Tuesday, February 15, 2011


When I talk to a Chinese person about China's problems, our conversation often strays or ends with China's population problem. May it be inhumane labor conditions, governmental corruption, or rampant inflation, everything seems traceable to China's massive population. Recently, I've begun to think that the root of the world's problem lies in Americanization. This is not a critique of America itself, but rather the products that America is exporting to the world at large. Americanization is not just characterized by mass culture (Hollywood, Lady Gaga and the like) and democratic ideals, but also high consumerism—which is where the environmental disaster begins.

Whereas colonialists viewed western civilization as a superior form of civilization and sought to better the “dark” uncivilized people by bringing them into the light, America since the dawn of the 20th century has sought to make the world in its image. Without regard to historically entrenched beliefs and cultures, democracy is championed as the only “right” form of government, as if methods of governing could be ranked on a linear scale not much unlike previously concocted distinctions between “uncivilized” and “civilized”.

My daily readings for Chinese class usually addresses some kind of societal condition within China. Today, the article was about the proliferation of internet use among Chinese youth and concerns over internet (which is 95% in English and mostly dominated by US sources) use affecting cultural inheritance. Within the article is a keen fear of Chinese youth growing increasingly indifferent of traditional Chinese culture and customs, which is being displaced by international (read, American) culture. While the article was not extremely convincing in its argument, I do believe that as much as America is about diversity, Americanization has come to mean sameness. The anxiety apparent in my textbook's article reminded me of an article I read for a US history class I took at Yale back in Freshmen year. The article, called “A Monotonization of the World” was written by Stephen Zweig, a slightly elitist German author, who lamented the death of national dances—the waltz in Vienna, the csardos in Hungary, the bolera in Spain---to the “same short winded, impersonal melodies” coming from America”. While Zweig's language erred on the strong side, his message is clear.

In my daily life in Beijing, I am reminded of Americanization every where I go, may it be because I am nearing one of KFC's many ostentatious neon signs or every time I return to my dormitory and hear the security guards blasting Ryan Secrest and the Top 40 Count Down on their walkie talkie radio stations. Yesterday, we were out eating with a Swedish international student and a French international student, when the Swedish student asked us if we liked musicians such as “Lady Gaga”, etc. From the look on his face, we could tell that he disapproved of American mass culture in very much the same way as Zweig, and from our response, it was obvious that all of us realized exactly what kind of un-welcomed connotations “American pop culture” also carried. Under his scrutiny, we fumbled in our answers and before admitting to our musical preferences we skillfully prefaced our answer with “but only in clubs”. One girl even quickly added that it of course “doesn't to speak to her soul or anything”. Our answers were judged acceptable.

Nevertheless, even “high culture” Europe has been invaded and conquered by America. Whether Europeans like it or not, the fact that American goods have conquered a corner of their consumer market suggests that they do. People have a choice between America's “impersonal melodies” and the Spanish boleras, and from the course of things, it seems like they have chosen the impersonal melodies which have found its way into every club around the world. The same story is playing out here in China, where McDonald stores are always unbelievably busy, even if McDonald's is fairly costly and the frequency of visits has (or at least should have) a direct correlation with obesity.

However, along with the loss of cultural diversity, what also worries me are the environmental implications “Americanization” carries. According to the latest estimation, if every person in the world lived as Americans did, we would need about 5 planets. In one of my favorite books “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, one of the chapters is “Our Carbon Copies or, Too Many Americans”, which points out that much to many environmentalists' dismay, the standards to which people in developing countries are aspiring to is not that of a decent and healthy standard of living, but rather American affluenza as portrayed by mass media. A 1960 American publication called “The Five Stages of Growth” by Rostow outlined the linear progress of societies in a manner similar to Morgan's incredibly racist publication regarding the progress of civilizations. Whereas Morgan's linear progression affirmed the supremacy of the European civilization, Rostow deemed high consumerism, a positively American concept, the apex of a matured society. Looking at the traffic jams (the result of personal car consumption) around the city and the construction of suburbs named “Orange County” and “Long Beach” which are literally replicas of Southern California homes on the outskirts of Beijing, I am dearly hoping that the American way of life is only some aberration from normalcy and not society's end goal. Indeed, if the American standard or some version of it continues to serve as an end goal, it could very well be our end point.

Unlike the French and Swedish students we just met, as students studying abroad from America, we are in a unique position to see all of America's influences in Chinese society today. Consequently, we have a very large responsibility to champion and become a sustainable standard that we can be proud of and in good conscience export to the world. Until then, I can only hope that on some fortuitous day, the whole world will suddenly gain clarity and by some miracle resist Americanization.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! We are, by the way, looking for ways to combine study abroad with environmental awareness issues and Yale students. Your blog on this point came at a perfect time in our discussions, and if you have ideas about this, please e-mail me!