America’s imperial chickens are coming home to roost.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and perhaps even before then, we have been the world leader in exporting our values and our products to distant corners of the earth: the McDonalds-MTV factor, even more than military might or political clout, confirmed our status as a superpower.
But in the flat world of YouTube and Second Life, rising powers are finding ways to turn American cultural hegemony in their own economic favor. A fascinating story in this Sunday’s NY Times describes the rat race at Korean prep schools to get students into American universities. The Asian students I’ve met at Brown certainly came here familiar with the American system, more so than the students I’ve met from Europe or Latin America. These Asian schools can replicate the American high school easily because our curricula, our syllabi, our AP exams are available online. And the students have as clear an idea of the universities they’ll end up at (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, CalTech) as any American teen does: these are big international names.
Because American culture is so widely disseminated, the Korean schoolteachers have an easier time reproducing it than American educators have connecting to Asian culture. A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes the challenge of creating American universities in China–not because American culture is hard to translate, but because Americans find the local culture difficult to connect to. While the students may know all about McDonald’s, the professors have a hard time adjusting to bokchoy, rice and Internet censorship.
There’s a parallel in market research. Because American culture is all over television and film, Asian tech or auto or consumer electronics producers know enough about our market to make products Americans will be eager to buy. American manufacturers know next to nothing about Asian markets. While we can outsource our production to India and China (and we do), we can’t market products there. Meanwhile, the same factory owners who used to make cars for us are going independent and selling their own handiwork to Americans. Smarter still, Asian universities are capitalizing on our weakness: Hong Kong Polytechnic University has a design consultancy that helps global (mostly Western) companies adjust their products to an Asian market.
As Rudyard Kipling once said of imperialism, I now wonder of globalization: have we sought another’s profit to work their gain?