Posted on Jun 4, 2019 Leave a Comment
By Betty Berdan
Thirty years ago today, tanks and soldiers turned a peaceful student demonstration in Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square into a massacre. While the Chinese government has claimed that no one died, the death toll is likely almost 10,000. And hardly anyone there knows about it. If there’s one thing that China is good at, it’s covering up its own unsavory history.
Four years ago, I took a class on modern China in high school. That was when most of the kids in the class learned for the first time of the government’s actions in Tiananmen Square. While I couldn’t fault the American students for their lack of knowledge, I was shocked to learn that several of the Chinese students had never heard of this event. These students lived in Beijing and Shanghai; they returned to China for vacations; they grew up in their country’s educational system until high school. Yet, they weren’t aware of a violent day that shook the rest of the world — one when their parents weren’t much older than the student protestors.
How could these smart people be so oblivious to their country’s recent past? Throughout my seven years of Chinese language and culture classes, this question stuck in the back of my mind, making me wonder what made the Chinese so different that they were able to completely abrogate major events from their history. Censorship and communism couldn’t be the only explanations. It wasn’t until my third visit to China that I finally found an answer.
Betty inside one of the 90 palaces of the Forbidden City, Beijing.
A year ago, I visited my friend and her family in Shanghai. Wanting to show their country to an interested foreigner, they packed me up and toured me around Beijing. We waited in lines to get into every palace and historic site, with passports in hand to enter Tiananmen Square. In all of my learning about China, I couldn’t picture the enormous size of the square. It was difficult to imagine the centuries of history in the place I stood in, looking up at a giant portrait of Mao while soldiers marched by. With the Forbidden City behind me, it seemed easy to forget about a day in 1989 when centuries of other historical events occurred in the same place. Instead of recalling the carnage of one day, there was a better history to remember: this one was an easy one to forget.
Through broken Mandarin and English translations, my friend and her parents explained a Chinese perspective I couldn’t have begun to understand in the classroom. As they defended communism, Mao and censorship, they explained that they had what really mattered: comfort and happiness. They knew that the government hid things from them, understanding that there was information they weren’t allowed to know and atrocities that were covered up. To a democratic westerner, this seemed unacceptable, undemocratic — almost inhumane. But they explained that they lived good lives in a country where they didn’t have to worry about politics or the challenges of daily life. Like any others, their country wasn’t perfect, and its past had its blemishes in order to create a smoother future: a future they were living in and enjoying.
Even if I can’t agree with the Chinese about their acceptance of the government’s covering up the truth and lying to its people, I can understand wanting to not worry about the government every day. Here in the US, I look at how politics is destroying our daily happiness, and how it might be easier to be as uninvolved as the Chinese. At the end of the day, we’re too culturally different to fully accept and understand each other’s politics, but those glimpses into opposing perspectives have allowed me to finally start to see the Chinese peoples’ point of view on an event I could never explain as just an American. Above all, I have learned that there is tremendous value to understanding another culture by trying to see a person, an event, history and a culture from another perspective. All of the time I’ve spent immersed in another culture with hosts has reinforced the belief that different is not bad; it’s just different.
About the Author
Betty Berdan is a rising sophomore at Georgetown University. She has studied Chinese for more than seven years, and has traveled to China multiple times to study abroad and visit friends. She is proficient in Spanish and loves to experience other people, places and cultures.
Posted on Jan 17, 2018 Leave a Comment
My most recent book, Preparing to Study in the USA: 15 Things Every International Student Should Know. is a BESTSELLER! and is being re-released today by IIE. The book remains in hot demand as the USA continues to welcome more international students than any other country, but the same rich, dynamic system that draws these students can be a source of complexity and confusion. This book goes deeper, responding to questions that need answers but are too often overlooked: How do I get involved on campus? Why are sports so prevalent in the USA? Why don’t American students always go to class? Make sure that your students are prepared to navigate and appreciate their USA educational experience!
