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A Challenge to American Families and Educators

"This is the New America." Stanford Magazine cover article describing China

"This is nothing, it\'s all Chinese stuff." Visiting family in our Asian gallery

The first comment leads the cover story in the latest edition of the Stanford Magazine. The latter was shared unknowingly by a visiting family last week as I sat in my gallery. Both comments are reactions to a major world paradigm shift that will influence our future generations. In this article, I will argue that it is our responsibility to prepare for this change.

Polls suggest that two-thirds of registered voters view international concerns such as terrorism, Iraq and fair trade as the most important issues in the upcoming election. Given such importance placed on international concerns, I believe that it behooves all of us, armchair intellectuals, families and educators alike, to open our eyes to a major world power shift that will soon influence our next generation. Through curiosity and exposure we can gain a greater understanding of cultures beyond our county, state and, most importantly, national borders. The two abovementioned comments, however, are indicative of the views prevalent in our society at this time- the former in the boardrooms of businesses around the country, the latter, unfortunately, among most of the remaining population.

The signs are clear:

1. China\'s economy is projected to overtake America\'s as the largest in the world within 20-30 years 
2. China has one of the greatest pools of educated talent in the world- over 500,000 Chinese have studied in the US alone, most of them in Doctoral programs where they often outnumber American students
3. Chinese save 40 cents of every dollar earned, earmarking most of these funds for their children\'s education 
4. China is running a trade surplus of nearly $15 billion per month with the US 
5. Some estimates state that China may have more people studying English than native English speakers in the States. 
6. Every week, over 800,000 Chinese become internet users

For many people, the terrorism concerns of today snuck up on us. Americans had no idea that such animosity could be brewing beyond our borders. After 9/11 we received a crash course on Middle Eastern geography. The Koran appeared on a few bookshelves. We have since had our televisions tell us about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the long enlightened traditions of Baghdad, and the nascent sprouts of democracy in Afghanistan. Americans were uninformed, we knew little about the Middle East, and the recent spike in awareness is commendable, but it is only a start.

China, however, is not sneaking up on us. The business shifts are evident. A workforce of nearly 750 million, five times that in the States, is serving the world\'s markets. "Made in China" is becoming as ubiquitous as America\'s great ambassadors, McDonalds, Coca Cola and, gulp, Michael Jackson. Ask a Chinese student about the United States and you will receive a long series of comments on our cultural traditions, the joys of the English language, the sadness surrounding 9/11. Ask an American student about China and you will hear comments about Kung Fu and Yao Ming. Like it or not, China is "open for business," and America had better start paying more attention and preparing our youth.

Visitors to our gallery come from around the country to purchase rarely-seen treasures from Asia. Today\'s customers included a major textile collector from Austin, Texas who left with a carload of antique textiles from the mountainous southern regions of China. Last week\'s Kimono show was a major success, with the most impressive piece, a mid-19th century Geisha kimono, going to an entertainment professional who vows to wear it to next year\'s Emmys. The curiosity expressed by these visitors, most of whom have traveled long distances to arrive at our door, is promising. There is a desire to go beyond their immediate environment and to learn about distant cultures.

But what about the other visitors- those who dismiss the shop based on a glance? Or those who do not venture in at all? What about the local families, with children who will be attending college when China becomes the world\'s largest economy? Where are the educators who continue to encourage the study of German or French in an America that has its greatest business and, I would argue, cultural opportunities in the Far East? How will we as a nation be able to compete with a China that has such great knowledge of America- our language, our political system, our people, when we do not display the same passion to learn about other cultures? These same people are the ones who are complaining about the origin of Wal-mart\'s products, and yet would never turn on a History Channel show about China, never pick up a book discussing China\'s economic development, or venture into a gallery that displays everyday pieces from Asia\'s rich traditions. Few of these people have visited Asia or spent much time there beyond the hand-holding of a flag-holding tour group leader. Why not more interest? Why not more awareness of America’s future challenge?

In American elections, our votes all have equal value. This is America\'s greatest strength, but it is viewed by many overseas communities with great fear. We as a nation project our influence far beyond our shores. Votes cast in Door County will have an influence on policy affecting Iraq, France, North Korea and virtually every other country. Like it or not, we are voting on issues affecting countries that, in some cases, we have never heard of. Should we not at least attempt then to understand some other cultures, specifically those peoples who may not look like us and exist outside of Europe, where many of us trace back our ancestry? And for this article\'s purpose, a country like China that clearly presents our next generation with the greatest economic opportunities and may present them as well with the greatest diplomatic challenges?

The New America for many is now China. We as a nation need to acknowledge and rise to the challenge so evident in this statement. Walter Lippman criticized American democracy nearly 100 years ago as being inadequate to the modern age because citizens are handicapped by "limitations of experience" and "subjectivity of opinions."

With contemporary news sources available 24/7, we have no excuses for a lack of awareness. With performances and shops bringing in traditional arts and crafts from around the world, we in Door County are fortunate to be able to learn about other cultures in our own backyard. Go out and listen to RASA and its Indian-influenced music, view the exquisite textiles at the Martinez Gallery and the traditional Latin American arts at Incidentals, see a variety of Asian-influenced clothing at Imported, attend performances by international musicians at the Auditorium, Birch Creek and PMF, and peruse the international art at the Fairfield Museum. The opportunities are many.

T.H. Lawrence wrote in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom that all men dream: but not equally. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Our gallery aims to instill a greater understanding of Asia in our visitors. This is our dream. We realize that this is only a small contribution, but it continues to move us forward.

As a society, we need to encourage the occasional student (if not all) to study an Asian language. Although many of us do not look Asian, the reality is many of us have our futures more closely tied to that region then we realize. Communicating in each other’s language is a critical piece.

Students and families, come take a look at the cultures and traditions of Asia. Coffee-shop orators, debating the effects of US foreign policy, move beyond the coffee shop, bar or book shop. Go out and explore. Come learn about the opportunities that may develop from Door County\'s new sister-region relationship with China. Travel with us to the rural areas of Asia. Expose yourselves to the exotic- the subtlety of a Chinese brush stroke, the patina of an 18th century Burmese temple bronze and the mystery of a pre-Christ earthenware tomb figure- you may come away pleasantly surprised how closely it resonates within your being. This will hopefully help us with the international challenges facing our nation as well as help our next generation make more informed decisions on issues that extend beyond our borders.

Brian Linden is the owner of Linden Gallery in Ellison Bay and Madison. He has spent over ten years in Asia, completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, University of Illinois and Stanford, and has worked for CBS News, the USIA, and in international educational investment. He has traveled in over sixty countries and will be spending the upcoming winter and spring with his wife and two sons in Asia.