a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Books I read: “Somebody Else’s Century…” (Patrick Smith)

Posted on the February 20th, 2012

“Somebody Else’s Century/East and West in a Post-Western World” by Patrick Smith (2010)


Why did I choose this book?

I wanted to learn more about Asia, something beyond the usual news articles and television programs that only focus on politics and financial news. From such narrow reporting, it isn’t possible to have more than a vague idea about the countries and people and cultures in Asia.

I didn’t even know precisely which countries are East and why. I wanted to learn more about the distinctions between the Japanese, Chinese and Korean people.

And a blurb on the back cover of the book also sparked interest:

This thoughtful and highly original meditation on the future of Asian societies should be required reading for anyone interested in where our planet is heading. (Chalmers Johnson)

Finally, it was the credibility of the author. Patrick Smith is a journalist who has been a foreign correspondent in Asia since 1981.

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Yes, and much much more. The depth and detail of reporting in this book transformed my views of Asia. An unexpected reaction was the anger I felt that our traditional news media does not offer such comprehensive reporting in its daily coverage.  Smith brilliantly demonstrates what a journalist can do if given the chance.

Choosing a perspective from the inside out, Smith writes about the complex reasons a defeated and humiliated Japan (post-World War II) embraced and imitated the priorities and culture of those who conquered it. He traces the historical relationship between China and Japan. He discusses the attitudes of the people in each toward each other. And Smith analyzes a crucial aspect of India and its people that makes the country and culture markedly different from China and Japan.

Most interestingly, he reviews the arbitrary line that divides East from West, questioning exactly what it is and whether it has any validity. Excerpt:

Herodotus concluded that the business of East and West was ‘imaginary.’ The line he referred to was drawn by humans. For a long time we have simply lost track of this. We have erred in thinking the divide is eternal — ever there, ever to be there, somehow (and somewhere) etched into the earth. Now we enter a time when we can see from another perspective and see the truth of things and of ourselves.

Favorite quote from the book:

“The past is made of every moment up to the one we live in, the moment we know as ‘now.’ Each speck of our past is part of what makes us who we are… We honor tradition only when we add to it. The rest is mere convention, unalive.”

Who wrote this book?

Patrick Smith is an American journalist who has written for major publications including the International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The Nation, Business Week, and The Economist.  He is also the author of the award-winning book, “The Nippon Challenge and Japan: A Reinterpretation.”


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A monkey at Sanjay National Park

Posted on the November 4th, 2010

Monkey at Sanjay National Park, India — photo by Tarcisio Arzuffi, May 2010

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The rising star of Kiran Ahluwalia

Posted on the March 3rd, 2010

From Putumayo World Music, a video spotlight on musician Kiran Ahluwalia. She was born in India, grew up in Canada and now lives in New York City. With the streets of India as background, Ahluwalia talks about her music.

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Whose century will it be?

Posted on the February 2nd, 2010

Two countries that have the demographic and economic potential to own this century, so to speak, are China and India, according to some analysts. Among other reasons, both nations already have massive populations that continue to grow at turbo speed.

In a book review last month, however, Brussels-based scholar Jonathan Holslag questions the optimism of one of the China-India enthusiasts. The particular book he writes about is “Gravity Shift: How Asia’s New Economic Powerhouses Will Shape the Twenty-First Century” by Wendy Dobson. Professor Dobson is Co-director of the Institute for International Business at the University of Toronto.

Offering an overview of the book, Holslag begins with praise:

Dobson summarizes the challenges facing both countries as each continues its economic transition, enriching her discussion by clarifying the role of institutions. She gives a very transparent overview of the differences between the two nations’ economies in terms of governance. China excels in stability, regulatory capacity and effectiveness, while India leads in accountability and the rule of law. Her analysis is embedded in a rich social and historical context that focuses on the imperial bureaucracy in China, the caste system in India and the colonial legacies in both countries.

Holslag soon, however, spots some gray clouds he insists are unobserved in Dobson’s forecast:

The question is, of course, whether and how China and India will pull themselves out of their vast socioeconomic and political problems. Dobson rightly suggests that more reforms are necessary, but how realistic is it to expect they will occur?

And he goes to elaborate in detail his differing perspective. Holslag’s review is titled “The Myth of Chindia” (Literary Review of Canada, Jan 1, 2010).

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