Available as an e-book in English and Chinese from major vendors through IIE’s bookstore. And soon to be released in Arabic.
Posted on Oct 25, 2016 Leave a Comment
A captivating narrative tells a story of the early generation of Chinese immigrants who settled in New York City. Scott Seligman, China-hand and journalist by background, transports us into the violent and corrupt streets of New York’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century. The research uncovered by this work qualifies the author as a historian as well, as he details the decades of incidents surrounding two rival brotherhoods using volumes of both published and unpublished documents.
On the surface “Tong Wars” is the true story about Tom Lee, who arrives in NYC with the intent of helping to strengthen the Chinese community in Manhattan. As is frequently the case with ambitious newcomers in well-established big cities, the lure of quick money and power turns Tom’s focus to the underbelly of society, and he quickly becomes aligned with corrupt law enforcement, politicians, and criminal activities. In addition to legal restrictions (The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), blatant discrimination goes unchecked, and as a result, the tongs become surrogate organizations providing belonging and protection. The stories of conflict between rival groups On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong are underpinned by significant details extracted from historical archives. This level of detail lends credibility to the real stories told that might otherwise seem to be lifted from the big screen.
The true value of this book is that it causes one to pause and reflect on today’s real-world struggles of minority groups arriving in new lands, hoping to preserve some of their culture while pursuing their dreams to achieve success and stature. The reality of living in a country where you have no social, economic, or political currency is understood by very few. In reading this story, the reader will find himself in conflict by sympathizing with the concept of achieving power by any means. This untold story of Chinese immigration captures a fascinating perspective and gives reason to question how modern-day societies continue to create formal and informal mechanisms of exclusion.
Anna was one of the six women featured in Get Ahead By Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-track Career Success. To read more about Anna’s perspective on leadership, check out her blog, Shades of Leadership.
Posted on Oct 17, 2016 Leave a Comment
Guest blog by Kelly Clark
My colleagues and I were preparing for an ArtsLit Academy in Owensboro, Kentucky, a town on the banks of the Ohio River with a long and rich culture based on and around this vital natural feature. In preparing to lead K-5 teachers through experiential learning based on a sense of place, I searched for children’s books that spoke to the power of a river in the life of town. I couldn’t find them. What I did find were books about all the geographical elements in a state, books about boats or bridges, fictional histories or memoirs that used or relied upon the river as a backdrop, and books about the water cycle and the place of rivers within that cycle.
Each of the books I found had separated the river into distinct content areas: geography, engineering or transportation, history and fiction, or science and climate studies. It seemed evident that there is a gap in the literature, or perhaps more accurately, an outdated way of thinking about texts to support teaching.
If we want teachers to cover an increasingly large amount of content at a deep and meaningful level, we have to approach the concepts intentionally so that that content, woven together, is covered through relevant and authentic learning while students grow in skills and global mindedness.
When I talk with elementary school teachers about adding global elements to lessons, one of the biggest stumbling blocks they mention is that they don’t have time to add content to an already packed day. My suggestion is that by reframing the content around local landmarks or geographical landmarks and extending that learning from the local to global, they make connections while building a sense of civic pride and understanding about their own cultures.
Space does not allow for a full scale discussion of all the rivulets and streams that would emerge when students immerse themselves in inquiry-based learning on the river flowing past their front door. But I can offer some suggestions for ideas to form essential questions that might start the wondering that would shape the class learning.
Bringing the river into the classroom would seem most at home in social studies, most likely under Human-Environmental Interactions, but it could also have geography and economic components. In addition, there are plenty of opportunities to add in art, music, math, history, engineering and science strands. To provide some food for thought, I have grouped sample questions about rivers into three categories.
Any one of these questions could form a unit of study that can both be global in comparisons and historical in looking at the past, present and future of our rivers. The scope and breadth is huge, and, as such, does not fit easily into a children’s book, which is where I began my original search. Instead, use the local feature as your text and have the students create their own river books to demonstrate the depth of their understanding in an authentic way that honors their sense of place as well as their learning.
