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Foreign friend: My life with the geniuses who made modern China

Foreign friend: My life with the geniuses who made modern China

Adam Alonzi

Beginning with his first visit in 1982, Foreign Friend: My Life With The Geniuses Who Made Modern China, is the eye-opening account of a man who has lived, taught, eaten, drank, and studied in China. Much more than a set of lofty musings or maudlin reminiscences, Dr. Glassman explores the evolution of a country surrounded, then as it is now, by misconceptions and misunderstandings. This is a rare book that at once informs and entertains without overwhelming with theoretical expiation or boring with trivialities. Although for now other nations and groups are monopolizing the concerns of the American public, there is no denying the dragon has awoken.

Yet, far from presenting his subject as menacing, ‘Foreign Friend’ is a warm letter to the people the author came to love and respect.

Questions about life and governance are omnipresent, but rarely explicit and never intrusive. Each chapter is an invitation to ruminate on what has been said and partake in the same sights and sounds as the author. Is it Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? No, but it is much more enjoyable and certainly more relevant. No offence to Alexis, of course. Dr. Glassman has spent his life as an educator. Unlike a number of academics, including a deplorable percentage of English professors, he has learned how to communicate ideas with an enviable lucidity. The smoothness of his prose is enriched by the structure of the text and his reluctance to proselytize. The stories of drinking and regaling with government officials, eating twenty eggs in a single sitting, and being mocked by an elderly woman for his ineptitude at disco dancing all compliment each other and move the narrative, or I should say, narratives, forward. While the story of China moves ahead, so do his thoughts and opinions. Foreign Friend shows in what ways China differed and differs from the West, differences dissipating with the hundreds of billions of dollars streaming across the Pacific, 1.2 trillion to be precise.

In many areas of life, the most critical mistake one can make is to fail to see a situation through another person’s eyes. It is a poor chess player who does not try to discover his opponent’s intentions, who assumes he is dealing with someone like himself. Such mind-blindness does not serve peacemakers either. The hardships of colonization, the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Japanese, the horrors inflicted by Mao’s regime, and the Herculean task of the 80‘s and 90‘s, sweeping the rubble to improve the lots of over a billion people, have all left their marks on the national psyche. Instead of crushing morale, these events have only strengthened the Chinese resolve to succeed. The student demonstrations, culminating in the events of Tiananmen square, were viewed as potential sources of unrest. Generally speaking, revolutions are bad for business. There is no room for such nonsense in modern China. Their ideal is growth, their primary concern is economic expansion. Compare this with the sundry of senseless debates conducted in Western societies. The activists were sacrificed to the golden calf of prosperity. Nearly 30 years ago, a friend told him that China would be America’s largest creditor. Most analysts would have guffawed. And now?

The Chinese emphasis on education, respect for teachers of all levels, and the resultant work ethics of his students, impressed him. This is not a secret to even those otherwise unfamiliar with the persisting legacy of Confucianism. The scenes illustrating the positive aspects of what is often disparagingly branded as collectivism, though not in the economic sense of the word—the worthlessness of communism is accepted by high-ranking officials and fishermen alike—but in a cultural one, will give those of us supersaturated in societies of individualism a different perspective. Still, despite the obvious advantages of having citizens concerned with more than themselves, special snowflake syndrome will likely take root in the East just as it has in the West.

There is a beautiful richness to each paragraph. There is very little fluff, making it a concise and evocative introduction to an increasingly important chunk of the world.

This may be why he chose to give the formatting the semblance of poetry. My review may make it sound like one, but it is not a work on geopolitics. Many parts of it are quite personal, like the Chinese fascination with Freud, but not psychoanalysis. One could conclude the neuroses Freud’s system was devised to treat are unique to a neurotic tradition that can claim authors like Joyce, Proust, and Kafka, but this is not the case. Conspicuous consumption, the dark daughter of affluence, is pushing a growing number of socially mobile Chinese onto the couches of psychiatrists. Couches some of his conversational partners in the 80‘s dismissed as unnecessary accoutrements for Westerners with more money than brains. Oddly enough, they saw Freudian psychology as the only plausible explanation for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The next Woody Allen may be roaming the streets of Beijing.

I discovered Peter through his biography of John Stuart Mill, one of those rare thinkers who is, if not admired, at least respected, in nearly every circle of political discourse. A thinker so broad and deep that he has been claimed by nearly dozens of otherwise antagonistic ideologues. The core of utilitarianism shines through in the Chinese world-view and China’s policies, but it is more like Bentham’s than Mill’s. For people who have endured so much that material comforts are more important than free speech. Despite the amicability of its tone and tales, the book will leave discerning Occidentals with a few haunting thoughts. Our democratic values, no matter how forcefully they are championed, are not universally appealing. Our misadventures in the Middle East are painful testaments to this fact. Still, even after Iraq, the lesson remains unlearned.

What if our ideals are not perfect? So what? Nothing is, you may say. Yes, but perhaps they are not even particularly good. Perhaps they’ve outlasted their usefulness. China is facing its fair share of issues, but they are the problems of a rising country, similar to what the United States dealt with in the late 19th century. There are variables, like fully automated factories, that make the situations less than analogous, but the Chinese can, and have, tried to learn from the histories of other industrial revolutions. The cracks in the façade of the American empire are showing. The seeds of decay were planted decades ago. Let us hope there will be a mutual exchange not only of goods and services, but of ideas and ideals. With diseases opposite to, but almost transparently apposite to one another, each nation stands to benefit from the wisdom of the other.

The author is a writer, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, and programmer. He is the founder of Prometheus Biotechnologies and serves as an analyst for the Millennium Project. His personal blog can be found at and his podcast at–he is the author of A Plank in Reason and Praying for Death: A Zombie Apocalypse.

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