National Cathedral overlooks fog on the Potomac on a crisp fall morning. The weather has been amazing this week...
Ah, America. I love coming back here, where I am thin...
I came to Washington, DC to deliver a paper on wine marketing in Taiwan. That gigantic thud you heard about 3 pm eastern standard time was the sound of the pressure from that paper falling off my shoulders. I’ve been obsessing about it for a couple of months now...
Yes, that's right. There is an image of the two pandas in the National Zoo on metro tickets in Washington. Because as everyone knows there is nothing to see or do in Washington, and so our nation's capital must place the national symbol of another nation on its metro tickets.
The paper was presented at INFORMS 2008, a ginormous operations research and marketing science conference that saw something like 800 presentations spread across four days and two hotels. One of the topics at the conference was consumer behavior, and my brilliant and insightful friend Clyde Warden had set up a panel on marketing in Chinese culture to which four papers had been submitted, among them mine. Clyde, who is a very clear and practiced presenter, talked about the relationship between poultry purchase, market channel choice, and religion in Taiwan. I then followed with my paper on wine marketing. The audience was included a group of Chinese from China, all PhD students from the University of Maryland, who had volunteered to take care of setting up projectors, directing people to the right rooms, and so forth. They were interested in what the foreigners had to say about Chinese culture.
After my presentation had gushed out of me at the speed of thought (I always talk too fast), an audience member asked how the really educated consumers of wine in Taiwan experienced the taste elements of the wine itself, things like tannins, its bouquet, and so on. I knew the answer, and so did Clyde, and so did the Chinese sitting in the audience. But of course, to say the answer would be to get labeled as ethnocentric. Hence I danced around the question.
After the session was finished the Chinese came up to talk to us, and I found myself talking to a tall, slim, high-shouldered, oval-faced grad student from Beijing, a lovely girl much younger than myself. She repeated the question about the educated wine consumers, and then answered it with the simple answer I dared not give: “They don’t care about the taste. They just want to drink it to show how rich they are.”
Me in front of the Holocaust Museum. An amazing, moving experience.
Americans in Taiwan frequently express contempt for the conformist culture of status and prestige in Taiwan. In Taiwan this culture has clearly defined prestige tokens like XO and Mercedes Benz cars and LV bags whose acquisitions confers status upon the owner. Taiwanese compete to acquire these items of prestige and show them off to each other, to be like everyone else only more so, and with better stuff. In US culture this kind of thinking is disparaged as “keeping up with the Jones”. Such status chasing is a widespread behavior in Taiwanese culture – in academia where I currently reside it takes the form of forcing grad students to publish in high-ranking journals because of the status accrued to the university, or paying high-ranking scholars from abroad to speak in Taiwan – not because they are interested in their ideas, but because they hope that some of their status will slough off onto the locals, as if the scholar trailed status like mana in his wake. But Americans who criticize Taiwanese for their conformist materialist status-chasing, are, like the Taiwanese who buy LV bags and buy imported wine, simply working out their cultural programming.
Like Taiwan, my homeland has its own conformist culture, a conformist culture of nonconformism. Be your own man, we’re told. Be yourself. Stand out from the herd. In US culture the acquisition of a Benz is nice but it lacks unique non-conformist elements and thus does not confer much prestige or status. People will just shrug if you tell them you own a Benz. Let’s imagine, though, an unusual car pulls into the parking lot. You ask the owner what kind of car it is, and the owner tells you it is a kit car. Cool! He has just conformed to our conformist culture of nonconformism by purchasing an expensive toy that he has to assemble himself. This displays unusual skills and resources – time, money, uniqueness and the authentic experience of driving an unusual vehicle. In US culture an important element of such hobbies is the authenticity of the experience – hence the questioner’s inquiry as to what wine drinkers in Taiwan taste: do they have an authentic experience? Other elements of Cool Hobbies might include the expense of the hobby and its rarity. My well-off uncle collects cars of the 1960s, but that hobby lacks some the element of rarity or uniqueness, such vehicles are not uncommon. But he also collects Lionel trains made before 1950, which are rare indeed, and expensive. People who hear that award him points. Of course he repairs and runs the trains (authentic experience). Rarity, however, must still contain an element of familiarity –it must still be recognized as a prestige token. If you tell Americans you made it to the top of K2 much prestige will accrue, since all educated people know that K2 is a bitch-goddess that thrives on human sacrifice and thus Climbing K2 is included in their list of Cool Things, but if you tell them you summited Cerro Chalten no one but an aficionado will know why you are so amazing, and you will not be awarded so many points.