Kelly Clark is the state lead for Global Competence at the Kentucky Department of Education. Kelly enjoys supporting all Kentucky students in being prepared for a globally interconnected and inquiry based world. @KyDeptofEd @KellyAClark
Posted on May 31, 2016 Leave a Comment
The idea to write IIE’s newest book with Stacie Berdan—Preparing to Study in the USA: 15 Things Every International Student Should Know—grew out of a football game. I was visiting with a group of international students attending The Ohio State University. A few weeks before, they were fortunate enough to be recognized by the university president and invited to watch a football game in his sky box.
While greatly honored by the invitation, none were sure what to make of it. An American friend tried to help out by explaining that seeing the game from a sky box was much better than going to a tailgate party. Because they did not know what a tailgate party was either, they asked me to explain. I said the next time they went to a football game look at all the cooking and partying that goes on in the parking lot and the people gathered around the open back doors of their station wagons. Since we do not have too many station wagons anymore, and I was not sure what you called the back side of an SUV, I was not sure what I said did much good.
The group had just two more questions. One revolved around why the players stopped playing so often. The other was why did the Ministry of Higher Education allow schools to spend so much time and resources on athletic games.
Stacie Berdan, it turned out, often had similar conversations. We discovered that there was an awful lot about American higher education that did not translate well into other cultures. This book is our effort to gather in one volume some of the most confusing things about our system as well as the culture surrounding it, and then try to explain it from the viewpoint of someone encountering it for the first time.
We welcome your feedback and suggestions about how we did and also other concepts and practices that it would be helpful to explain.
A few days after I left Ohio, one of the students got in touch to thank me for the explanations, and then to ask one more question. Everyone loved the marching band that performed at half time. What the student wanted to know is what happened to all the soldiers when the game was over? To whose army did they belong and was there a military base near the campus that housed them?
If you’re interested buying a copy of Preparing to Study in the USA: 15 Things Every International Student Should Know, go through either IIE for the paperback (US$4.99 for one copy, steep discounts for 20 or more) or Amazon for the eBook (US$2.99).
Posted on May 11, 2016 2 Comments
While there is no disputing the many benefits of learning a second language, the U.S. education system, as a whole, is woefully inadequate in giving our children the foundation they need to become proficient. Not enough schools begin language lessons early enough, and the vast majority of language programs in U.S. schools are not immersive. If parents are serious about helping their children become proficient, they must make language study, including immersion, part of their child’s overall education.
My husband and I recognized this need in our daughters, Connie and Betty, who, although having taken Spanish since kindergarten, were still shy about speaking the language in public. So we traveled with them throughout Central and South America over the course of three years (stories I’ve shared on this blog and in other publications). This opened their eyes to the immense value of mastering another language and inspired in them the desire to actually become proficient. But not everyone can travel internationally nor are most families capable of speaking Spanish to each other when they’re on the road. In other words, travel alone may not be immersive enough; but if proficiency is the goal, then immersion is the path by which to get there.
That’s why for several years we have enrolled Connie and Betty in El Lago del Bosque at Concordia Language Villages (CLV) in Bemidji, Minnesota, for two weeks. CLV provides immersive cultural and language learning in 15 languages to adults and children alike, but the real focus is 7-18 year olds. CLV maintains three separate campuses in Minnesota, with the main one being in Bemidji, where it houses campers in “villages” – camp-like environments dedicated to each of the 15 different languages and cultures. Food, music, games, sports and currency are those of the focus culture, and the villages even include typical housing and décor. Courses run from long weekend sessions during the school year to one-, two- and four-week sessions during the summer. “Villagers” are encouraged to take a “no English”pledge.
