What do we talk about when we talk about the Asian century? And in what language/s?

Last week I was happy to be invited to speak at a prestigious as well as important conference: the 8th Forum – International Conference “Middle East in Quest for Security, Stability, and Economic Identity” organized by the joint efforts of several entities. You can find more details here:

The title of my speech is the title of this post. You can either browse through the text or listen to the actual speech here:  from 7.28.07 to 7.45.00. I just can’t believe I talked so much.

It has always been my strong belief that the world is much more than Europe or any other part in our close proximity wherever we may happen to be living. Being in education, I have always tried to live, as much as possible, by the beliefs I have. In other words, do what I say. Not at all easy, particularly in this age of fake news, post truth, etc. etc. And yet, since what we call internationalization/globalization should refer to the world, and not only to certain selected parts of it, I started to look at what is beyond my immediate proximity.

Let me, please, give you some idea what I’m going to say in the next few minutes: I will talk about the importance of languages and culture in international understanding or rather misunderstanding, I will tell you, from my own experience what type of knowledge the general public has about Asia. I’ll tell you about my personal perceptions about Asia accompanied by many questions to which I do not have answers except the need for more and better education.

So, since this event is also under the auspices of the 120th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Romania and Iran I would like to mention that two months ago I made a three weeks trip to Iran. What is so special about it? First, Iran is not a preferred tourist destination for Romanians, let alone Romanian women. We were a group of 6 women led by our tour guide, the 7th woman. Second, there are so many stereotypes and simply distorted facts about Iran not only in Romania, but pretty much around the Western world.  

We started from Tehran, flew down to the island of Qeshm, came back by ferry to the continent and were driven by our local guide and driver, Muhamad, through the Kalut Desert, spent a memorable night at the Maymand Guesthouse, which means caves, we were more than impressed by the traditional city of Yazd, amazed by Shiraz, Persepolis and Necropolis, had an incredibly amazing time in the Zagros Mountains where we spent a night with the local people, the Bakhtiaris, and then through Esfahan and Kashan back to Tehran and home. And since I cannot explain briefly the great cultural impact Iran/Persia had on myself and my fellow travellers, I have decided to write a series of articles that are being published in Romanian and will, hopefully, be a book in Romanian and in English by the end of this year.

Iran is not the first or only exotic destination to which I travelled and  have written about.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have totally changed the way we look at the world and interact with it. Let me please point out some discrepancies between what we want/are told to believe about European and US exceptionalism and the rest of the world:

  • Demographically, more than 50% of the world’s population lives now in Asia.
  • From among the world’s 30 megacities, 21 are at present in Asia and even there, according to UN data, shifts are happening fast, so by 2030 Delhi will overtake Tokyo as the world’s largest city.
  • In terms of economic data – well it all depends on what we read and who does the statistics. Even so, and even after the Ukraine conflict affects the global GDP a report of the UN  Department of Economic and Social Affairs shows that almost all regions in the world are affected by high inflation except for East Asia and South Asia. In other words, the Asians, rich, crazy rich, not so rich or even those downright poor, continue to have an impressive effect on the world trade, especially through their purchasing power. And the references to economic sanctions today have been clear.

Issues of identity and culture are common in today’s world, Asian and non-Asian. We know they are important, we academics study the issues and … with all due respect, politicians do whatever they think they need to do. Will things really change in the coming world? What will the new normal look like? Is Asia a sustainable hub of the megatrends that are already changing our world/s? And if so, which part of Asia? Japan, China and India have long been in the forefront of large and fast-growing economies. Vietnam, the Philippines and Bangladesh have left behind some European economies (the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland). Is Europe playing its cards right or is it left behind or even worse suffer consequences?  Is technology going to be a dream come true for most people or just another nightmare? Will we be able to work in mixed teams with robots and AI? Based on whose culture? And who will lead? And … who are we?

In what language do we speak about Asia, or about the Middle East for that matter? Obviously in English. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. But we miss a lot of the culture and deep meanings that speaking a language reveals.

Fuzzy geographies, fluid terminology and a general lack of education are the common enemies against solving conflicts. People operate more and more with cliches and stereotypes because it is easier and more comfortable. But is it good? And for whom?

What can be done? Education, education, more education.

  • Encourage students to think critically and creatively, expressing themselves, not only reproducing and echoing our own thoughts and ideas
  • Stress importance of life-long learning, not degrees grabbing
  • Encourage students (ourselves and our colleagues as well) to read books, not only articles
  • Encourage and reward patience, hard work and discipline
  • Role model more humility than arrogance
  • Politeness, courtesy, etiquette and netiquette, civility
  • Introduce diversity in our classes through case studies, business models that are not only mainstream or coming from the Anglo-Saxon traditions, but also from Asia and other parts of the world

Thank you!