Our panel announcement...feeling a bit like Steve Martin in The Jerk here (my name! in print!).
Adventure travel is a good example of the way the two cultures look at status. Taiwanese are wealthy and many among them could afford to join one of those guided expeditions that regularly put moderately well-off Americans on the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Yet, consider the number of Taiwanese who own Benzes, compared to the number who have summited Everest. If you tell a Taiwanese you have surmounted Everest they are likely to give you a politely uncomprehending look, unless they are my father in law, in which case they will ask you exasperatedly why you wasted all that money and didn’t just watch it on TV. Summiting Everest is not a recognized prestige token in the great game of Taiwanese face. Similarly, if you show the Taiwanese your kit car, you will get a polite blank look. Kit cars count for little. Show them a Benz the size of the USS Forrestal, however, and you will rise in their eyes.
One interesting thing about this conformist culture of nonconformism in the west is that, like the conformist culture of conformism in Chinese society, it is an arms race. The my-Benz-is-bigger-than-your-Benz aspect of Taiwan culture has its counterpart in the my-hobby-is-cooler-than-your-hobby aspect of US culture (why don’t Taiwanese have hobbies but Americans do? The answer is the same: prestige and social status). At first it was cool to climb Everest but then later it got so any fool with $75,000 and a free couple of weeks could do it; the guides were just herding so many well-off cattle to the top. It lost prestige, and the adventure travelers had to do even more amazing things, like pay $100,000 to the Russians to become expensive cargo on a space trip. Similarly, within any particular hobby like mountaineering the arms race model applies. For a serious mountaineer climbing Everest is no great feat – the mountain is physically demanding but not technically difficult -- and so you have to do something out of the ordinary, like blazing a new route up the mountain, or doing it in a new, demanding, and dangerous way, such as climbing it without oxygen like Meissner did. After a while even climbing any particular mountain loses its prestige, and now you have to summit all 8000ers, or notch the highest mountain on every continent on your belt. In every cool hobby, the arms race is constantly evolving new forms of conformist nonconformism that all must attempt, just as the conformist culture of conformism is constantly evolving new status tokens that all must acquire – like imported wines or western fashions.
Georgetown. Sorry about the quality of the pics; blogger just lacks the image quality of Flickr, and I've been shut out of my Flickr account.
In both cases, the conformist culture of conformism and the conformist culture of nonconformism, the ultimate drive is, of course, displays of fitness for mating. An American who climbs Cerro Chalten or a Taiwanese who drives around in a BUS (Benz of Unusual Size) are both doing the same thing, showing that they have plentiful resources and would make a good mate. In The Mating Mind Geoffrey Miller makes this point: cool hobbies like mountaineering and scuba diving require investments in skills, time, and expensive equipment that are, like a peacock’s tail, displays of fitness – youth, health, brains, drive, money, free time.
And so all this comes back to the attractive young woman from Beijing standing in the hallway with me, telling me about wine drinkers in Chinese culture. What was my response? Of course in the presence of a beautiful woman I conformed to my conformist culture of nonconformism programming faster than you can blurt out evolutionary psychology: I told her I didn't know much about wine but I drink Riesling because I liked the taste, thus displaying my awesome grasp of the Authentic Experience. Be yourself, Michael. Stand out from the herd.
Do you think she wanted to have my baby?