The villages are wonderful microcosms of specific cultures, and my husband Mike and I were convinced it was the next best step to proficiency for our daughters. But they were not initially pleased, primarily because they had gotten used to all the excitement and appeal of international vacations. In addition to being stuck in the middle of the woods, camp was “work” because they’d be speaking Spanish and “studying” every day!
Mike and I held firm because we not only wanted Spanish immersion in a safe, fun environment, we wanted them to experience sleep-away camp and manage the emotional and physical challenges that come with it.
So Connie and Betty packed their stuff, and we drove them out to Minnesota from Connecticut, stopping to visit major cities and sites along the way. As we arrived at the 800-acre site, we saw “Welcome!” signs in many languages.
When we arrived at El Lago del Bosque, the greeters only spoke Spanish. Fortunately, Connie and Betty got right with the program, showed their “passports”, checked themselves into “Casa Santo Domingo,” made name necklaces choosing a fun name, exchanged U.S. dollars for pesos, signed up for activities, and were “tested” for just a few minutes for placement in the daily “tertulias” – mini-conversation classes that took place every day. They turned in all their obligatory “English” paraphernalia – books, games and all digital devices (they could only communicate by written letter, unless in an emergency) – and bid us “adios”. This process only took an hour or so.
Two weeks later they called to tell us they were on the bus to the airport and absolutely loved their time at El Lago del Bosque! They made new friends, played sports, ate interesting food, danced and sang, watched the World Cup with their Argentine counselors (almost all CLV staff are native speakers from many different countries), and enjoyed International Day where the 15 villages got together to share their cultures through music, dance, food and sports. But best of all, they felt as though their Spanish had jumped to a whole new level.
Mike and I were glad that it worked out and were cautiously optimistic about their returning next summer. We had agreed that although we mandated their going to CLV the first summer, any additional participation would be up to them. We were smart enough not to ask them about returning right away.
As they returned to school as high school freshmen in the fall, they both realized how much Spanish they had learned. This noticeable improvement in skill level combined with the practical experience of communicating with other kids and counselors in a fun, engaging atmosphere sealed the deal. They started talking about which session to attend the next year, trying to coordinate going with a new friend they made at camp. We discussed the pros and cons of adding another language or attending the four-week high school session, which can count for credit for one full year of language learning.
After a few years at the Villages, our daughters each skipped a year in Spanish — not because they took the 4-week high school credit (they didn’t) — because they had become comfortable speaking Spanish in an immersion setting — being active language learners, which educators say is the best way to learn a language. The lessons they learned in school clicked much faster. They applied what had been learning in class to eating, singing, playing sports, making friends. In other words, they learned to communicate on a daily basis. Although our daughters attended for the first time as 14 year olds, I wish we had known about Concordia when they were younger. I would have felt comfortable sending them to a one- or two-week session every summer, possibly in multiple languages. In fact, we met a few young adults who had spent six or seven summers there, studying languages they were not learning in school, yet were fluent enough to study abroad in the target language when they went to college. This could be a terrific option for parents who don’t have language learning K-12.
In fact, I’d recommend parents consider sending their children as early as 7 or 8 – as long as the child is comfortable attending sleep-away camp – every year for as much exposure to cultural and language immersion as possible. The cost is on par with that of other sleep-away camps, and there are many, many scholarships available. But there isn’t another place like Concordia Language Villages; it’s very special and can help our children not only reach proficiency in a second or third language, but also inspire them to become responsible world citizens. Tucked away in the northern woods of Minnesota, it is a real gem unlike any other place in the U.S.
If you’re still looking for summer activities for your children, check out CLV. Your child will have a learning experience unlike any other.
Posted on Apr 18, 2016 Leave a Comment
Why are sports so important in U.S. college culture? Am I allowed to express my own opinions, even if I disagree with the professor? These are some of the most common questions international students ask when they arrive at an American university or college. The United States offers a rich and dynamic higher education system that attracts more international students than any other country in the world. U.S. colleges and universities also actively seek international students to facilitate cultural exchange among students and internationalize their campuses. But the variety offered by the country’s more than 4,000+ colleges and universities can also be a source of confusion.
