There’s nothing like trying to use a foreign toilet to make you realize just how spoiled you are.
Dispatch from China: My oldest daughter and I have hiked the Great Wall, braved the smog of Beijing, walked the ice at the Summer Palace, and stood beneath Chairman Mao’s massive portrait in Tiananmen Square.
Going abroad has, once again, reaffirmed just how much I love my own country, and also how much I enjoy, and can learn, from the rest of the world.
Here are three things traveling abroad brought into sharper focus for me:
1. Things have to get worse before people are motivated to make them better.
The day we toured Beijing the smog hit a record high. It hung in the air like fog, with little particles that hit your throat and lungs like soot.
As odd as it sounds, coughing in the polluted fog surrounded by Chinese citizens wearing facemasks actually made me optimistic about our environment. Big changes don’t happen because one government tries to get another government to alter their policies. Sweeping change happens when the rank and file get so frustrated with their circumstances that they demand action (suffrage, civil rights, etc.).
Watching Chinese parents trying to keep their kids’ mouths covered, I realized we’re not as far away from solving our environmental problems as we think. I don’t claim to have the answers, but when enough people experience problems in the present it escalates the urgency in a way that predicting future problems does not. When the masses are motivated, change happens very fast. I predict we’ll see worldwide, wide-scale environmental changes (for the good) in the next five years.
2. People are not equal, nor do they want to be.
The utopia land where everyone does their share for the state and is happy to be of equal status to their neighbor does not exist. People in communist China are constantly looking for ways to improve their status. They pay teachers on the side to give their children extra attention to improve their test scores so they can get into better universities. They hawk merchandise to tourists in the alley behind the government store to make extra money.
Humans are competitive, status-seeking creatures, and that’s not a bad thing. Trying to be “better” than your neighbor, or coworker is motivating. Competing with people doesn’t mean you have disdain for them, or that you wish them hardship. It just means that you want to be the best. We reward it in athletics; trying to deny it in other aspects of life is just ludicrous.
3. Capitalism is a force for good.
The current narrative, in the United States and elsewhere, is that businesspeople are vultures who extract profits at the expense of the social good.
I’ve had my own conflicting emotions about business. I’m disdainful of greed, yet I love helping my clients help their clients. But seeing people in what was recently a Third World country construct shelves on their stoop to turn their two-room shack into a shop has reaffirmed for me that business is noble.
Selling things that people need and making a profit that enables you to provide for your family is a noble and fine endeavor. It improves life for everyone, the sellers and the buyers.
The other truism my time in China has reaffirmed for me, is that people are fabulous. They invent, they create, they sell, and they love. These are things that always make me happy to be human.