imagesIts hard to imagine but over four decades ago I stepped off a plane and on to Asian soil.  Little did I know that a region would be the opening and the ending to a life long journey.  Maybe it was the opposing contrast between my life in rural New England (USA) or simply the fascination with the way Asians embrace existence.  Amidst the current day barrage of food critics, travel correspondents and the seamless introduction of Eastern communication into the West, Asia is and will remain a continent of diversity and intrigue.

As I wander about both rural and urban settings I am confronted with smells, sights and the curious looks of people.  A foreigner in a land that views me as different and yet willing to embrace most anything that comes my way.  Food that would grossly fail Western health standards, law and security forces that wear a belt devoid of a weapon, smells that would leave an uneasy belly queasy, and sights that cause you to wonder whether its poverty or normalcy.   Many Some while back I had to adjust to viewing things differently.  Westerners who visit or stay in Asia struggle with adjustment.  Its not uncommon to hear laments that usually start with “back home…” or “in {Australia} or {USA} or {London} this would…”.   I’m not saying we have to case aside our history but rather we must give way to these feelings that things in Asia must be like our past.

Economic Calamity

Asia is booming.  Fueled by low wages and massive capacity it is set against a humble, almost survivalistic based life style.  Aside from a growing class of people who seek some of the more Western lifestyle privileges most remain content to enjoy a simply upgrade.  Those added fruits are diverted toward family, investments in education for the next generation, and possible some fundamental health care options.  I sometime feel that maybe they got the right attitude… live life right today because tomorrow may bring a return to where we may have come from.

Looking about the not so Western sections of these Asian countries, both urban and rural, you see communities.  The often ramshackle dwellings, naked children, stray pregnant mangy animals and the scavenging for cast offs isn’t poverty…. its a normal way of life.   Even Asian governments who cast attention to these situations come to realize that their windfall attention only fuels more wanting.  The result will remain the same and continue to do so because its the real tapestry of Asia.   Efforts targeted at groups of society will not work, they must embrace the the entire population to make a sustainable difference.  Infrastructure, services and food supply are just a few examples where efforts pay dividends.   As a businessman the development of these universal focal points are essential for country growth.  Protectionist policies, intended to insulate populations from competition in and of themselves creates an atmosphere where foreign capital investment doesn’t occur and the population remains captive to limited options.  In this world we can no longer be independent and not a part of the global community.  Like it or not we have as much of a role to play as we have a need to embrace the desires of others.

Food Is the Primal 

A not so profound statement but it has a much deeper meaning that one might expect.  Whether its rice in Asia, yams in Africa or potatoes in Ireland basic foods make a society.  It serves as the fuel from which work and societies are built.   It reflects the character of the available food chain and it preparation based on available means.  Last summer while at the Rockefeller Foundation, Bellagio Center, I had an interesting discussion with some experts on nutrition in the global context. Their work was focused on tackling the daunting challenge of healthy eating.  Although not being a nutritionist I do have a general understanding of what is healthy and what is a bit decadent.  While I listed to the goals, purpose and direction that they were pursuing I couldn’t help but share that a Western perspective on what is right or wrong with nutrition wasn’t right for the Asian (or for that matter African) context.  Nutrition is a matter of survival and not necessarily means for enjoyment.  Options are limited in every aspect of the nutritional landscape from preparation to choices.  Western societies attack the African and Asia food priority based on models that run contrary to reality.  Except for possibly urgent starvation nutritional needs almost everything else is grossly converse to being a workable solution or model.  This brings me full circle back to perceptions vs. reality about Asia.  One cannot simply read a book, make a couple (dozen even) visits and say they new Asia.  Whether you backpack around a country, visit as a business person or endure a stint as a resident expert you are still a foreigner.  In this context I mean a foreigner not in being but in the sense about understanding.  Asia is as diverse as Georgia is to New York or London is to Munich.  It takes time, maybe even a life long one, to understand and appreciate the full range of happenings that affect change but also the interplay with Asia.  Over and over again attempts to be a part of the Asia scheme have not turned out as planned.  Their closely guarded secret of non-success gives way to convenient excuses that legitimize the reality but turns a blind eye towards the real truth…. Asia is different from YOUR place in this world.  Just within the Asiatic region the variations in every single aspect of life is different.  Food, culture, languages, economic and governmental climates and the ways of doing things are different.  In all fairness sometimes us foreigners come off as all knowing and this doesn’t fit well in Asia since these are ancient societies.  But because the West has rapidly developed we have also learned and experienced some of the developmental mistakes that the Asian emerging nations are now facing.  Traffic, public safety and commerce are a few of the areas where experience is driven by experience and not based on historical longevity.  But for those looking or making an emerged presence in Asia it takes understanding.  It will require local perspective but that same perspective must be carried out by those that have Western or global intimate understanding.  This transcends a foreign derived education, a visit to the West or even a relationship abroad…. it demands much much more.  Time and again those that have been successful in Asia have this characteristic or have sought out expats who are now within the Asia region to bridge the gap.  But caveat emptor all parties need to appreciate the context of both worlds and cast authoritative opinions with a plural focus, ignoring all the while the temptation to become over reliant on one or the other.