To help students understand and succeed in the U.S. education system, I’ve teamed up with Allan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education (IIE), to write our third student guide, Preparing to Study in the USA: 15 Things Every International Student Should Know.
This new book – available in paperback now and as an e-book in May – offers practical advice and cultural insight to students, including how to:
In 15 short chapters, Preparing to Study in the USA addresses the most critical issues facing international students as identified by U.S. international student advisers, accompanied by three Frequently Asked Questions at the end of each chapter. FAQs include:
Print copies of Preparing to Study in the USA are available from IIE Publications for $4.95 USD, with a steep discount for bulk copies for schools to give out to students (20 copies for $20.00 USD). E-books go on sale for $2.99 in May at IIE Books.
Posted on Apr 11, 2016 5 Comments
Guest blog by Grant Boulanger
Developing a global mindset and intercultural competence is not just for the global traveler. The ability to trust, respect and honor our neighbors and their traditions hinges on a capacity for empathy. In world language classes, that empathy begins with explorations of identity in our languages and building communities of trust. World language programs prepare many for global travel and business pursuits, but, more importantly, they should prepare students to be accepting of, celebrate and contribute to our pluralistic society. Successful language learning for all students will make us all better people. But we have hurdles to overcome and the place to begin to address them is the novice-level language class.
One issue of pressing concern from an equity standpoint is retention of students of color and male students of all races. In the latest edition of Foreign Language Annals, the official journal of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Dr. Hannah C. Baggett from Auburn University writes “African-American students are underrepresented in language courses and … African-American and Latino students are underrepresented in advanced placement courses broadly speaking. African-American and Latino male students were under represented even at more diverse schools, and white female students were consistently overrepresented in language classes, despite demographics and language offerings.”
Dr. Baggett shares the results of a study she conducted of more than 200 secondary schools in North Carolina. Her study confirms disparities in language learning opportunity and achievement for students of color:
According to the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, females outnumber males in advanced placement testing in all languages except German. John DeMado’s triangle of enrollment demonstrates that retaining students at upper levels in traditional secondary language programs is not a new phenomenon. But Dr. Baggett’s study specifically brings to light disparities in enrollment opportunity and achievement potential among students of color. Conversations must shift from simply retaining students to ensuring that programmatic and pedagogical decisions intentionally acknowledge and address educational equity for students of all backgrounds.
Language educators are gatekeepers. We impact students’ ability to be accepted by post secondary schools. When students of color are underrepresented in our upper level classes, these students have less access to selective schools, which often require more than a two year minimum. As public educators charged with educating all our students, we are obligated to acknowledge and address these disparities.
There are many factors that contribute to language offerings and enrollment in public high schools across the country. As classroom teachers, we have little direct control over many of them. If we choose to respond by saying that underrepresentation of certain subgroups at upper levels is outside of our control, how do we explain the phenomenon Dr. Baggett has documented? Are we prepared to say that white females in North Carolina just acquire language better than Latino or African American males?
If a person isn’t ready to make that assertion, and I hope they are not, then there must be instructional decisions we can make to better address issues of equity in our world language classes. Which contributing factors are within our own scope and power as language teachers? How can we ensure that as many students as possible will have the confidence and competence to continue on in their language courses? How can we create a #NationofAdvocates? Let us concern ourselves with the human side of the equation.
A former colleague once confided in me that she considered it her duty to decide who was “fit” to move on to upper levels and who wasn’t. Students routinely share with me that despite their desire and intention to continue learning languages, they don’t perceive classes to be relevant to their lives. Additionally, when the focus is on learning about the language, with an unbalanced emphasis on manipulating discrete elements of the language, we unintentionally advantage some students. Well-meaning teachers may inadvertently be contributing to the problem. What we teach and assess, how we teach it and, most importantly, why we are teaching are all factors that contribute to the confidence and trust our students have in us and in the language learning process. Without high levels of confidence and trust, our students will not voluntarily enroll in higher-level language courses.
