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Face Up to It: America Has Problems in Asia

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Americans are sometimes accused of being tone deaf to the intricacies of other cultures. As a married team with Asian culture living in the closest possible proximity to American culture, we have a few serious ideas on the state of U.S. and Asian diplomatic relations.

But first some necessary generalities might best be reviewed.

Americans generally see themselves as individuals with many rights. An American man or woman lives unto him (or her) self amid a sea of other individuals. We in America are the nation of human rights. America is the land of rugged individuals, "Go West Young Man," and John Wayne armed with a six-shooter. Americans sometimes dive right in. "Fear Factor," the TV show featuring Americans without any qualms in doing anything, makes Asians squirm.

Asians often see themselves as part of a vast group dynamic. The family, the village, the church or other community unit is primary. During World War II, Japanese kamikaze pilots had no problems selflessly giving their life for the Emperor in a suicidal way, while Americans couldn't grasp the concept of what they were doing at all.

Asians listen and observe. Americans discuss, talk, emote and share their individual feelings. Asians have a theory of the human body: we all have two ears for good listening, two eyes for careful observation, two nostrils for evaluation of smells, two hands for working, but only one mouth for eating and talking. If someone in the Asian group talks too much, a wise elder might wonder, "Think if he had two mouths." Overly chatty Asians often earn a derisive nickname like "bigmouth." An Asian adage we've heard is, "While one talks, who do you think must listen?"

As observers, Asians sometimes become adept at non-verbal communications. Quickly raised double eyebrows might mean "yes," while the American might start with a complete sentence and rush into a paragraph or two of how they agree or disagree.

The key cultural concept that Americans often forget, misunderstand or flat have never heard of is "face." Many Americans do know that "loss of face" means a loss of self-image or pride. But that is only the Junior High School level of understanding.

Asians believe in losing face in terms of dishonoring the family, the group, the country or the culture. Asians also believe in "giving face," a concept many Americans (even many American diplomats) have never grasped. "Giving face" means negotiating a way for the other fellow to have enough maneuvering room to escape from a potential embarrassment with a "win."

Asians are "win-win." Americans are "I win, you lose."

This entire preamble may seem silly until we consider a few cases important to the current situation in U.S. and Asian relationships and diplomacy.

In April 2006, China's President Hu Jintao visited the United States and the White House for what was expected to be a grand and honorable reception of the People's Republic of China at the hands of the American hosts. From the very start of the prestigious White House lawn event, China and President Hu lost face. Several times.

The official White House announcer said in his booming voice that the band would play the "national anthem of the Republic of China" -- the official name of Taiwan.

During President Hu's address, an internationally well known Falun Gong activist, who had famously heckled President Hu's predecessor, spoke up loudly.

Shrieking, "President Hu, your days are numbered!" and "President Bush, stop him from killing!" the tirade went on for more than three minutes. Hu lost face. In fact, unaccustomed to the U.S. campaign trail, he became so flustered that the president of the United States had to console him with a reassuring "You're okay." Hu lost more face.

At the end of the ceremony, with all the cameras sill focused upon the two presidents, Hu attempted to leave the stage via the wrong staircase. He was yanked back by his jacket. One columnist said, "Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the President of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child."

Last July, at the height of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the U.S. Secretary of State had a scheduled trip to China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. Naturally, in the heat of war, the Americans scrubbed the entire trip, save the Malaysian piece.

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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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