The education from travel is just as good, if not better, than the academic process in many ways. At the very least you get to see the theoretical of academia played out in real life. Very early in my career (~1985), I was fortunate enough to find myself traveling to Bangkok, Thailand with numerous side trips out from there. I carried experiences away from that trip that surely shaped my thinking in ways I cannot imagine and I still ponder to this day.
Having flown over to Hong Kong, a few of my colleagues decided to take a Hoover craft ferry across the Zhujang River Estuary to go to Macau, China. How that decision was made is lost to history, but it was a chance to visit a clearly communist country, at that time seldom visited by Westerners (so why wouldn’t you want to go there?). The trip was indeed enlightening and had an economic underpinning that was not at all expected.
After arriving by ferry to the mainland, we transferred to buses for the trip. Like most of the trip over there, I am joking & laughing around with my friends and frankly having the time of my life. As I am getting onto the bus I see this somewhat attractive older Russian woman, dressed with some attention to detail, in front of me. But as we are heading to our seats, she turns around, points her finger directly in my face and says “I know what you are, you are a Capitalist”, with a look in her eye that could not have been more scornful if it had been a Baptist Sunday school teacher speaking to Lucifer himself. Without skipping a beat or really thinking about it, I replied. “Why yes I am”, having never really even solidified that notion in my mind before that very moment. I just thought of myself as a guy who had not been out of college that long, out pitching cash registers as a salesman for National Cash Register. Talk about fitting the bill, I’m a guy that sells the actual instruments of Capitalism, branded under a USA based nationalistic company, standing in a Communist country, talking to a communist. Let’s just say it all hit me as a bit of an epiphany. Anyway, I think my response just infuriated her more and she say in a seat somewhat adjacent to me and tried to burn a whole through with her gaze for the remainder of the ride to our destination. Let’s just say America won that cold war.
So, we all left the bus and her attention turned elsewhere as we were taken to see basically how well communism was serving China. For all intents and purposes I found this to be to some extent a session in propaganda that if anything made me particularly grateful to be a “Capitalist”. First stop was a somewhat primitive, but lovely school building that I noticed had no windows (in a pretty tropical climate –palm/banana trees about). Once inside we were able to stand in the back of the classroom and observe what might have been the most beautiful children in all of China, attentively listening to the teacher conversing in Chinese. What struck me as surreal, and might have given just a hint of the objectives here, was just how perfect it was. Perfect faces, paying perfect attention, listening to a perfect teacher, in a perfect classroom. It just manifested as a classroom setting I had never seen in all my years going through the American school system. It felt like a Hallmark moment.
We soon moved along and went into a shopping area that I believe was designed to show how progressive the Chinese had become and that they too could efficiently move goods between shopkeepers and the public. They were very proud. The strange part was that it felt like this barren shop, with a scarcity of goods available for sale, had been constructed from some old jewelry cases that had been extracted from the most non-progressive section of America 20 years prior. It was charming actually, mainly because the pride the people felt was real and did not feel at all like the propaganda setting of the school house. These people had indeed advanced and took great deal of pride in that advancement. They actually scored more points with me here than they did with the perfect school setting.
From there we were given time to freely roam the village where the people lived and experience rural Chinese life. After walking around a bit, I look down to see this small boy with his pants hiked down around his legs relieving himself in a small gutter. A gutter that I then noticed ran throughout the neighborhood. It was certainly not expected, but he was a young boy, so I dismissed it and did not really think too much more about it other than to notice the prevalence of these “gutters” throughout the village.
We moved along, touring homes and meeting people and wandering deeper into the village. But what I found at the back edge of the village is what truly astounded me. The discovery was that all of the gutters throughout the village led back towards and consolidated into, one single pipe that emptied out into a quasi-pond/sinkhole destination. And much to my horror, I saw a man standing out in this receptacle with another man on his shoulders poking a stick into the end of this pipe in what looked to be an effort to dislodge something blocking the pipe. Given the man’s close proximity, my first thought was “what happens if he is successful and unclogs the pipe?” Again, surreal came to mind, but I could also tell that it was a quite natural occurrence to the locals, who might have had to experience this from time to time. It was perhaps so commonplace that no one thought this might color some of the earlier efforts to win me over. It was just another day in the village to the locals. Needless to say I did not leave me with even the faintest notion to relinquish my “Capitalist” lifestyle.
After a day of this, it was back to the Hoovercraft ferry for what might have been the roughest 2 hour boat ride of my life. So much for riding on air. As we returned closer to Hong Kong the boat slowed and we were suddenly surrounded by multitudes of long skinny boats of people. It was an incredible sight to see, all of these boat people with the backdrop of the Hong Kong high rise skyline. A picture of contrasts. I soon learned why we had slowed. Each of the long boats that surrounded us, now had a person manning a 15-20’ pole with a small net attached at the end. These long poles were then carefully extended towards each of us on the rail of the boat. What I was now witnessing was systematic begging at the end of a 20’ pole. Just carefully place note or coin in the fishnet and they would pull it back, empty and reload. Suddenly my American work ethic started to question what exactly was going on here and what was the lesson to be taken from this? While it was fascinating in a lot of respects, it was also uncomfortable. It had now seemed to go from the interaction of cultures to something unseemly, yet obviously condoned. Now I am not saying I outright condemn what I saw as I did not know these peoples story, but it did create quite a number of questions for me to ponder.
Now, I don’t share this story to disparage any of the people I met. In fact, the people were great and I enjoyed every minute of soaking up the culture. They were to me just like me, humans trying to make their way, with the best tools at their disposal. And I wouldn’t trade that run in with the communist finger wagger for anything. Turns out, in many ways she was right, with her concerns around Capitalism well founded. I am certain her life adversely affected not by Capitalism, but by the lack of it. Less than 7 years later, the USSR soon came to collapse. I also don’t believe I have any right to judge or look down upon any their lifestyle. I did however leave Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Macau a changed person. It has taken a lifetime to reflect on the many experiences taken away from that particular trip, reflections that continue today.
And one of the key takeaways was that I proudly owned the label of Capitalist and has continued to serve my family well throughout the years. I’ve learned a lot through my time as a Capitalist, making my living as a salesman of technology in a country steeped in a work ethic. America has a willingness to compete that has been like no other country in the world. I am a believer in Capitalism but I also believe it is not without its dark side. I’ll follow on with some extrapolation on the subject as I believe we are uncovering some new and different challenges, with the most efficient engine of progress in the world. As always, I learn from absorbing other opinions, usually best from those that might disagree. So, we will move the discussion to much more speculative thoughts in a later visit. I always appreciate your time in reading and if you enjoy something please share it, to help justify my doing it. Thanks again Thinkmash.com