We need to make intentional decisions to acknowledge and address disparities and explore and adopt classroom practices that mitigate them. I believe that the front line of this work is in the novice-level language classroom. If students are to embrace and develop global mindsets, they have to want to come back tomorrow. We alone are responsible for creating language classes that are meaningful and relevant, engaging and fair, joyful and effective. This must be our contribution to the solution.
We as teachers can decide to adopt practices that could increase enrollment of all our students. Here are some practices that have helped me create a space where all kids want to come back tomorrow:
As a profession, we language educators are now on board with 90% target language use at all levels in the classroom. We know and understand that our students acquire language when they understand, interpret and respond to meaningful messages. But what good is that if we cannot find a way to bring language acquisition to ALL kids? We must develop and share principles and practices that will raise engagement, address inequities and create joyful, successful experiences for all our students. 90% retention is what we need to create a #NationOfAdvocates.
Follow Grant on Twitter #NationOfAdvocates #languagematters #leadwithlanguages #flteach #langchat #mfltwitterati #mfl #spanishteachers #Raisingglobalchildren
Posted on Apr 7, 2016 1 Comment
Every March over three decades, we celebrate the impact that women have in America during Women’s History Month. As we celebrate some of the progress made, we realize that the pace of change is far too slow. Recent studies show that women still earn only 78% of what men are paid for the same job, and that gap increases even further for women of color. Statistics indicate that the percent of executive positions held by women have increased from 13.5% to 14.6% from 2009 to 2013, and progress in the boardroom is equally stagnated.
When it comes to raising a family, we continue to struggle for respect for women who choose to stay home, and the U.S. trails much of the developed world on issues of childcare support and paid family leave legislation. Finally, women and girls are held to difficult expectations on physical appearance as society continues to define feminine beauty with impossible standards.
For every one of these issues, there are organizations, social media groups, mentoring programs, and advocacy efforts designed to change the world for women. As important as these efforts might be, perhaps closer examination is needed in one of the most important roles we have — that of how we raise and influence our children.
Indeed change takes time. But if we fail to create a greater sense of urgency around how the next generation views issues of gender equality, we cannot expect the will of organizations and advocacy programs to make it happen. After all, those efforts are led by human beings who hold values and biases that are well-formed by the time they are given the responsibility to lead. Those of us who have the opportunity to shape those values and biases should consider the following:
Talk to kids
In a world of constant connectivity, we are becoming increasingly disconnected. Having thoughtful conversations with kid about work, school, friendships, and health all provide opportunities to convey quality messages about how men and women can/should feel and interact. Discuss news reports that cover issues of gender bias, and ask kids what they experience with friends. Engaging on this topic will make them realize that they can be part of making things different.
Examine your gender biases
You have them. We all do. Realize how much biases have evolved since your parents’ generation (not long ago, women were required to quit work when they became pregnant!), and make a commitment to continue that journey for the future of the children you influence. Do you place an equal level of importance on the education and independence of your daughter as much as your son? Do you subconsciously feel that it’s less important for a girl to demonstrate success than a boy? Examine these, and realize how they impact what you say and how you behave.
Fill your children’s lives with great gender role models
The impact that role models have in our lives is tremendously important. They are examples of the professional, personal, and ethical behaviors that we strive to achieve. It is essential for children to have, in addition to their parents, adults who represent a standard for which to strive. Role models can be teachers, neighbors, church leaders, family relatives, or friends. Have conversations about what makes them great people, how they achieved their happiness and success, and encourage your children to build strong and healthy relationships with each of them.
