harsh form of Leninist or Maoist Communism demands absolute obedience, and the first to either be exiled or killed are the educated, the entrepreneurs, and the free-thinkers. Many Chinese businessmen that grew under the system have left the ideal of Communism behind for the pursuit of something that seems to work better for the good of the society, whether it be capitalism, hedonism or even Christianity.

When a I see a mountain, I want to climb it.

When a printer breaks down, I want to try and fix it.

However, much of the developing world is resigned to fate or karma.

If we can infuse a value of courage, permission to risk and fail, as well as the tools of thinking critically and learning to solve problems, I believe that we will see the developing world blossom.

Key #2 Creativity

In Thailand, when many nations were knocking on her door asking to colonize her, the famous King of Siam invited experts to come and educate his people in specific areas like machinery, agriculture, photography, literature, and English; but he did not allow his nation to be colonized. You can see the same brave tenacity in the streets of Bangkok today as sci-fi sky-scrapers tower above ancient fish markets and waterways and street food sellers, displaying the simplicity of pad Thai noodles and the courage of the Thai people to take their stand in the New Asia through brave market endeavors and cutting edge technology.

A group of young people in down town Bangkok across the street from the hip MBK mall started the world famous “Lub-D” hostel, completely equipped with the first theatre room we ever saw in a hostel, as well a cool hang out spaces, and mod-industrial rooms. The Lub-D staff, and most all of Thailand, still love their King.

However, go down almost any commercial street in the developing world, and you will find all the electronic stores grouped together, all the fabric sellers grouped together, all the grocers grouped together, and it just makes one wonder. Is someone afraid to fail if they try their store in a location where no one else is, or has it never occurred to someone that if you sell your wares in another place, strategically of course, perhaps there would be a higher demand there then right next door to your competition?

“I’m going to start a home appliance store, just like that guy, except on the other side of town.”

“I’m going to start a restaurant in the market.”

“I’m going to start a coffee shop next to the university instead of in the restaurant and cafe district.”

These are the juices of creativity flowing. But perhaps it’s not a lack of creativity, but a fear of risk and failure. If you want to set up a clothing store, and do it next to someone else who is already barely making it, you will also probably make it, barely.

In Jordan I heard there is a man that started a pet store next to a butcher. This idea is just a little unsavory, without a lot of thought in regards to market research or an ideal location for the success of his business.

Once again, critical thinking, and her sister creativity, are tied to pushing the edges, testing the waters, going where no one has gone before. Just like investments with higher risks provide higher returns, businesses and ideas that are acted upon without complete security actually have the possibility to succeed, versus ideas that are developed over time but have no actionable “first step.”

As I watch my daughter learn to color or paint, I want to give her freedom to color outside the lines if she legitimately prefers how it looks. My best friend used to color along the lines because she felt like it made the pictures “glow”. A day will come when we will try inside the lines, but my daughter is three years old, and I want her to be free to express outwardly what is happening inside. This shouldn’t, however, be an excuse for laziness or not developing ourselves, there is a line somewhere, I’m honestly just not quite sure where.

Instead of doing what everyone else is doing, what about finding inspiration from nature, literature, history, tradition, faith or within? Maybe there is nothing new under the sun, but every time I cook the soup tastes different.

I was so inspired while on layover in Singapore this last Autumn. We were able to attend the autumn festival and hundreds of lanterns had been had decorated by local children for the event. I saw things I could only imagine, the stuff that dreams are made of, like multi-floor gardens winding upwards towards the world’s largest indoor waterfall. I was impressed by the many cultures mingling peacefully, and the ingenuity of the people to make their city along the sea beautiful.

Key #3 Honoring Down

In Asia, I really respect the culture of honor that has been present since from what I can tell, the beginning of time. Children in general are very obedient and attentive to their parents and teachers — paying heed to what they say and listening to their elders. I would take teaching in Asia over teaching in America any day. How you live your life effects your family’s honor. There is a desire to please your boss simply because you work for them. These are all refreshingly beautiful realities to face coming from a jaded America whose very existence was founded upon a rebellion (granted, a rebellion against a tyrannical government ;-)).

However I would like to challenge my Asian colleagues to consider not only “honoring up” to those who are older than you, or in places of authority, but to also “honoring down.”

What if we respected the wisdom in each individual, even if they are much younger than us? In Korean culture the first question that is exchanged is, “How old are you?” This establishes a value system through a pecking order. What if it established a basis of caring relationships that flowed down like a funnel, with the senior on the bottom lifting the younger ones up? Many days I wonder if I am supposed to teach my child patience, or if she is supposed to teach me patience (and she will learn patience by how I respond to her asking me the same question 20 times). What if we honored those below us even if their risks didn’t work out? What if we honor the homeless, simply because they are a fellow human being? What if we honored people not so much for what they did, but who they are? What if we didn’t honor people so much for who they are now, but the diamond in the rough, the beautiful person they were made to be?

I believe that once the younger generation feels the approval and affirmation of those who have gone before, no strings attached, no conditions on love, that there will be a greater ability for trust, continued honor, developing creativity, taking risks, and generating innovative solutions that other ages would not have thought possible. Whole relationships are incredibly important for the growth of any family, and family is the basic building block of society.

Beyond that, the individual needs to be free to create, think critically, outside of the box, solve problems in new ways (to adapt to ever new contexts), and be honored just for who they are. Cultivating a heart of honor and gratitude towards others also builds a bond. These basic tools of life begin in the home, and are usually honed, or destroyed, by education.

The success of the New Asia will depend on her ability to unlock potential creativity, problem solving and relational adaptation.