In all my experiences of international travel, I’ve been able to get by in English without too much difficulty, and where I’ve had trouble with English I’ve generally been met with very accommodating, apologetic service. And so, as a native English speaker, it’s hard to walk through the world without a little cultural arrogance.
A hundred and fifty years ago, England held a global empire achieved through its military might. More recently, as the British empire collapsed, the US was in the process of solidifying a global empire achieved through its commercial might. English is now the de facto business language of the world, and the world has pretty much resigned itself to this fact.
Except for China.
China is already big and powerful enough to begin to impress its own language and culture upon the world. It seems clear that this trend will only deepen in the forseeable future, and it’s probably a good time for the world to start learning mandarin.
It’s a really valuable experience to travel in a country where English is not only not spoken, it’s not all that relevant. It’s really interesting, and humbling, to wander in a country where my culture hardly seems to matter at all. That’s not to say American culture is absent. The Nike swoosh is ubiquitous, People’s Square is adorned with Pepsi street lamps, and there are KFC joints everywhere. In a way that’s difficult to articulate, however, these seem as invisible and foreign as I felt as I wandered the city.
As one of my commenters said many posts ago, the American heyday is past, and China is the New Black. Even as I write this, the BBC is reporting the results of a recent global poll that asked whether present-day China has a “positive influence on the world”. 49% said “yes”, compared to only 38% who said the same about the US.