Find opportunities to travel or live abroad
Nothing opens the eyes of children more than having a chance to interact with people from other parts of the world. Models of what men and women do vary in other countries, and experiencing those differences can lead to insights and conversations that can shift biases that we hold. In countries where education for girls is not as strongly endorsed as it is for boys, opportunities for women are far more limited. On the contrary, where gender equality is more prevalent, it is easy to see both social and cultural support systems that make that possible.
Include gender implications in milestone conversations
In addition to everyday conversations and activities that reflect your beliefs about gender issues and challenges, be sure to carve out opportunities to include the topic in “milestone moments” such as graduation, marriage, first jobs, and other life events. Young adults are constantly faced with choices and opportunities to formulate their beliefs about gender issues throughout their early years. If a daughter is heading off to college, provide reinforcement about the importance of the next few years as an investment in her future career. If a son is about the start a new job, remind him about how important it is to value the contributions of all of his colleagues, and to realize the particular challenges of young women colleagues at work.
Build self-esteem and confidence in both boys and girls
Encourage activities that require collaboration as well as those that are competitive for both boys and girls. This emphasizes the importance of both individual effort and teamwork, and teaches at a young age that the best result is often only achieved with the help of many different skills. Strive to find the special gifts of all children, and resist the temptation to “channel” them into areas of interest that suit preconceived biases. Most importantly, don’t play into the mentality that boys need to be tough, and girls need to be soft. The two traits are not mutually exclusive, and in reality, don’t we want to find them both in both men and women?
I’m often asked when I speak about gender issues in the workplace what I consider to be the most important factor in making things different. My answer has always been the same: “It’s about how we raise our kids”. The pace of change is excruciatingly stalled. It’s our fault. We’re raising kids who have the same biases that we are trying to change. We must take a good look at ourselves; at the experiences we bestow upon our children, the modeling we provide, and the evidence we demonstrate.
Anna was one of the six women featured in Get Ahead By Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-track Career Success. To read more about Anna’s perspective on leadership, check out her blog, Shades of Leadership.
Posted on Apr 3, 2016 Leave a Comment
America’s welcome mat is out. This past February, for the first time ever, U.S. President Barack Obama played host to all 10 leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the historic Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California.
That is good news for the US and for all 10 nations of Southeast Asia. U.S. attention is rightly turning to what remains one of the most dynamic regions in the world.
This added dimension or refocus, if you will, of America’s so-called rebalance or “pivot to Asia” could not be more timely. As economic growth in and consumer demand from Asia’s traditional power houses of China and Japan continue to slow, and the promise of India is still yet to be realized, a deeper partnership between the United States and ASEAN will benefit entrepreneurs, businesses and consumers on both sides of the Pacific eager to go global.”
This relative rise in ASEAN’s attractiveness for foreign firms comes as China’s falls. Inconsistent regulations, murky laws and perceived growing anti-foreign sentiment in China in particular have led businesses to look beyond the Middle Kingdom for growth prospects.
A recently released annual survey of members of the American Chamber of Commerce in China makes this all too clear. According to the Wall Street Journal, of the nearly 500 companies that responded to the survey about China’s business environment, some 77% felt less welcome than they did a year ago. This compares with 47% in 2015, and 44% the year before that. One in 10 had already moved or planned to move a portion of their business outside of China due to regulatory obstacles.
And while 68% of the companies responding to the survey said they will still increase investment in China, 32% say they have no plans to do so – the highest level expressing such a sentiment since the global financial crisis.
Foreign businesses ranging from Apple to Qualcomm have been the targets of state-run Chinese media reports and government investigators. And foreign car and auto parts makers, tech companies and infant milk powder businesses have all incurred fines under China’s anti-monopoly law.
One U.S. food-processing company OSI Group LLC saw 10 of its employees, including its Australian general manager in China, sentenced to prison after a Shanghai court ruled that the Aurora, Illinois, headquartered company had sold “inferior products” to fast food chains. OSI is now reportedly appealing the court decision. The supplier of meat products says that it has been the subject of a smear campaign and that Chinese authorities had unjustly held OSI employees for 17 months as well as barred company leaders and media from attending the trial.
