Year of Discovery (Week 18: China and Opting Into Race Conversations)
I’ve been in San Francisco for the last week, visiting the US for the first time in 2 years. It’s been fascinating catching up with friends from different times of my past, seeing the city again in a new light (and acknowledging its changes), and continuing my routines, prototyping, and practices. Since I’ve been back, I’ve noticed a more stark and increasing inequality on the streets of San Francisco, one of the wealthiest cities in the US. In a country where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (which also creates a growing divide in empathy), what will the future entail?
What also strikes me about being back is noticing how I’ve been seeing the US from an outside-in perspective having lived abroad for so long. When I think of the US, I imagine less of the day-to-day life and more of the broad-stroke narratives and stories I read while abroad: from BLM to Asian Hate to increased gun violence to the storming of Congress last year. As the world is a collection of narratives which individuals, communities, and countries buy into, I’ve wondered how the coverage of the US internationally in recent years has shifted perception of the US as a global superpower. Abroad, the feeling is analogous to the moment a child sees his or her parent as a fallible human, rather than a superhero and aspirational figure.
This week I’m sharing a reflection on China and opting in and out of racial conversation.
A Shift in Global Power: China
Being in the US this week has made me wonder more about the blinders and ‘American first’ mentality that might be holding the US back from maintaining its status as the global superpower. For anyone who knows me, I’m completely fascinated by China’s rapid economic growth and the focused way that the Chinese political system works in contrast to the US. In Kenya, I’ve observed China’s growing influence every year — from increased trade deals to growing infrastructure projects. And the numbers make it clear: Chinese debt accounts for 21% of Kenya’s foreign debt, and 72% of Kenya’s bilateral debt.
By 2027, Brookings estimates that 1.2 billion Chinese will be in the middle class, making up 25% of the world total. China already makes up the largest middle-class consumption market segment in the world and is a priority market for major multinational firms.
The Chinese are quickly moving away from just consuming and becoming some of the largest creators and cultural influencers in the world. Just a quick scroll on my Facebook timeline led me to an article about how Shein became the Chinese apparel maker American teens love. Tik Tok, owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance, has 689 million global active users as of January 2021 and ranks as the 7th most used social network in the world.
China’s quick and focused progress stems from its history and the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on July 1st this year. Today, the CCP consistently reminds its people and the private sector who is calling the shots, from the crackdown of tech companies to the heightened regulation of the for-profit education sector, which impacted stocks to decline 40–75% over this last week.
To learn more, I read a fascinating breakdown of how the Chinese set their 5-year goals, analogous to the OKRs (objectives and key results), a goal setting framework used commonly in the tech industry. The goals themselves are incredibly focused and explain the roadmap for where the country is heading the next 5 years. With President Xi Jinping removing presidential term limits, China has the opportunity to think, plan and act long-term, unlike most other nations.
It’s becoming increasingly important to watch how China continues to progress. The next decade will be an interesting one to be a part of, as we see how a global shift in power will manifest in our daily lives and what the US will do to respond.
Questions to reflect on:
- How do you see the global change in power in your daily life, if you do?
- Where are the new opportunities as the world continues to change?
- Nothing is ever purely good or purely bad. What can we learn from the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and what do we need to be aware of or concerned by as it relates to the future of the world?
Spaces of Racial Representation
Last Thursday, I went to the Exploratorium — a museum of science, technology, and arts in San Francisco — with two friends during their ‘adults only’ night. The exhibits were as they described: ‘a mad scientist’s penny arcade’ and ‘a scientific funhouse’, which I experienced singing karaoke in a tuk-tuk as part of a documentary project and learning about physics through hands-on activities. As I walked through the numerous exhibits, I stumbled upon a group gathered around an African American artist and his painting.
As I listened in to the conversation, what struck me was when co-artist Mark Harris explained: “All our lives, black people have had to deeply understand how white people live, and I painted this so white people can understand how black people live”. Simply put, he was explaining about the power imbalance between races in the US and what minorities (BIPOC — black, indigenous, and other people of color) need to do to assimilate and survive, if not thrive, in a white-majority led and influenced country. He called on moving away from dehumanization and creating empathy through a reversal of perspective.
Harris and his co-artist Bianca Marie Rivera painted the piece and explained how artwork can be used as powerful tools for promoting meaningful change. The other pieces in the gallery showed photos of protests around ‘Stop Asian Hate’, and I was feeling impassioned and connected as I listened to them speak about their creation.
As they spoke, I looked around at the audience. I was taken aback by how this important explanation and conversation on race was experienced as one of many exhibits in the Exploratorium. Like the other exhibits, people peeked in and left the conversation once they lost interest or found another exhibit to explore. It made me think more deeply about exactly what the artist was speaking about: the assimilation of BIPOC in a white-driven world, where people in power can choose to engage or not engage in conversations that affect every waking minute of a minority person’s life.
While I will never be able to fully understand the daily and lived experience of African Americans, I felt a connection to and overwhelming compassion for all BIPOC minorities as I grappled with the idea that race conversations were a choice to the majority. I experienced a sensation of emotions — scared and helpless— which triggered memories of people in power turning away from me when I tried speaking about the impact of Asian American hate. Someone once told me: ‘but you’re pretty much white’, referring to the ‘model minority’ label— a colorism-related term with its root in anti-Blackness and a tool that white supremacy uses to pit people of color against each other in order to protect its status. If anything, the increase in violence against Asian Americans in the US this past year made it clear that Asian Americans are ultimately still a minority that needs to live by the rules of another group.
Racism in the US is one of the causes of mental illness among minorities. According to Mental Health America, there are 6.8 million African Americans with mental illness, 8.9 LatinX/Hispanic Americans with mental illness and 2.2 million Asian Americans with mental illness. What can we do to create a world of listening, empathy and true compassion? One driven not by fear but by courage and bravery?
More questions to reflect on:
- In what ways have you chosen to engage or not engage in conversations that affect every waking minute of a minority person’s life?
- In what other ways can we reverse perspectives to create a more compassionate, kind world in one full of divisions?
- How do we increase meaningful engagement around topics of race among all races and retain people in the conversation?
What I’m reading this week: The Selected Works of Audre Lorde