I’m beginning to think that laziness, not necessity, is the mother of invention.
Recent Chinese economic success has largely been driven by a combination of two factors: wages comparable to much poorer countries and infrastructure comparable to much richer countries. No country on Earth seems to be able to beat the Chinese in both these areas simultaneously. They’re very good at taking a product developed elsewhere, dismantling it, and figuring out how to mass produce it at a lower cost. But they aren’t innovating as well as the West (for now) and they definitely aren’t innovating as well as other Asian countries, like Korea, Japan, or India.
It hasn’t always been this way. Of the four major civilizations on the Eurasian landmass (the Chinese, the Indians, the Arabs, and the Europeans) the Chinese are probably responsible for more inventions than any of the others, historically. And Taiwan, which is culturally Chinese, seems to be fairly good at innovation these days. In HK, Westerners often complain about how difficult it is to get the locals to deviate from their rigid protocols and flow charts, and actually engage in creative problem solving. Sometimes it feels like everyone here works for the DMV (that’s the Division of Motor Vehicles, for those of you who aren’t from the US–known to be a bureaucratic hellhole). But not really, because DMV employees aren’t exactly known for their assiduousness, and the Chinese definitely deserve that positive stereotype. DMV employees are frustrating to deal with because they’re too secure in their jobs, and therefore lack motivation to perform well. In HK, people work their asses off because they know that there are always thousands of people ready to replace them. As a result, they are determined to demonstrate that they’re never looking for shortcuts, always willing to work harder.
At work, my students generally fall into three cultural categories: local HK Chinese, local Indians, and Western expats. All three speak excellent English, and all three tend to be quite affluent with well educated parents. Of the three, I have the most trouble teaching the Chinese. In many ways, they are the ideal students. When I tell them to do something, they do it. They never complain, they do all their homework, they remember what I tell them, and they do calculations quickly and efficiently. As a US company in the test-preparation industry, we teach people how to “game” standardized tests: how to avoid doing calculations, how to approach sections holistically, and how to solve problems creatively. Our techniques and strategies are developed in New York, and they’re largely designed with North American students in mind. Though my job is to train teachers, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible from my trainees, many of whom have been working here for years. What they all tell me is that the HK Chinese are resistant to our techniques; they always want to do math the “hard way.”
I’ve always been a bit lazy myself, and part of that is probably due to the way I was raised. Like many Americans, as a child I was always praised for being smart, not hardworking. Perhaps that’s why I’m a bit of an underachiever. As a teenager, and in even college, I was actually proud of being an underachiever. I saw myself as better than the nerdy overachievers, who always did things the hard way. As an adult, I’m not proud to be an underachiever, and I wish my parents had emphasized hard work more. Chinese people do not raise their kids this way, it’s safe to say. And that’s a good thing. Their kids are less likely to end up living paycheck to paycheck at age 31, like I still am. My Chinese students always seem very modest when it comes to their intelligence, even when they’re quite bright. But they’re proud of being hardworking. I think there needs to be a balance between the two. I don’t have the right balance, but neither do they, at least not if they want to close that innovation gap. What both the US and China need to maintain their dominant positions in the global economy is a new way of thinking, somewhere in between California and Beijing. No, not Hawaii, but India.
My Indian students seem to come from somewhere in between the Western expats and the HK Chinese (in this case both geographically and culturally). And I’m beginning to think that India, not China, is the future. Generally, these are my favorite students. They usually have a better work ethic than the Westerners, but aren’t overly attached to doing things the hard way. They are receptive to looking at the answer choices first, and appreciate it when I help them see that they actually already know the answer, no calculations needed.
Culturally, the Chinese seem resistant to this approach; my teachers are right, sort of. It’s like they think it’s cheating. But when I remind them that all the test knows is what answer they picked, and I emphasize that the gweilo are always going to do things the easy way, they come around. Slowly. First I have to convince them. Then I have to make sure they actually follow my advice in the pressure situation that is a standardized test. The second part is the hard part. For the Indian students, this seems to come more naturally. They don’t need to be convinced that the easy way is better, and so they have fewer mental blocks when it comes to applying the techniques.
If India can solve it’s substantial infrastructure problems, watch out. Because India is a democracy, not an authoritarian regime like China, I think India has an inherent advantage when it comes to innovation, and cultural export. Currently, China is trying to make a push toward exporting its culture, but because everything has to be approved by censors, its all very banal compared to Korean, Japanese or Indian culture. In many ways, China has made real innovation illegal. And even though HK has robust freedoms of speech and expression (for now) the shadow of the Big Beijing still looms large in the back of people’s minds. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds, but unless there’s a revolution of some sort, I’m betting on India in the battle of the world’s two most populous nations.