With business opportunities like that, it is no wonder that there is already more U.S. investment in Southeast Asia than there is U.S. investment in the so-called BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – combined.
What a welcome contrast ASEAN offers. Indeed, the U.S. president was wise to spotlight the just launched ASEAN Economic Community at the first US-ASEAN Summit in California. With the launch of the AEC now past us, the hard work of leveraging what promises to be a world-leading single market formally begins and U.S. business can be very much part of that.
The opportunity, stemming from freer if not yet fully free trade of goods, services, and skilled labor, provides a wealth of potential new business for Southeast Asian entrepreneurs and start-ups willing to take advantage of them, including American companies and individuals already established in the region. That, at least, is our experience in Southeast Asia’s dynamic start-up environment.
Indeed, as a driver of economic growth, the AEC’s growing business benefits need not go simply to the region’s largest and oldest companies. Much as the United States has benefited from the power of innovative start-ups – some headquartered not so far from the site of the Sunnylands summit – so too can the ASEAN nations transform and grow as trends are identified and new businesses emerge in areas from information technology to consumer goods.
Ernie Bower, chair for Southeast Asian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and CEO of BowersGroupAsia underscores the opportunity. “The AEC opens doors for entrepreneurial small and medium sized companies within Southeast Asia to access nearby markets that are in some cases more dynamic than their own and offer up a larger market segment for their goods or services than ever before,” he says.
One clear benefit of the AEC is a market that goes well beyond one’s own borders. With more than 620 million people, ASEAN’s population now exceeds that of either the European Union or North America. There is ample scale for significant growth even if one is based in Brunei or Singapore instead of the region’s most populous nations of Indonesia and the Philippines.
That’s an experience and an opportunity we are already seeing in our own work with Equator Pure Nature (EPN), a Thailand-based manufacturer of natural household cleaning products sold under the PiPPER STANDARD brand. It’s also a case study for others looking to the path to AEC success.
So, what lessons do our experiences offer others eager to expand in the AEC based on the rhetoric and reality that may well be highlighted at the US-ASEAN Summit?
First, recognizing that production inputs are only half of the equation for success. The other is identifying a specific opportunity based on ASEAN data and trends. Rapid urbanization and economic growth across the region has produced a host of needs that can be identified through an entrepreneur’s eyes. ASEAN’s environmental challenges, burgeoning allergy and asthma rates and persistent food security and nutrition needs are just some examples.
Second, understanding success in ASEAN and now the AEC is not something to be expected instantaneously. Research and development over several years is critical to developing an appropriate solution to an identified need. Identifying and investing in local human capital is also essential to steady growth.
And third, establishing a firm foundation in a single ASEAN market – in our case Thailand – allows for better understanding of the regional market and can serve as a hub for expansion. Multinational firms big and small would be
wise to plant operations in one of the 10 ASEAN countries to have better access to new markets and to establish rapport with regional consumers.
Symbolically, the site of this first landmark US-ASEAN summit in California was the same venue used as the site of a meeting between Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping some two-and-one-half years ago. Perhaps at last, the US-ASEAN and US-China relationship will now be viewed in Washington at the same level of importance.
The Southeast Asian welcome mat has long been out for American businesses and entrepreneurs. With the window to the AEC now open, significant investment is likely to follow by the region’s largest firms eying significant opportunity. But, the size of a firm need not dictate the size of the opportunity.
For businesses, big and small, a healthy business in one Southeast Asian market can now lead to more opportunity and strengthened growth across all 10 ASEAN markets – and from there, opportunity across Asia and the Pacific. That at least is the promise of the ASEAN Economic Community, as China and India lose some of their luster. Now the challenge is also for businesses – building on the message of Sunnylands of sunnier days ahead – to meet that challenge.
Note: A version of this opinion piece was published in the Singapore Straits Times.