This commentary is adapted from Parag Khanna’s new book, The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster).
Here are some headlines from recent years to ponder. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously ratified June 21 as International Yoga Day, recognizing the ancient Indian practice’s special significance around the world. That same year, the Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to Chinese professor Tu Youyou, a chemist with a background in traditional Chinese medicine. What all these events have in common is not just that they emerge from Asia’s two great civilizations of China and India, but that represent the growing recognition of Asian traditions of wellness.
From Psy’s viral video “Gangnam Style” reaching three billion views on YouTube to China’s economy displacing America’s as the world’s largest, Asianization is the greatest trend sweeping the world today. As I explore in my new book The Future is Asian, this means we are absorbing ever more Asian ideas and customs even if we don’t notice we’re doing it. We eat more Asian food, study more Asian languages, travel more to Asian countries, learn more Asian meditation routines, and so forth. Like the Europeanization of the world in the 19th century and Americanization in the 20th century, the Asianization of the planet in the 21st century has just begun.
I wrote The Future is Asian so that we could all engage in and better understand this irrepressible Asianization in all its facets. What can we learn from Asia’s lifestyles and value systems? Since moving to Singapore six years ago and traveling extensively around the region, I’ve come to appreciate the pragmatic governments that are focused on welfare for the whole population, the emphasis on education as the path to a fulfilling career, and the cultures that encourage multigenerational homes and social solidarity. Taken together, these Asian approaches to society have enabled enormous economic growth, technological advancement, and greater rights and prominence for women from corporate boardrooms to the corridors of political power.
Importantly, in this age of environmental and professional stress, Asians are starting to measure well-being not just by growth but overall quality of life. The Japanese no longer admire those who work to death, China is aggressively cleaning its air, and Indians strive to work as software programmers, not in factory sweatshops. The closer we look, the more we can see how Asians are trying to engineer society towards balance rather than the extremes brought about by financial capitalism without social safety nets.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that as researchers look into what factors have propelled the Japanese and Singaporeans to naturally live ever closer to 100 years of age, the answers include fresh foods and light eating, natural exercise, and quality time amongst family and community. People work close to home, or even live right above their offices in Malay-style decorated shophouses.
We can all learn from some of these habits and attitudes. Marc Benioff of Salesforce has long been inspired by Indian meditative practices, and the company’s gleaming tower in San Francisco features mindfulness rooms to retreat to on every floor. Just recently, the Dalai Lama praised Indian vegetarianism as a crucial virtue in combating climate change. Much of the world has spent centuries under the tutelage of the West; now the reverse has begun.
Two decades ago we began to worry about a global “clash of civilizations.” Now there is talk about a monolithic authoritarian threat from the East. Neither of these views appreciates how globally integrated humanity has become. As the great British historian Arnold Toynbee documented, civilizations do not displace each other, but rather absorb and learn from each other, contributing to mankind’s collective evolution. The only progressive and meaningful way to approach the rise of Asia is to pursue a fusion of civilizations.
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