Recently my Hong Kong-born co-editor has developed a series of strange new habits, or, perhaps more accurately, several symptoms of the same habit. Her new quirks include buying instant noodles in bulk, lingering in front of dim sum restaurants and unconsciously slowing her gait to read the greetings on Chinese knickknacks. The onset of these symptoms coincided with our recent move from Hong Kong to London. (Rest assured that Cha will not be giving up jasmine for Earl Grey or 'yuan yang mgoi' for 'three sugars in mine, luv' and will strive to remain an Asian publication even if its editors have temporarily shifted house.) There is of course a sense of distance that comes from changing cities, a feeling of being separated both from where you were before and from where you are now. This sensation undoubtedly lies at the heart of my co-editor's recent attraction to everything Chinese. Homesickness makes nationalists of us all. There is, I think, quite an ordinary and inescapable truth in her situation. Even in a world of very regular regularly scheduled flights and infinite networks of fiber-optic cables, we cannot completely escape geography. Reading South China Morning Post online will never be the same thing as a morning spent in South China and that is all there is to it.
But I think that there was something more to this sense of distance than the isolation of a new life in a new town. We arrived in London at the climax of the economic crisis — a moment when one could have been forgiven for thinking that if the whole system had not quite been driven off a precipice, it was at least parked on the edge of an eroding cliff. It was impossible not to contrast this gloom to the buzz that had infused Hong Kong and China in 2008. In the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics, the country was overcome by an immense sense of national pride, which despite maxing out occasionally into disturbing hysteria, also provided a feeling of uplift to the entire nation. And lying behind this spike in Chinese self-esteem, there was also a kind of continental background enthusiasm pulsating from much of the region — a great anticipation for the future buoyed by double digit growth and predictions of an emerging Asian century.
These impressions, however, belong to a specific time and place, and you will find no grand theory about a dynamic East and a declining West here. What the mood is in Admiralty or on the Bund these days, I can only speculate. Somewhat less buoyant seems a safe bet considering the current economic climate, but from this remove, it is hard to know. It is also hard to recall exactly the excitement I have just described or the extent of Chinese emotional investment in the Olympics. Subsequent events and geography cannot help but mould our memories and point of view. If comedy comes from tragedy plus time, then perspective comes from distance plus time.
At the start of the year, it was easy to imagine, no — the media in fact openly encouraged us to imagine, that 2008 would be China's and Asia's moment. But I now suspect that despite Beijing's clock-work efficiency and knock-your-socks-off opening ceremonies, the games will leave a lasting mark only in China’s domestic psyche; internationally, however, they are likely to be remembered more as an also ran in 2008 rather than its defining moment. If the Beijing Olympics were supposed to be China’s 'coming out party' (I admit a slightly silly metaphor for a civilization of 5000 years), it was that reliable diva the United States who, for better and worse, once again stole the night.
Like all divas, America in 2008 has been temperamental and inspiring, and completely unignorable. The financial crisis had an undeniably hypnotic power (and perhaps for many, a kind of Schadenfreude in seeing Wall Street undo itself), but it was accompanied by a sinking feeling that toxic derivatives and bank failures meant trouble for us all. Terrible economic news in the U.S. is still, at the very least, bad news for everyone else. But, if the delirious international reception to Obama's victory is any indication, good news for America (or for the Democrats anyway) is also good news for everyone else. I am told by our guest editor, for example, that his election was celebrated by his university students in Wuxi China.
The election captured the world's attention for a number of reasons — its dramatic horse race, a desire to see the back of Bush — but there is no doubt that it was primarily because of the junior senator from Illinois. Obama had the right message (change, hope) and, crudely put, the right face for today's flat, multi-racial world. He certainly provides an appealing model for a new breed of international statesman. With his Indonesian childhood, he will also be seen as one of the most Asian of American presidents. (Those with long historical memories may correctly point out that he does not outshine William Howard Taft, onetime governor general of the Philippines in this regard, but I am not sure the youth of Manila or Jakarta would see it this way.) Once in office, time and political realities will likely dampen the world’s opinion of Obama. It is difficult to imagine how one person, even one with his preternatural gifts, can live up to the world's inflated expectations or tackle America's intractable domestic problems. But there was a long moment after his election, an instant stretched from Tuesday night across the international dateline into Wednesday, where the world's perspective shifted. You could see it everywhere: on the blogs, on the TV, in the newspapers. And I have to admit the whole thing brought a tear to my eye. Not primarily for the history of America's first black president or for the hope that things will get better, but for the joy of seeing such a diversity of people inspired by the same event. Barack Hussein Obama had made internationalists of us all.
As for my co-editor, time and distance will shift her perspective, too, and she will soon be seeing her homesickness from a remove. But for the time being, there is Chinatown and that excellent Sichuan place in Soho we went for her birthday, which now that I think of it, is just around the corner from a pub where Orwell used to drink and within walking distance of the West End, and that actually borders on …
We can't escape geography, so we might as well start embracing it.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
15 November, 2008