I just got back from two-weeks in Asia – one in Bangkok, where my daughter teaches at an international school – and one in Beijing, which my wife and I have been intrigued by for a number of years. It was our first visit to that part of the world, and it left me with a curious mix of impressions. Some of them provide strong validation for what we’re doing here in Cranberry, while others make me a bit envious about what’s happening over there. But all of them convinced me how important it is for us to build relationships with other peoples based on mutual respect.
Thailand, for example, is a constitutional monarchy, a bit like England. And while it’s illegal there to criticize the King, there’s no hesitation about criticizing the government. So one of the most persistent criticisms people have of their government is that its policies take a radical shift following every election cycle. As a result, big projects either don’t get done or they take forever, and in the meantime, things get messed up for extended periods.
If that complaint sounds familiar, it should. In many parts of the U.S., political divisiveness has had a paralyzing effect on units of government whose planning horizons have shrunk to fit their terms of office. In China, on the other hand, there is a single-minded focus on building the infrastructure needed to support its exploding economic growth. And government officials there don’t concern themselves with listening to what their citizens say they need; it’s pretty much done by decree. So things get done quickly, without much regard to their impact on the environment or citizens, although I understand that’s gradually changing.
To an outsider, however, both of those approaches appear to suffer serious weaknesses. Here in Cranberry, though, we seem to have found the right balance; our Board of Supervisors’ vision for Cranberry has been consistent over an extended period of time, through a number of election cycles. As a result, long-term projects, like the development of a parallel road network, water and sewer improvements, and park development can continue to move forward, regardless of the political calendar. At the same time, though, each element of that vision is regularly subjected to intense scrutiny and input from interested residents who have something to say about it. So, without actually intending to, we’ve managed to combine the strengths of both systems.
I also came back with renewed pride in our environmental stewardship and in our water and sanitary sewer systems – both of which remain major struggles in Thailand and China. Here, nobody gets sick from drinking tap water and we’ve made a lot of progress in conserving, and frequently enhancing, our streams and green spaces. Over there, I found, westerners are cautioned not to drink the water, and the sanitary sewers – particularly in Thailand – range from marginal to non-existent, although they are trying to correct that situation.
That said, I also saw things there I feel we could benefit from. For instance, the diet there is much healthier; people exercise in the parks every day and bike riding is very common. Although they have lots of traffic, their transportation technologies are remarkably advanced. Their EasyPass equivalents are smaller, display toll fees, and chime when they’re activated. They have strobe lights embedded in the pavement to mark merge points and curves. They have great public transit. Almost all Thai cars run on natural gas. And there’s a much greater sense of personal responsibility over there. If you get hurt here, you always blame someone else; if you get hurt there, it’s your own fault. So you’re obliged to be more careful and self-reliant.
We found getting through the airports in Bangkok and Beijing was a breeze; English was always on the signs, right below the local language. However, when we landed back in Chicago, the differences were astounding. And I think it’s because we rarely try to see things through a visitor’s eyes. As Americans, we sometimes act as though our interests form the center of the universe and that visitors simply need to accept that. Consequently, much of the world views our approach to foreign relations as being that of “our way or the highway.”
Yet despite our political differences, both the Thai and Chinese people were friendly to western visitors and genuinely desirous of sharing a bright and prosperous future with us. As a traveler, it’s easier to appreciate that we are all part of a global economic system. So I came back to Cranberry with the renewed conviction that welcoming visitors to our community and building strong, sustainable business partnerships with other nations based on mutual respect, will be fundamental to America’s continued success.